Life as a Catholic can be hard. That is a truth I am coming to appreciate as we enter this Lenten season. Catholicism is a religion of tensions and paradoxes. We believe in predestination, yet also free will. We acknowledge the centrality of faith, but also the centrality of works. We believe in Scripture and and in tradition. Likewise, we have a Church which is infallible and absolutely certain of the truth regarding how to get to heaven, and a membership of absolutely fallible human beings who are still working out their own salvation in fear and trembling. (Phillipians 2:12) Work out your salvation in fear, and in trembling. We don’t always fully appreciate what that means.
Part of working out our salvation means we need to ask questions. Sometimes those questions can be of a very sensitive, and yes, even doctrinal nature. It is one thing to be able to recite something out of a textbook regarding what it means to believe as a Catholic believes. It is another thing entirely to live that out. Sometimes, in the process of living that out, there are doubts or misunderstandings. If that is true for doctrinal understandings, it is even truer on matters that are not doctrinal. Part of our working out our own fear and salvation is to ask these questions when it is appropriate.
While we should not speak of obligations, it is in the interests of the Church (and all Catholics in said Church) to answer these questions to the best of our ability, without judgment or shaming of the individual asking them. The Church exists for the purpose of proclaiming Christ’s message of salvation to the world, and shepherding people as they try to apply that message to their lives so they can get to heaven.
While that message is always the same, there are different ways to proclaim that message. Some ways will resonate better with some than with others. Sometimes the way that message is presented can become stale. Other times it can be done in a way that ends up providing more questions than answers, or even causes more harm than good. Often we see an attitude (by both those in authority and lay Catholics) that the approach of the Church is above reproach or questions. When someone asks these questions, they spend more time trying to find “the real reason” behind the questions than it would take to give them a simple answer. All this approach does is increase ill will and wastes everyone’s time. What good is the message of the Church if it is not received? Will we not have to answer to God on account of our efforts that hindered the spread of the Gospel in such a circumstance?
While it is often claimed such actions are undertaken with the noble impulse of protecting the image of the Church, it must be pointed out: few things in history have done more damage to the Church than the impulse to protect the Church’s image. Christ did not look to protect His image. As He went to Golgatha, he did not think “how fill future generations look upon me if I accept this fate?” The Apostles did not think about protecting their prestige when most of them died martyrs. The faith is a messy business, and it can only be conducted by dropping all pretenses of protecting our image and our rights, and putting ourselves out there to answer any questions, and to help people along that journey, as uncomfortable as that might make us.
Since we’ve established that questions must be asked and answered, the question now becomes, “How should this happen?” The Church has created processes for people to follow and has drafted canon law safeguarding those processes and the rights of individuals who partake in them. We should make use of them. Do you have a question? See your priest, start asking other Catholics. Ask your bishop. Start organizing with others who have similar questions so the Church is made aware. Finally, one can always ask Rome. All of these things can and should be undertaken. These actions should be undertaken with charity. Ask your questions and make your position known sincerely and for the purpose of helping out the Church, not generating buzz on social media.
Likewise, when we see these questions being asked, we also have obligations. Our first impulse should be that of welcoming these questions. Once we have welcomed them, we must discern the nature of the question being asked. Does it touch upon something essential to the Catholic faith? Then it should be answered with the aim of helping people to understand what the answer is, and why it is so important. If it isn’t a matter essential to the faith, Catholics need to learn to allow differences to be carried out constructively. Benedict XV was very clear about this in Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum:
As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline-in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See- there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion. But in such discussions no expressions should be used which might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline. (Paragraph 23, emphasis mine)
The parts emboldened above are of particular interest to us Catholics today, because we are guilty of flagrantly violating them. We bind where none have loosed, and even senior members of Church leadership are apt to affix the worst possible motive and interpretation upon criticism from others. Have we ever stopped to think about the damage the Church suffers because of the misplaced zeal of her members and leaders?
There is a real human element to the damage inflicted I fear we aren’t considering. The attitude that looks down on asking questions doesn’t solve the problem of ignorance: it magnifies it. People who could ask questions see the way those who do so are treated, and they react accordingly by not asking those questions. If they have a false understanding, it magnifies and damages more and more of their faith. When we dogmatize everything, we become prisoners of our own time, failing to see that sometimes we might not have the best ideas, and should listen to others. This leads to arrogance on our own part, and drives others away. When we treat such doubts and questions with the worst of intentions, we polarize further a very messy situation. The Church, founded upon unity, becomes divided, and we will answer to God for that division.
Hearing questions is uncomfortable, especially when we are forced to defend things we hold dear to us. Yet if we are to be disciples, there can be no other way. We must answer the doubts of others, and respect the right of those to offer criticism on things they are allowed to offer criticism on. The way of the cross is normally a way of discomfort, yet if we see that path through, we can provide salvation to those who have those questions, and the work of our own salvation proceeds a step further.