Disagreeing With the Church

Is it ever acceptable for a Catholic to criticize the Church or disagree with Church teaching? Distinguishing between the Church and the hierarchy helps towards an answer. Mary is the model of the Church. Peter is the model of the hierarchy.

After Peter witnesses to the divinity of Christ, Jesus names him first among the Apostles: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:17-18) Christ chose Peter to safeguard the faith on the “rock” of an ecclesial office.

But Peter is a deeply flawed recipient of the honor. Directly after Peter’s installation as chief of the Apostles, Jesus reveals that He must go up to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Instead of exercising his new office in obedience to the words of Jesus, Peter objects, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (Mt 16:22) Jesus’ rebuke is immediate and harsh: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Mt 16:23)

Mary is always on the side of God. The Angel Gabriel appears to her: “the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35) Mary accepts the conferral with humility: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38) God chose Mary to be the Mother of God but only with her faithful assent.

In contrast to Peter, Mary’s exalted role is never a cause for sinful pride or presumption. Mary teaches us to question God with respect, with faith seeking understanding: “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” (Lk 1:34) At the wedding feast of Cana Mary instructs the wine stewards and us: “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5) Mary always defers to the will of the Father as known through her Son.

Peter is a man of many words and bold promises. At the Last Supper, Peter proclaims that he will never deny Christ: “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (Mk 14:31) Mark adds that the rest of the freshly ordained bishops had the similar sentiments: “And they all said the same.” But in the Garden after the arrest of Jesus: “the disciples forsook him and fled.” (Mt 26:56)

St. Peter Weeping before the Virgin by Guercino, 1647 [Louvre, Paris]
Unlike Peter, Mary is the model of few words and faith wrapped in silence. At the foot of the Cross, Mary experiences the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy when a sword of sorrow pierced her Immaculate Heart. (cf. Jn 19:25) Mary’s pure and unique faith is the unbreakable thread that binds the New Covenant with the Old. Because she pondered the words of the Angel Gabriel in her heart, only Mary could be certain that the horror of the Crucifixion could not be the last word.

The Sacred liturgy recognizes the elevated status of Mary over that of Peter and the Apostles. Peter’s main liturgical feast day celebrates the “Chair of Saint Peter” (February 22). Hence, Peter is primarily honored for fidelity to his office, an office that he occasionally bungles due to a failure of nerve (Peter’s denial of Christ during the Passion) as well as logic (Paul’s accusation of Peter’s “insincerity” with respect to Jewish practices, Gal 2:11-13).

Mary has no ecclesial office to exercise. She is, simply and sublimely, the Mother of God. Yet Mary’s feast days are numerous, dignifying every liturgical season. Her Immaculate Conception reminds us of how the Church – from the Cross and at Pentecost – is conceived in grace and holiness. And her glorious Assumption, body and soul, into heaven directs our attention to the destiny of the Church, purified of all evil and glorified in the new and heavenly Jerusalem.

Mary is forever without sin, but members of the hierarchy never are. The authority of Peter and the Apostles does not hang on personal piety or even personal orthodoxy. It comes with the Church’s conferral of the “chair” of Christ – the episcopal and priestly office, even the papacy. The demands of their office are fulfilled with the faithful carrying out of their duties according to the mind of the Church.

But bishops and priests who preach error are like negligent or abusive fathers and husbands. When they distort the fatherhood of God they relinquish the right to be called “father.” And it is not uncharitable or treasonous to say so.

We nevertheless must obey prelates, even when they are corrupt (or ill-informed, or just plain wrong), as long as they are not directing us to be corrupt or ill-informed or just plain wrong – and remain within the legitimate bounds of their authority. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.” (Mt 23:3)

In a real sense, Mary is the model of the flawless magisterial teachings of the Church handed down to the bishops and priests to teach according to their wits – sinful as they may be – with God’s grace. Hence, the authentic teachings of Christ revealed through sacred tradition and the Church’s hierarchy are indefectible, beautiful, and good. So to criticize authentic Church teaching is to criticize the obedience of Mary, and to criticize the faith of Mary is to criticize Christ.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church – even at the highest levels, as Saint Peter’s example makes clear – is quite capable of failing in its teaching mission and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. But somehow throughout the bumps of history, the failures will not be allowed to stand because the gates of Hell will never be allowed to prevail against the Church, the holy and spotless Bride of Christ. This is our faith. It is the same faith that fortified Mary at the foot of the Cross.

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.

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