Do Catholic Sinners and Heretics Disprove the Church?

I. A Perfect Circle
First of all, I hope you’ll indulge me another art analogies, given this recent one. Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists (the book which first named the “Renaissance”), recounts a possibly-legendary story about the famous artist Giotto di Bondone, on pg. 22:

Pope Benedict IX, who had planned to have several paintings done for Saint Peter’s, sent one of his courtiers from Trevisi to Tuscany to ascertain what kind of man Giotto was and what his paintings were like. Once this courtier had come to see Giotto and to find out what other excellent masters of painting and mosaics lived in Florence, he spoke to many masters in Siena. Then, after he had collected drawings from them, he moved on to Florence, and having gone one morning to Giotto’s shop while the artist was at work, he explained the pope’s intentions and how he wanted to evaluate Giotto’s work, finally asking him for a small sketch to send to His Holiness. Giotto, who was a courteous man, took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red, and with a turn of his hand made a circle so even in its shape and outline that it was a marvel to behold. After he had completed the circle, he said with an impudent grin to the courtier: “Here’s your drawing.” The courtier, thinking he was being ridiculed, replied: “Am I to have no other drawing than this one?” “It’s more than sufficient,” answered Giotto, “Send it along with the others and you will see whether or not it will be understood.”

Sure enough, when the pope sees the perfect circle Giotto has drawn, and the courtier explains Giotto did it by hand, he’s selected to paint a series of churches (although hopefully not elephant frescos). The magic of this story is simple. All of us know what a perfect circle should look like. None of us can draw one.

I’ve been thinking about this idea lately, because I’ve read a lot of (particularly Protestant) attacks on the Church based upon Her members’ sinfulness. I think about Catholic teaching in this way: Her teachings are perfect, and the outlines and contours She presents are a perfect circle. Other Christian denominations have certain parts just so, and other parts warped. They’re circles, but imperfect ones. As we get further away from the perfection of Catholicism, we enter the realm of ovals, and as we depart from Judeo-Christianity in whole, we find religions preaching squares, and triangles, and no shape at all (or whatever shape feels right to you).

But just because the Catholic Church proclaims what a perfect circle looks like, it doesn’t mean that Her members (1) are able to draw a perfect circle, or (2) even accept the Church’s understanding of what a perfect circle looks like. The first of these applies to everyone, including myself. I struggle, I sin, I fall. My circle has warps and flaws and rough eraser marks from where I tried to fix things myself, instead of relying on God. But through it all, in the back of my mind, I’m more or less aware that what I’m drawing isn’t quite right. The Church’s circle, though unattainable, helps us to recognize our flaws and failings, and turn them over to Jesus Christ. This, of course, was His plan (see Matthew 5:20 and Matt 5:48). The second of these categories involves those not wholly convinced that the Church’s description of a circle is correct. This is something beyond sin, it’s heresy, although it’s often unintentional. So their circles are warped, but they’re pretty sure they possess the real circle, and that the Church’s surprisingly round circle is archaic or oppressive or masculinist or semi-Pelagian or Romanist (or whatever else).

II. Do Sinful or Heretical Catholics Disprove the Church’s Teachings?
Now given that, here’s why I’m struck by the strangeness of a certain argument presented either to discredit Catholicism (generally by conservative Protestants) or to defend heresy (by certain liberal Catholics). The argument goes as follows:

  1. The Church has a clearly teaches X on a certain issue.
  2. Some individual Catholics seem to believe or teach Y on the same issue.
  3. The Church hasn’t formally excommunicated them.
  4. Therefore, the Church teaches X and Y, or at least, either is the possible view.

The argument is fundamentally flawed. The Catholic view of the Church is not that She is primarily made up of a body of believers, but that She is primarily the Body of Christ. Those connected to Her are connected to the teachings and life of Christ Himself. Her view of authority is top-down: the Magisterium teaches the individual, the individuals don’t band together to decide what the Magisterium should start to teach. And failure to formally excommunicate someone is miles away from affirming their beliefs as correct.

There are over a billion baptized Catholic wandering the face of the Earth as we speak. Shall we wait until the Church has rigorously examined each one’s faith before declaring what the Church teaches? It’s worth considering that every one of these individuals, if they go to Mass or have been confirmed, make or have made certain declarations of faith. One of the frequentally used formulas at Confirmation asks, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?” And the person says, “I do.” If they’re lying, they’re lying before God and the Church, just as if they lied on the their wedding day.

So the argument above isn’t very logically sound, from what I can tell. It’s basically, “that field has weeds in it, so it can’t be the Kingdom of God,” but that’s exactly the description of the Kingdom of God provided in Matthew 13:24-30, Matt. 13:36-43, and Matt. 13:47-50, where the Kingdom is described as either a wheat field with weeds in it, or a net full of both good and bad fish. Yet this is the line of argumentation that a user named Rhology opened with on Nick’s Catholic Blog. He actually went further, claiming Nick was being dishonest in saying Catholics believe in a 73 book canon (which we do), because some not-excommunicated liberal Catholics don’t. Rhology’s flawed reasoning is built off of his own church background as a member of the SBC. He notes that,

My church (SBC) doesn’t have the serious liberal problem yours does. It used to, but we cleaned up in the 70s and 80s. We don’t make the ridiculous and unsupportable claims to exclusive unity like RCC does. My local church DOES excomm ppl for sinful lifestyles and for liberal teaching, while yours doesn’t.

Now his church understands itself as simply a body of believers. So perhaps prior to the 80s, the SBC taught liberal heresy, since he admits that they had a “serious liberal problem” before then. He’s apparently used to church teachings being defined from the bottom-up, and is trying to thrust this flawed view of the Church onto the Church, and then holding it against Her when She doesn’t perform the way the SBC does (which might explains why She’s not the SBC, but nothing more). Catholicism just doesn’t work that way. Just because individual Catholics are drawing imperfect circles (sinful lifestyles) or proclaiming imperfect circles to be the ‘real’ circles (liberal teaching), it doesn’t mean the Church proclaims that.

In the last year or two, there have been something of a chill between the two countries (a fact noticed by the US left and right, as well as the Israeli press). It would be accurate to say that the US seems somewhat less pro-Israel than it did under the previous administration. And yet Gallup trends show increasing support, amongst the American people, for Israel (see the graph here). Support for Israel (vis-a-vis Palestine) hss risen from 59 to 63% just in the last year. So how can we call the US less pro-Israel now than then, despite rising approval ratings? Because foreign policy isn’t set by popular opinion, but by the federal government, particularly the executive branch, and often through the State Department. Failing to grasp that would mean failing to grasp the purpose of a republican government and the State Department specifically.

Now, of course, there’s a huge difference between the Magisterium and the US government, in that the Magisterium’s teachings have a binding effect. Even when he’s not speaking infallibly, Magisterial teachings of the pope are authoritative. If he says, “do x,” we do x, not just because his teachings are frequently protected by the Third Person of the Trinity, but because he’s the head of the Church, and obedience requires it. This is called obsequium religiosum, and Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium explains it well. This is lifted from paragraph 25, which is worth reading in full:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.(40*) This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.(41*)

So Nick’s right. There aren’t two equal parties. It isn’t just, “you say X, I say Y, who knows who’s right?” Or even, “those currently in power say X, so X is the law of the land, but I’m holding out a candle for Y.” It’s quite simply, “the Church says X, and Catholics who refuse ‘religious submission of mind and will’ are less Catholic.” It may be that the individual’s non serviam comes from a genuine mistake or ignorance over the Church’s teachings on X, but it’s just not true that X (the Church’s teaching) and Y (the popular heresy) are equally “the Catholic view.”

III. Conclusion
It’s like I said before. The Magisterium proclaims a perfect circle, and yet we Catholics, whether willfully or not, routinely fail to draw the circle She proclaims. Like I said above: “All of us know what a perfect circle should look like. None of us can draw one.” We can understand the values of faithfulness to God and moral conduct towards our neighbor, yet none of us are perfectly faithful or moral. The Church doesn’t kick out everyone who fails to draw perfect circles, because if She did, there would be no one left. She does, of course, excommunicate those who do certain obviously and inherently evil things, as well as certain manifest heretics (like Roy Bourgeois). But these are, of course, extreme measures, and taken very rarely. Mostly, it’s because in the Matthew 13 passages from above, the separation of the wheat from the tares, and the good from the bad fish, is done by angels, at the end of time. And we’ve been warned in Matthew 13:29-30a, by Christ Himself, “if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest.” (see Matt 13:39-40 for explanation of these images).

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