Dear Leah, Facebook is really a poor venue to discuss matters of this importance, and these issues cannot be distilled down into bumper sticker slogans or a simple yes or no, so I will try to address what I think is the core issue you ask about: Do you have to believe, and obey, every teaching of the Catholic Church in order to be a “good” Catholic? Sorry if this is longer than you anticipated.
You have come to me in my role as your teacher. I believe my role is to lay out for you as clearly and as concisely as I can what the official Catholic Church teaching is. If I give my opinion I will note that. As a deacon, I offer my humble obedience to the Church, and I hope I can get out of the way and let the truth out. If I can make it easier for you to make decisions, great. But I can only propose, not impose, and I try not to make judgments. Hopefully you will read this with that in mind.
First of all, I think it has nothing to do with being good or bad. I would say that all of us fail to live up to the gospel all the time. I think the question should be, not are we good or bad but are we faithful Catholics? And what are the consequences of being faithful or unfaithful? It is far easier to determine and less judgmental to talk about being faithful than to question someone’s motives or character.
I think it gets down to two basic questions: 1) What is my belief in what the Church is and what is its role in my life and in the world and 2) Why do I want to live as part of the Church?
I believe there is one God, and that God is truth. Therefore, I can and should search for the truth where it can be found. I am also a disciple of Jesus, and he left His Church here on earth with a mission. The mission of the Church is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ risen to the world. The gospel is not a set of guidelines. It is not a suggestion. It is a radical realignment of my beliefs and life to Jesus. And Jesus explicitly set up his Church to speak with his authority. When you hear the Church today you are hearing Jesus. “He who hears you, hears me.” (Lk 10:16)
Along with the truth goes responsibility and authority. St. John says that we are Jesus’ friends if we keep his commandments. Jesus explicitly gave the apostles his authority in his physical absence. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you, and remember, I am with you until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)
That word “therefore” is important. Jesus claims all authority and then gives that authority to his apostles. He says that he will be with the Church always, and so we have always believed and acted that the Church is Christ visible and working in the world throughout history and today. The Church, through its adherence to scripture, sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium (the teaching authority, ie. the bishops in communion with the pope) have the authority of Jesus and so can speak the truth. This belief is not based on the whim of some people in Rome but upon Jesus’ statement, “What you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 18:18) “By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (Magisterium)…receives…the faith, once for all delivered to the saints…The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 93)
We believe we are more than just a bunch of people who believe that we need to love one another. All major religions believe that. Christians follow the authority of Jesus and his Church. You can’t claim to be a Christian without being part of the Church. And the Church has always taught and believed that the ultimate sign of love of neighbor is to want our neighbor to get to heaven along with us. To that end we pray for, instruct, and sometimes admonish each other. A true friend will tell us whenever we are doing something that is not in our best interests.
However, the Church does not force anybody to be faithful. Every one of us needs to make our own choices. Jesus himself never forced anyone to follow him. Even when he received pushback on his teachings on divorce and the nature of his body and blood, he didn’t change his position in order to win people over. Instead, he asked, “Will you also leave me?”
The Church’s role is to try to save souls. We are all trying to get to heaven. When all is said and done, that’s the real issue, isn’t it? The Church is charged with telling the world Jesus’ commandments. That’s it. We will all either accept or reject them. The consequence of accepting and living those commandments is eternity with God. The consequence of rejecting them is eternity without God.
There is a lot of talk about following our consciences in these matters, and to an extent, that’s correct. Ultimately I am the only one responsible for my actions. But how do I inform my conscience? Through the media? Based upon my politics? Through the influence of others? Do I even do it consciously? To be faithful, I must inform my conscience according to the beliefs of the Church. Having an opinion and then accepting or rejecting a teaching on that subject based upon whether or not it agrees with my opinion has it backwards. I have not the authority to declare the Church wrong on issues of faith or morals. Jesus gave that authority to his Church. I only have the authority to accept or reject it.
The Church issues teachings and makes statements on many, many things, and each statement or teaching may have different levels of importance or authority. There is a “hierarchy of truths”. Some teachings are binding on all who wish to be faithful to Catholic beliefs and some are not. Whenever the Church says a teaching is binding on all Catholics, it states that clearly and up front. Things like protecting life from conception to natural death, the obligation to go to Mass every Sunday (and the rest of the commandments), the definition of marriage, the preferential option for the poor, etc. are some examples of these. Therefore, it’s pretty easy to determine which teachings I am called to follow if I am to live my faith as a Catholic.
The Church usually is very clear and specific on what it teaches on issues like abortion, marriage, etc. But most Catholics never read those teachings. Rather, they get their information on them from the media in short, headline-grabbing soundbites. If the teaching jives with my beliefs it’s good, if it doesn’t, it’s bad and I can ignore it. Or, if it’s from a pope or bishop I like, it’s good, but if it’s not, forget it. Sometimes we do theological and semantic gymnastics to force a clear teaching into our own belief system to justify ourselves.
Sincerity has nothing to do with it. There are lots of folks who sincerely believe things that are harmful to themselves and others. It takes time and effort sometimes to get to the truth. Just issuing a stubborn NO or a blind YES without really knowing what they’re rejecting or accepting shuts down the conversation and keeps us from forming our consciences in the Truth.
For myself, if I feel conflicted on issues where I feel my own beliefs or politics are out of sync with Church teaching, I start with prayer and ask for God’s wisdom. Then I go to the source and read what that teaching actually is. Usually I go to the Vatican website or the website for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I try to read with an open mind, knowing that there is 2000 years of really smart thinking behind it. Plus, there’s Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to guide His Church to consider. Then, I talk to people I trust in leadership in the Church, folks who have studied these things and can help me understand them.
In my experience, on the important stuff the Church has gotten it right. I trust the Church, even though sometimes its members have screwed up. Truth is not declared untrue just because I fail to live up to it or even believe it to be untrue, because truth is from God.
It’s comforting to me to know that even though I am oftentimes one of those screw-ups, there is a constant, consistent authority I can turn to in order to help me inform my conscience. That conscience helps me to navigate the myriad of spiritual, moral, and temporal issues confronting me in the world today. There is truth, and if I am faithful to the truth, as I believe it to be found in the body of Christ, I will ultimately go to heaven. And maybe we can help each other get there. That’s why I choose to be Catholic.
You asked specifically about the SCOTUS decision on marriage this week. If you haven’t already done so, you can to read exactly what the Church teaches on homosexual unions here:http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20030731_homosexual-unions_en.html. This was written by Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before he was Pope Benedict, and was approved by Pope Saint John Paul II and affirmed by Pope Francis. Here is the statement of the US Bishops on the Supreme Court ruling: http://www.usccb.org/news/2015/15-103.cfm. The best place for most folks to go for exactly what the Church teaches is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which can be found online or at any bookstore.
I hope this helps. See you at Mass!