By Emmanuel Simon
The current state of the Catholic Church sometimes feels like there are two churches under one Pope; one that claims to be open to the changing times, the other holding steadfast to the older traditions of the Church. Strictly speaking, those in both groups are Baptised, they are Catholic. Catholics can disagree with each other on interpretations and applications of doctrine and Scripture, but only to a certain extent.
There are some teachings that all Catholics must believe under pain of excommunication. For example, Catholics cannot disagree on the fact that Jesus is God, that Mary was immaculate her whole life and a virgin until death, etc. These teachings are dogma and therefore cannot develop. Thus, those that publicly disagree with any of these or other dogmas would be excommunicated. No Catholic can disagree with any dogma, otherwise they would be cut off from the Church.
Catholics cannot disagree on moral teachings that are intrinsically evil. For example, abortion is always wrong in the eyes of the Church, because an innocent human being is always murdered in each case. Or to use another example, homosexual acts are always intrinsically disordered. This doesn’t mean that Catholics are to hate those who have same-sex attractions. Those with same-sex attraction are called, like every single other person, to a life of chastity. Those Catholics that disagree with these teachings knowingly and willfully are guilty of mortal sin, meaning that they cut themselves off from the supernatural virtue of Charity, and in some cases, are also excommunicated. Thus, Catholics must also be of one mind in regards to moral teachings that are intrinsically evil or disordered.
On the other hand, Catholics can legitimately disagree about how to understand some theological matters. There are multiple religious orders within the Catholic Church, such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictans, Augustinians, etc. Some of those in these orders disagreed with one another in regard to teachings that haven’t been defined by the Church. For example, in the 16th and 17th century, some Dominicans and Jesuits were debating about how Catholics are to understand the Doctrine of Predestination. Though these camps vigorously disagreed with each other, at the end of the day, they were all Catholic.
Catholics may also disagree on the application of moral teachings that are not intrinsically evil. For example, two Catholics may legitimately disagree about whether a murderer deserves the death penalty. Their disagreement would not be about whether the death penalty is evil in it self, but rather, whether the application of the death penalty would be appropriate given the particular circumstance. In short, non-intrinsic acts are neither good or bad in themselves. Rather, non-intrinsic acts are good or bad depending on when the act is done, who is doing the act, why the act is being done, etc.
Finally, Catholics may also disagree on how to interpret Scripture, at least to a certain extent. Many in the Early Church did not fully agree on how to interpret certain scriptural passages. However, none of their interpretations were contrary to the doctrines of the True Faith. Therefore, Catholics may disagree with each other on how to interpret certain passages as long as their interpretation is not contrary to the Magisterium of the Church. (The Magisterium is that which interprets the word of God authentically. The Magisterium is made up of the Pope and Bishops who are in communion with him.)
Thus, Catholics are free to disagree on how to apply and interpret Church teachings to a certain extent. The Church is like the guardrails on a road. Just as guardrails are meant to protect a car from falling off an edge of a cliff, so too is the Church meant to protect a Catholic from falling into Heresy. One may be anywhere in between the ‘guardrails,’ and still remain Catholic.
Ryan Ford '23,