Like many converts, I spent years examining Catholic teaching and entered the Church only when I could accept it all. It’s been difficult, therefore, to find that many Catholics do not believe all that the Church teaches, but to a certain extent their views make sense. They probably were confirmed as teenagers at a time when catechesis in this country was at a low ebb.
The part of their attitude that doesn’t make sense is that we live at a time when Catholic teaching is more accessible than ever. Vatican II, the guiding light for today’s Church, produced sixteen documents, all of which are written in an accessible style and are available at the Vatican website. Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have developed the teachings of the council in a rich corpus of writings, also available from the Vatican. Finally, and most importantly, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), presented to the Church in 1992, contains “the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine” (CCC 11) and can be purchased in Catholic bookstores or consulted online.
The Catechism is a great treasure of the Church. As a Protestant interested in Catholicism, I found it incredibly helpful to have every major Catholic doctrine explained in a clear and compelling manner. I went through all the issues that Protestants find difficult – Mary, justification, the Sacraments, the priesthood, the papacy – and discovered a symphony of truth that finally won me over. Then, when I was convinced that I needed to become a Catholic, I read it cover to cover so that I would know exactly what I was signing up for.
For previous generations there was no one place to find all that Catholics were to believe, but today’s Catholics have in the Catechism “a sure and certain reference text for teaching catholic doctrine” (CCC 3). Reading the Catechism is thus a clear next step for many Catholics. By reading two pages a day, they can slowly digest it and still finish the whole book in less than a year.
There are many Catholics, though, who know what the Church teaches but reject those teachings. Such an attitude places them in a grave position because the faithful “have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church” (CCC 2037). If they fail to accept what is clearly taught by the Church, they cannot compensate by, for instance, doing well in some other area of the faith. They are saying, in effect, that the Church can err in a matter of doctrine. Logically, then, if the Church can err in one matter, it can err in others as well. In the end, they will be left with de facto Protestantism.
To insist on the necessity of believing all that the Church teaches is not to make light of the real difficulties that many experience in the process of studying doctrine. For many Catholics the hardest teachings are those dealing with sex, marriage, and family. There is simply no support from the broader culture for Catholic doctrines such as “the moral evil of every procured abortion,” the intrinsic evil of contraception, divorce as a “grave offense against moral law,” and the disordered nature of homosexual acts (CCC 2271, 2370, 2384, 2357). Because of the cultural consensus in support of the opposite positions, there is a tendency to see these moral issues as somehow too complicated for definitive judgments. But, of course, the Church has spoken definitively on these matters.
What’s the solution for those who insist on dismissing the clear doctrines of the Church? Just as it was for those did not know their faith, one answer is the Catechism. It might seem facile to suggest reading doctrine as a remedy for dissent, but encountering Catholic doctrine is intrinsically different from reading the newspaper. Truth is inherently attractive and the Catechism is a banquet of truth, presented in such a way that what might seem unwarranted when viewed as a singularity becomes more reasonable when seen in context. It is hard to read the Catechism without appreciating that its truths are part of a greater Truth; and it is hard to dismiss one part without understanding that one is dismissing the whole thing, rejecting not just some small point but the councils and the fathers as well.
What about Catholics who insist on beliefs and actions that clearly contradict Church teaching? Let’s follow the example of a former chairman of my department. Whenever someone came into his office to ask for special treatment, he pulled out our policy manual and read the applicable section. Who could argue against the manual? It became clear that the chairman was not being unreasonable, but was simply applying established policy.
We can do the same with the Catechism. When Catholics propose ideas that contradict Catholic doctrine, we should refer to the applicable section of the Catechism. Some will change their minds and many more will think twice before publically opposing “the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine.” A few may start arguing against the Catechism. In such cases, it’s best not to say too much. Let the dissenters waste their breath in attempts to refute the clear words of the Catechism. In the end, the splendor of the truth who came into our world at Christmas will shine through.