|St. Ignatius of Loyola|
For many Catholics, they can think of something, maybe several things, that would go in that blank.
This popular rejection of Catholic teaching by Catholics is especially evident in this week in social media. as self-professed members of Holy Mother Church sport their equal signs in a "Here I stand I can do no other" moment. One of the things that surprises me in encountering this very Protestant behavior among Catholics is the complete obstinacy in not even seeking to understand and embrace Catholic teaching on the matter.
Compare this attitude with St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who wrote, in his “Rules for Thinking with the Church," the following: “Always to be ready to obey with mind and heart, setting aside all judgment of one's own, the true spouse of Jesus Christ, our holy mother, our infallible and orthodox mistress, the Catholic Church, whose authority is exercised over us by the hierarchy.”
Five centuries later, many contemporary Catholics do not “think with the Church” much at all on a whole host of issues, especially those related to sexuality, marriage, and family life.
For example, consider a recent Gallup poll in which 66% of professed Catholics now view homosexual relations as morally acceptable, while 51% favor the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex relationships. In both cases, Catholics polled above the general population. Yet Catholic teaching has not changed; the Catechism affirms the sacred dignity of all persons, but views homosexual acts as gravely depraved and homosexual desires as intrinsically disordered.
Other surveys suggest that dissent is also prevalent among modern Catholics on the issues of contraception, the indissolubility of marriage, pre-marital sex, and perhaps even abortion.
Why the disconnect? I would suggest at least primary reasons.
For one thing, we live in an age that values tolerance, and thus we do not wish to condemn anyone regarding such deeply personal matters as sex, marriage, and family life. So we tend to resist dogmatic teaching that might make another person feel judged or de-valued.
Secondly, issues like these involve trusting God with the most intimate areas of our lives. It doesn’t cost us as much to cognitively believe Catholic teaching on the Eucharist or the saints as it does to believe (and practice) the Church’s ethic on sexuality, marriage, and family life. Take, for instance, the Catholic idea that every sexual union between spouses should be open to new life; embracing this belief requires significant faith and sacrifice.
Thirdly, we live in a country whose origin was shaped largely by a Protestant spirit of independent thinking that imbues our national ethos. Some American Catholics even believe that dissent is vital, arguing that it is St. Ignatius’ type of thinking that has enabled the current abuse scandals. In other words, if we can’t question the hierarchy, some of whom badly mishandled abuse allegations, we are destined for further corruption in the future.
Yet understanding St. Ignatius requires historical context. He founded his “Society of Jesus” amid the crisis of authority wrought by the Protestant Reformation, a rebellion doubtlessly inflamed by corruption within the hierarchy. Amid this crisis, the Jesuits’ powerful witness of submissive obedience played a tremendous role in the needed renewal of the Catholic Church.
Our current age is similar, but today’s dissenters don’t reject the Church outright like Martin. Luther. Instead, they remain in the Church, in body but not heart, dismissing both the Church’s extrinsic authority (by virtue of her office) and her intrinsic authority (the truth of her teaching).
Amid such confusion, we need more Catholics who embrace both aspects of Church authority.
By itself, I suspect that an appeal only to the Church’s extrinsic authority (we should believe because the Church says so) is unlikely to do much good amid this particular season of independent thinking and wounded Church credibility.
Instead, we need to rediscover, and help others discover, the Church’s intrinsic authority, the coherent truth of her teaching. We also need to see that the Catholic vision, when properly understood resonates with the innate desire to give and receive faithful, sacrificial, life-generating love. We also need a proper understanding of love, which is not permissiveness, but a commitment to the ultimate good of others even when that good requires resisting powerful but destructive desires, or the short-term pain of speaking the unpopular truth with clarity and grace.
In short we need to learn how to “think with the Church,” in the words of St. Ignatius, asking the question a friend of mine suggested when we find ourselves dissenting with Catholic teaching: “If I do not believe what the Church teaches, what am I not understanding correctly?”
Of course, that’s the rub I suppose—we’ll never fully learn think with the Church until we submit our intellect to a greater authority that ourselves. But the beautiful irony is that it is only in yielding our liberty that we find authentic freedom.
As G. K. Chesterton has written, “To become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think.”