Following on from your column “The teaching of Humanae vitae”, I recently heard a religion reporter say on national radio that since many Catholics rejected Pope Paul VI’s teaching in that encyclical, the teaching was not binding. His words were: “If a teaching is not received by the people, according to ancient Catholic tradition, it’s not a teaching at all.” Is this correct?
No, this is not correct. There is no such “ancient Catholic tradition”. Once the Church has spoken authoritatively on an issue, that teaching is binding and is to be accepted by all. If some of the faithful, even a large number, do not accept it, the teaching retains its binding force.
As I wrote in my earlier column, on at least two occasions Jesus’ own teaching was not accepted by some of his disciples – his teaching on the inadmissibility of divorce and remarriage (cf. Mt 19:10) and on the Real Presence in the Eucharist (cf. Jn 6:60) – but that did not make the teaching any less true.
With respect to the latter teaching, St John tells us, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” (Jn 6:60) He adds a few lines later, “Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (Jn 6:66)
But even though they left, Jesus continued to teach the truth about the Eucharist. To be sure, down the ages the Church has always taught both the inadmissibility of divorce and remarriage, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
The attitude of the faithful, in the face of a teaching they find hard to understand or to live, should be like that of St Peter, when Jesus asked the apostles, “‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’” (Jn 6:67-69)
Jesus Christ is the Holy One of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. He is “the Way, and the Truth and the Life.” (Jn 14:6) What he teaches is true, whether it is accepted by others or not.
Down the ages, Jesus continues to teach through his Church. In order to preserve the Church from error he promised the apostles that he would send them the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, who would guide them into all the truth (cf. Jn 16:13).
When the Church teaches, it is Christ who teaches. We should never forget Jesus’ strong words to his disciples when he sent them out to teach: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Lk 10:16)
If someone today rejects an official teaching of the Church, they are rejecting Christ. And they can be sure they are wrong.
The Second Vatican Council teaches clearly that the definitions of the Supreme Pontiff do not require the assent of the Church in order to be considered valid: “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith (cf. Lk 22:32) – he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. For that reason his definitions are rightly said to be irreformable by their very nature and not by reason of the assent of the Church, inasmuch as they were made with the assistance of the Holy Spirit promised to him in the person of blessed Peter himself.” (Dogm. Const. Lumen gentium, 25)
One of the greatest minds the Church has ever had, St Thomas Aquinas, wrote in his Summa Theologiae about the teaching authority of the Pope: “Against his authority neither Jerome nor Augustine can assert his own opinion.” (STh, II-II, q. 11, a. 2, ad 3)
St Augustine himself speaks of his respect for the teaching authority of the Church: “But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.” (Contra epist. Manichaei, 5, 6)
Got a question? Email Fr Flader: email@example.com