We’ve all experienced what is sometimes called “selective listening.” A mother says to her child: “You absolutely must not cross the street without me holding your hand.” The child may hear such a command as a kind of mild recommendation: “It might be best if you didn’t do that.” Whereas on other occasions, let’s say a mother comments in passing to her elder son: “You probably ought to share some of that ice cream with your younger brother,” what the younger son hears is this: “You are commanded in no uncertain terms to share that with your brother – and this command is not to be questioned! Immediate obedience is required!” Often enough, we hear what we want to hear, and don’t pay much attention to what we don’t.
Sadly, a similar sort of “selective listening” occurs with papal teachings. The pope (whoever he is) will say something in passing to someone in a hallway or on the phone, and it’s taken for an infallible dictate of the Church. Whereas at other times, the pope will repeat something over and over again, and people will claim that the Church hasn’t really clarified things yet – everything is still open to interpretation and discussion. What is a mother to do, especially when that “mother” is Holy Mother Church? Look to heaven and pray, I suppose.
For the record, there are ways of telling what sort of “binding character” is claimed for various pronouncements from the Vatican. In the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), section 25, we read:
religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra [i.e. infallibly]; that is. . .his supreme magisterium [is to be] acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him. . .sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
How, then, are we to discern his “mind and will?” As Lumen Gentium makes clear, the first way is from the character of the document. The Church has developed a very distinct hierarchy of different types of pronouncements, which communicates the level of teaching authority it intends to lay claim to. At the top, we have things like a “Dogmatic Constitution” or an ex cathedra pronouncement in a papal encyclical. Not everything in such documents is meant to be taken as infallible, but these documents lay claim to the highest level of authority.
Lower down on the spectrum, we have “declarations” and “decrees” (such as the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom) and also “Apostolic Exhortations.” From there we move on down toward various official “letters” to prominent people or official “addresses” to important audiences. These can be interesting and important, but they don’t have the official status of, say, a dogmatic constitution, and no pope ever intends for them to be taken that way.
Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees by James J.J. Tissot, c. 1890
As for statements you see in the media from a “Vatican official” or something published in L’Osservatore Romano, these have absolutely no magisterial character at all – just as what you hear from some random secretary in a diocesan chancery office cannot be considered an official “directive,” let alone the “teaching” of a bishop or the Church. Such people do important jobs. Sometimes they are excellent, sometimes not. But either way, their words have no more authority than mine, and it goes without saying that mine have absolutely no “official” authority whatsoever.
Yes, as a theology professor, I have a mandatum. But this “mandate” is merely a commission (a demand) to teach authentically, not a license to say anything “official.” I do, however, sometimes tell my students that, since I have a mandatum, I am officially allowed to double my fees. But since two times zero is still zero, they needn’t worry.
As for “frequent repetition of the same doctrine” and “manner of speaking,” consider this example from Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, where he says in no uncertain terms:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops – who on various occasions have condemned abortion and. . .albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine – I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
When the same Catholics proclaim loudly that they are “united” with Pope Francis in not putting “too much” emphasis on supposedly “divisive” topics such as abortion or euthanasia, because of how they have interpreted something he said in passing, you know you’ve got people who are engaged in “selective listening.” They’re not open to being taught by those who have the special charism of the Holy Spirit. Like children, they’re merely using someone’s words to get what they want.
There’s a word for this tendency: it’s called being “pharisaical.” Christ warned of its dangers. We should all beware its enticements.