I suggested earlier on this site that what we believe – the content of faith – is important, not because there’s a theology exam to get into heaven, but because Christian faith is a response to a person, and love, by its very nature, desires to know the beloved.
I had an instructive example of this the other day. A philosophy professor friend was reading St. Augustine’s notoriously complicated Literal Commentary on Genesis with his class when one of the students asked (in usual student fashion): “Yeah, but what does it matter anyway?”
To which, my friend replied: “Do you love God?” “Yes,” said the student, somewhat taken aback. “Well listen,” said my friend, “there will come a day when you may be lucky enough to be married. And if that day ever comes, you may find yourself in a discussion when your wife says something, and you’ll say: ‘I don’t understand.’ Then she’ll try to explain herself, and you’ll probably say something like: ‘Is this what you mean?’ and she’ll say: ‘No, that’s not what I mean at all.’
“Now,” said my friend to his student finally, “now you have a choice. You can either choose to say: ‘Yeah, but what does it matter anyway?’ or you can choose not to be an idiot. Trust me, it matters.”
It was for similar reasons that St. Augustine tried over and over – four different times in fact – to write a good literal commentary on Genesis. Getting it right mattered to him quite a lot, undoubtedly because he believed Genesis to be the word of God, and it made a difference what God was trying to say by means of those words.
So too, if as Catholics we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to teach through the words of the Church’s Magisterium, then we should care about understanding those words rightly.
In my job as a theology professor, I meet a lot of people who have what I call “pseudo-responses” to Church teaching. These come in a number of flavors.
The first is based on complete ignorance. A person says: “Well, I completely disagree with the Church’s teaching on X!”
“Have you ever read any of the relevant documents?”
“Of course not, because I’m sure I would disagree.”
Really? How many times have you had the experience of meeting someone who has only heard about you from other people talking behind your back? “I don’t like the things you say and do,” they tell you. Then, after a bit of discussion, it comes out that none of the things they think you’ve said or done are things you’ve actually said or done. They’ve been hating a chimera, an illusion.
So too with the Church. Frequently, when people describe to me a Church teaching that they hate, I have to tell them that the Church doesn’t teach that at all. I’ve had people who aren’t Catholic and who admit they know nothing at all about Catholicism insist that the Church says X, Y, or Z when she really doesn’t. Prejudices are hard to break.
The second kind of pseudo-response to Church teaching is based on partial ignorance and results in the person tweaking the Church’s teachings in a pre-determined direction.
The Church teaches that private property is an important element of human flourishing. What they hear is: The Church teaches that private property must be protected no matter what. No. The Church teaches the universal destination of human resources. Yes. What they hear is: The Church says statist redistribution programs are morally obligatory. No. Actually, the Church teaches both the value of private property and the universal destination of human resources.
You can either choose to bend the Church’s teaching to your own predispositions, or you can try to figure out what the Church is really trying to say. It takes effort. Prejudices are hard to break.
When you’re a conservative in this country, you tend to say yes to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and no to the Church’s teaching on social justice. When you’re a liberal, you say yes to the Church’s teaching on social justice, and no to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. When the Magisterium affirms what you like, they’re “prophetic.” When they teach what you don’t like, they’re a bunch of out-of-touch old men.
People ask, “What do a bunch of priests know about X anyway?” Fill in the blank with whatever you like: sex, economics, war, politics, science and technology, how to bomb a city, etc. Well, let’s just say their collective wisdom is like your mother’s: probably a lot more than you suspect. But we don’t trust in the wisdom of the bishops per se; we trust in the promise of Christ to be with His Church until the end of time and to send his Holy Spirit to guide and protect it.
If you love your mother, you seek to know what she says. And you attend to how she says it to discover her true intentions. When she insists something is really important, you don’t make it into a “recommendation,” and when she says, “That would be nice,” you don’t turn it into a divine command.
So too with the Church, if you’re really listening because you care about what is being taught, you don’t turn abortion, for example, into just another “life issue,” and then treat green energy as a commandment from God. Nor, if you love your mother, do you, if you’re wise, pat her on the head when she’s imparted wisdom to you and say: “Yes, yes, mother; how delightfully old-fashioned of you.”
We all listen selectively and often hear only what we want. But if the Word is going to make a difference in our lives, then the words He teaches us with will have to become important to us as well. Love desires to understand the beloved.