A crisis of doctrine, such as the one through which the Catholic Church is now passing, has several sad effects. Most obviously, the truth is obscured, with unthinkable consequences for the salvation of souls. Heretical movements often unleash immoderate rage against orthodox believers (look at the ongoing clampdown on theological debate, and the well-grounded fears of the clergy). But the most obvious result is the very evident grief among faithful Catholics. I keep hearing or reading things like, “It’s so tempting to just give up,” or “I don’t know how to explain this to my kids.” It may be only a small minority who are aware of the crisis, so far, but that minority is growing. The other day I bumped into an acquaintance who I can’t remember previously saying a thing about Vatican politics. Almost the first words out of his mouth were: “It’s terrible, isn’t it?”
St. Vincent of Lerins referred to this as a “great trial” for Catholics: to keep one’s faith when it is coming under attack—hardest of all, when it is being attacked by distinguished teachers. How agonizing, for instance, for Origen’s followers, when he began to teach error. No one was more learned, more virtuous, more courageous, more inspirational, than Origen—and then he started to teach heresy! “Truly,” St. Vincent writes,
thus of a sudden to seduce the Church which was devoted to him, and hung upon him through admiration of his genius, his learning, his eloquence, his manner of life and influence, while she had no fear, no suspicion for herself—thus, I say, to seduce the Church, slowly and little by little, from the old religion to a new profaneness, was not only a trial, but a great trial.
Our situation today is, in many ways, better than what St. Vincent describes. It is better because the explicit teachers of error, in our own time, are not very impressive figures, whereas those renowned for their learning and wisdom—people such as Cardinal Caffarra, Bishop Schneider, Fr. Aidan Nichols, and John Finnis—have lined up on the side of the Church’s traditional teaching.
What is distressing, for many Catholics, is to find themselves out of harmony with the pope. To be clear: Pope Francis is not the one directly proclaiming strange novelties. The ambiguities of Amoris Laetitia are probably open to orthodox interpretation. Nowhere does the text say that the remarried may now receive Communion if they are still sleeping with their new partner. Nowhere does it unambiguously teach any of the false theories which, as far as I can tell, would be needed to justify such a change.
But other figures, in the aftermath of that document, most certainly do. One prominent commentator argues that though Jesus forbade divorce, His words needn’t be taken literally, any more than “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” Another commentator, a very close associate of the pope, thinks that adultery should be considered as like killing—generally inadvisable, but not always wrong (what about self-defense?). The Maltese bishops’ conference is under the impression that having extramarital sex can actually be unavoidable, like one’s annual bout of the flu. An American bishop teaches that going to Communion is less a matter of whether one is in a state of grace, and more of deciding whether “God is calling” one to do so. A bishop in Argentina has—according to still-undenied reports—given Communion to thirty of the divorced and remarried in one big ceremony, without any mention of a resolution to live continently.
To be clear—again; this is quite a time for opportunistic misrepresentation, after all—the Pope has not publicly taught any of this. And yet it is glaringly obvious that none of the teachings or actions above have been condemned by Rome; whereas those who have upheld the teaching of the Church—the dubia cardinals, the signatories of the filial correction, Cardinal Müller—are ignored or sidelined. It is also glaringly obvious that—to put it mildly—there is a tension between the pope’s words on subjects such as the death penalty, and the doctrine of the Church. Every Catholic wants to sit at the feet of the Roman pontiff and accept what he says. But it is the teaching of the saints, of Scripture itself, that at times this may be impossible. And the thought that we may be living in such a time tears at the heart.
Some think it is their duty to correct the pope, in the most deferential and respectful words they can find; some address the errors head-on, but feel it is only cardinals who have the right to correct the Holy Father directly. Some limit themselves to saying that a clarification would be helpful. Still others attempt to convince themselves that the whole thing is a misunderstanding, that the pope wouldn’t dream of approving Communion for the remarried.
I do not know what the correct response is. But in this time of anxiety, the words of St. Vincent of Lerins may offer some comfort. If a heresy spreads and acquires strength, St. Vincent says, it is “because the Lord your God does make trial of you, whether you love Him or not.” St. Paul said that “there must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you.” So each doctrinal crisis, St. Vincent tells us, is a chance to renew our love for Our Lord: “If the authors of heresies are not immediately rooted up by God … [it is] that it may be apparent of each individual, how tenacious and faithful and steadfast he is in his love of the Catholic faith.”
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.