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Church troubles: What good Catholics may and may not do

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 19, 2019

I always get a little tense at this time of year, so I’ll admit that up front. This commentary is not about our Fall Campaign, but this campaign—being the largest and most important one each year—always makes me tense because…well, because I don’t have perfect trust in Providence. I do not yet fully trust in God’s perfect freedom in the service of perfect love, by which He decides the things I worry about without benefit of my angst.

So I will be the first to admit that my sensibilities may be heightened. But, still, I think there is something to be said, right now, about what good Catholics may and may not do to “save the Church”.

The time is ripe because, at least in my opinion, too many ostensibly “good Catholics” are going to extremes in what they mistakenly believe is a service to orthodoxy, extremes that are now becoming mirror images of what has long been advocated on the side of heterodoxy. So let me make some distinctions. First, let us consider some of the things which good Catholics may not do:

  • A good Catholic may not charge the Pope with heresy, no matter how many scholars he or she gets to sign the charge, for such a charge can neither be substantiated nor decided with proper ecclesiastical authority. (I would add, as an obvious practical matter in the current instance, that Pope Francis is never clear or consistent enough in the things he says, writes, or does to be sure enough of what he means even to frame such a charge as an intellectual exercise.)
  • A good Catholic may not accuse the Pope—or any other person, actually—of serious sin, let alone demand reparation, without specific and certain knowledge as a basis for judgment. He or she certainly may not do this at a distance on the basis of news reports, without access to the specific facts, intentions and actions of the person in question, especially in the case of the Pope himself! Again, it does not matter how many people can be induced to sign a condemnation or a public call for repentance or reparation.
  • A good Catholic may not make accusations against others that go beyond the evidence, whether for deeds, words, thoughts or motives, most especially when they go beyond the reach of any possible evidence. For example, it is never enough to assert, based on the fact that person X has not done something about situation Y that person X must therefore willfully endorse proposition A and so run afoul of authoritative condemnation B.
  • A good Catholic may not embrace communion with only one side in an ecclesiastical controversy, in effect denying communion with those in opposition, no matter how many clerics can be persuaded to go along or how many alt-churches can be established for their convenience. I remind everyone of the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians:
    For it has been reported to me…that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? [1 Cor 1:11-13]

On the other hand, there are many controversial things that good Catholics really may do. For example:

  • A good Catholic may draw attention to problems in the Church, including those occasioned or exacerbated by the speech or silence, actions or inactions of the Pope himself. Such a Catholic must offer the best analysis and recommendations of which he or she is capable, while seeking to build up spiritually those who must suffer in the midst of these problems.
  • A good Catholic may petition the appropriate ecclesiastical authority, including the Pope, for redress of grievances or clarifications of doctrine or policy. Of course, the petitioner remains just that, a petitioner; and for all petitions there are three possible outcomes: Reaffirmation of the probity of what the petitioner deems erroneous or harmful, correction of the error or harm, or no response at all. If there is no response, nothing is proven: The only legitimate conclusion is that the matter remains unresolved.
  • A good Catholic may prefer some spiritual guides to others, and even debate divisive questions without breaking Catholic communion with anyone who has not been authoritatively excluded from the Church. He or she may choose not to offer support to ecclesiastics who appear to be damaging the Church—and may even explain why—without purporting to judge motives or impose some sort of quasi-ecclesiastical censure.
  • A good Catholic may criticize the words or actions of an ecclesiastical leader and indeed may be obliged to do so, depending on his or her responsibilities, insofar as the grounds for criticism are reasonable and pass normal tests of credibility, without expressing facile judgments that go beyond the evidence, and with prudent attention to the due good of both the one criticized and those who may hear the criticism.

Do we live in a difficult period of Church history? Yes, we most certainly do—as, in many different ways, have most Catholics before us.

But there is still an important difference—we might call it a vital difference—between what good Catholics may and may not do. It seems to me that more and more of those who consider themselves “good Catholics” are ignoring that difference. Instead, I would like to encourage all of us who would really like to be exemplary Catholics to pay more attention to that difference.

And guess what? The central issue is the same as the one I face in maintaining my emotional stability during our Fall Campaign. The central issue is nothing less than trust in Providence. If God is in charge, the solvency of CatholicCulture.org depends more on God than on me, so why would I ever be upset enough by fear or frustration to “save the mission” by crossing moral lines to increase income? Just so, then: If God is in charge, the Church’s health depends more on God than on us, so why would we ever be tempted to “save the Church” by doing what good Catholics may not do?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - Nov. 20, 2019 12:41 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your clear delineation of freedoms and limits for faithful Catholics. In the midst of emotion-laden turmoil, such clear thinking is often a regrettable casualty.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Nov. 19, 2019 7:07 PM ET USA

    Jeff, there is another one which is obvious but which I think should be mentioned as there are several examples of it today and will be more examples of it as we proceed. A GOOD CATHOLIC CANNOT SAVE THE CHURCH BY LEAVING THE CHURCH! One might refer to that as “the Luther solution.”