If I Can’t Accept Some of the Church’s Teachings, Am I Really Catholic?

Dear OMG,

Last night I attended Crux’s “Pope for the 21st Century” panel and was edified to hear that the Boston Globe’s new news site will be approaching coverage of all things Catholic without an ideological bent. This was refreshing news from a millennial who is exhausted from the new escalation of partisan bickering that has gone on in both secular and ecclesial society in recent years. Later that night, I was scanning the site before bed when I came across the “OMG” Column. This entry I read by Lisa Miller hoped to answer the question, “If I can’t accept some of the Church’s teachings, am I really Catholic?”

It was clear from Ms. Miller’s response, and from the commentary below the article, that rising above ideological silos is going to be a very hard task. The article took a specifically liberal post Vatican II stance around the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful), arguing that it is the faith of the people that matter just as much as those in the hierarchy. If you hold onto your convictions that are in opposition to magisterial teaching, maybe the Church will come to you. The Vatican II conservative reactionaries then pounced on the article carrying the banner of fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church. They argued that real Catholics are those that accept the truth of Jesus Christ revealed to and passed on by the Church through its magisterium, and dissent is not acceptable.

Well, so much for rising above ideology. The problem is, neither one of these approaches really gets at the essence and complexity of the question. Ms. Miller, I’m sorry but I must disagree with you. Catholics who have views contradicting the teachings of the Church should never cease to be in conversation and make a definitive stance in opposition to a teaching of the Church. That is to say, Catholics can never stop discerning the will of God in their lives. If a Catholic supports same sex marriage in opposition to Church teaching, the answer is not “well, hold tight, maybe the Church will catch up.” The Church is the depository of the revelation of God’s truth in this world, so to cut ourselves from conversation is not helpful and not very Catholic. We must encounter Christ and his love again and again, especially on those topics that we have trouble with.

Radical Catholic (one of the respondents) and the others who seem to fall in the more conservative and traditionalist camp, I worry about your thesis as well because it presupposes that one can be fully Catholic. By fully Catholic, I do not mean living totally without sin (which is impossible), but I do mean living out the full teaching of the Catholic faith (because that is also impossible). Being Catholic is not about checking off the list of ideological positions: believe in the trinity (check), believe in the real presence (check), against abortion (check). Rather, it is also about living that faith in the world, which is incredibly challenging. Catholics are called to defend the dignity of human life. This means more than being against abortion. I must ask myself: did I fully live up to the Catholic Church’s teaching on life because that means not only opposing abortion, but also caring for the poor and the immigrant; the lonely and the hopeless. Faith cannot be separated from works, and I know too many Catholics that proudly profess adherence to every church teaching, but live out that teaching in the narrowness of their own conscience. They focus on one piece of that teaching, and fail to see the broader and more complex implications for a just and loving world.

So, to both sides and all the other sides that exist in the Church, being Catholic is about encountering Christ who is most fully revealed in this world through the Catholic Church. Prayer, Sacraments, and community are those tools which we use to conform ourselves more and more to Christ. Sometimes that means continuing to reflect on issues where we disagree with the Church. At other times it means delving into the many implications and demands of a particular teaching, but it always means being pushed out of your comfort zone because nobody is perfect. No one is fully Catholic because no one is fully Christ. We are only pilgrims, like the Church, who are trying to reach a perfection that in the end is complete gift, one that will be fully realized when this earthly journey is complete.


Brian Niemiec


One thought on “If I Can’t Accept Some of the Church’s Teachings, Am I Really Catholic?”

  1. “Ms. Miller, I’m sorry but I must disagree with you. Catholics who have views contradicting the teachings of the Church should never cease to be in conversation and make a definitive stance in opposition to a teaching of the Church.”

    But you don’t really answer the question: Are you really Catholic if you can’t accept some of the Church’s teachings?

    Of course there is more to being Catholic than checking off boxes. But part of being Catholic is submitting to the Church’s teachings.

    It’s not a matter of moving down a list and evaluating a bunch of doctrines one by one. It’s a matter of accepting one basic teaching: That the Church is authorized by Christ to teach in his name.

    Faith is an act of the will, which means you don’t have to wait until you are intellectually convinced of each and every doctrine. You can choose to submit to the Church’s teachings in a single act, and assume that where you disagree, the Church is right and you’re wrong.

    Will we place our judgment above the Church’s, or the Church’s above our own? Or will we treat our judgment as equal to the Church’s, such that being ‘in conversation’ with the Church is a matter of a discussion between equals? Somehow this doesn’t seem consistent with the idea of humility and “dying to self”.

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