It is of the essence of Protestantism that one goes to the Bible, one finds the proof-text, and one cites it. It is of the essence of Catholicism that the text is situated for us, by the Magisterium, in the broader contexts of its teaching and traditions. There is a tendency, most common among converts, but not unknown among other Catholics, to compile from the mass of available texts, a set of proof-texts with which to define what the Church is; in some cases, that can lead to a situation in which the individual effectively scopes out for himself a Church with which he feels comfortable. To an extent, many of us do that – but we ought to remind ourselves from time to time that this is so, and that the fullness of the Catholic faith is not ours to own, confine and define. There is a Magisterium which deals with doctrine and dogma, headed by the successor of St Peter who is infallible when pronouncing on such matters. If we find ourselves arguing that the Pope is not the Pope, we need to remind ourselves that no one died or elected us Pope either. If a Pope elected by the College of Cardinals is not sufficient for our needs, a self-definition of Catholicism is unlikely to be so either, at least in the longer term.
It used to be a cause of some wonderment to me that so many self-identified traditionalist Catholics had such a mastery of small collection of medieval texts, which were always used to demonstrate the pedigree of the version of the fullness of the faith they favoured. The fact that it was always the same set of documents suggested what a little research showed, which is that these were chosen not as the result of intensive research, but rather of their availability on Sedevacantist websites. Such sites select such documents to support their own position, not as part of any balanced consideration of the totality of the available evidence, and I have never come across one with an understanding of what the Church means by the developing understanding of doctrine. In my Orthodox days, I came across many such men – universally hostile to the Catholic Church because it had added things such as the filioque, to the deposit of faith – who saw the Church as frozen in (what they considered a better) time. The context within which such documents need to be read was subjected to a hermeneutic which assumed what it was designed to prove, even to the extent of denying that anything written post-Vatican II was properly Catholic.This has led some people into a position where they find not only the Pope, but the whole college of Cardinals and most bishops, insufficiently Catholic for their taste. They, of course, deny that this is so, but it is nonetheless, if you self-select a set of documents which you read in a way designed to show that the view you came to them with is right, you are elevating your own feelings and intellect above the recognised Magisterium of the Church.
This road often ends in a position where its advocates find themselves in small groupuscule of ‘real Catholics’ – a sort of ‘invisible Church’ of the sort some of them believed in when they were Protestants. The urge to keep moving until you find a church that suits you, leads some into a smaller and smaller ‘remnant’, which they they then, in good Protestant fashion, defend by citing proof-texts about the faithful few. Truly, as St Peter noted, men can twists Scripture to their own damnation.
In the age of the Internet, everyman can be his own pope. The natural human urge to think one knows best can be instantly supplemented by the riches of cyberspace. People unskilled in hermeneutics and the contextualisation of documents, and who are unaware of the ways in which doctrine develops across time, but who ‘feel’ something is wrong with the Church, can easily find ways of ‘proving’ their feelings are right – often at the same time as mocking the emphasis by Catholics like Pope Francis on the importance of feelings. Their own feelings are, in their own eyes, founded on their interpretation of the teaching of the Church – and yet they seem happy to deny the same privilege they thus claim to the teaching authority of the Church itself.
Within the long history of the Church there is unity on essentials, but there is also a great deal of leeway for discussion and for definition, and for development. That some men use the last words to justify their own innovations does not mean that there is not a legitimate development as defined by the Magisterium. Cafeteria Catholicism comes in many shades, and those arguing that the encyclical Laudato Si‘ can be ignored because, in their personal view, it is not Catholic, weaken their own arguments against liberals who argue that other encyclicals can be ignored because they are out of date.
The fullness of a universal Church, founded by Christ, with a teaching and traditions (for there is more than the Latin one in our Church) stretching back to the time of the Roman Empire, is not to be distilled into a set of medieval proof-texts designed to prove other Catholics are not real Catholics, any more than it is to be set aside on the ground of temporal considerations of secular ‘relevance’. It is a rich heritage to be explored in prayer, with a presupposition that if one finds oneself in disagreement, then the old Adam is at work. Of all the virtues the Church inculcates in its children, obedience is now, as it was for Adam, the hardest one to practice.
Do we find what Cardinal X or Y says on, say, communion for the divorced, ‘unCatholic’? Have we read fully what he is saying, or have we read it in the light of what we suppose him to be saying? If what is is saying is not Catholic, there is a defined body which can say that for us – have we so little trust in it and in Christ’s promise to his Church that we set ourselves up as his judge? Are we not, then, the disciples in the ship in the storm of whom Christ asked why our faith is so weak?