How do Catholics decide which ideas are true?

How should we decide what is true? We should compare the proposed idea to the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. We should accept the Magisterium as our guide to a proper understanding of Tradition and Scripture. We should study theology, and use faith and reason together to understand those theological opinions not yet decided by the Magisterium. That is what we should do.

How do Catholics decide what to believe? When confronted with a theological opinion, how do they evaluate the proposed idea?

Unfortunately, the vast majority simply compare the idea to their own understanding. If the proposal contradicts their own understanding, they assume it is false. If the proposed idea is something they have never heard before, even if it does not contradict their own beliefs and opinions, they reject it. Most Catholics use themselves as the measuring stick for every idea on faith, morals, and salvation.

This approach is a serious methodological error. We are not God. We are not infallible infinite Truth by our very Nature. We are not the Son of God Incarnate, nor do we have the Beatific Vision of God. As fallen sinners, living in a sinful fallen world, we can easily misunderstand what Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are teaching. And when we rely mainly on our own thinking, ignoring Divine Revelation, we are even more prone to error.

Even if you were a veritable Saint and Doctor of the Church, you could misunderstand. The early Church Fathers did not correctly understand every question of faith, morals, and salvation. Saint Thomas Aquinas was not infallible in his understanding and writings.

But most Catholics today are poorly-catechized; they have not bothered to learn the basic teachings of the Church. Most Catholics do not live holy lives; they have some objective mortal sins in their life, which they struggle against or which they have accepted as if these were not sins at all.

So what happens when Catholics use their own understanding as the metric for evaluating any idea? They promptly go astray from truth, and eventually end up rejecting the teachings of a Pope or Council, because the teachings did not make sense when compared to their own faulty understanding of Catholicism.

I see this time and again online, on blogs and in discussion groups. Both well-known Catholic authors and pseudonymous commentators reject or distort one magisterial teaching after another, because the truths presented to them did not match their own understanding. They are not following the Gospel taught by Jesus and His Church, but their own private version of the Gospel.

A clear example is found in reactions to the recent video message of Pope Francis. My previous post, Pope Francis: We are all Children of God, discusses the correct understanding. Everyone who is in the state of grace is a child of God, whether they received the state of grace by the formal Sacrament of Baptism with water, or by a baptism of desire or of blood. So if any non-Christian believer truly loves God and neighbor, then he is in the state of grace, at least by a baptism of desire. And I add that, if any atheist or agnostic truly loves his neighbor, he is in the state of grace by a baptism of desire; for the love of neighbor always includes, at least implicitly, the love of God.

But what was the reaction of so many Catholics to that video message? Some rejected it outright, claiming that it expresses ecumenism or indifferentism (as if all religions were the same). Others (e.g. Mark Shea, Jimmy Akin) reinterpreted the message as if it meant that non-Christians could only be children of God in some other sense, not in the same way as baptized Christians. Both Shea and Akin are teachers of heresy. They have long ago departed from the true faith by rejecting or distorting any teaching that contradicts their own understanding.

But, speaking more generally now, the average Catholic in the pews makes the same mistake: any Church teaching or theological opinion contrary to their own understanding is rejected out of hand. There is no consideration as to whether the idea might be correct. There is little or no respect for the teaching authority of the Church. They judge every idea in the same way, by comparison with their own minds and hearts. When magisterial teachings does not agree with their own understanding, they reinterpret that teaching, often radically, to make it agree. Then they proclaim themselves faithful to the Magisterium.

And this is why abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and various other sins are so widely accepted, while the teaching of the Church on these sins is rejected. Most Catholics judge every idea by their own minds and hearts. Worse still, their minds and hearts are strongly influenced by sinful secular society and by their own pride and sinful desires.

What happens next? When anyone tries to correct their misunderstanding, they don’t accept the correction. For they compare the correction to their own minds, and since it does not agree, they assume it is false. They cannot be corrected by anyone, because they are the measure of their own ideas. They treat their own understanding as if it were infallible.

A schism is imminent in the Church. I now think that it will unfold after the Warning on Good Friday, 2016. But the foundation for this schism is already laid. Many Catholics have decided that they are the measure of truth that should be used to judge each Pope and Council. Many have decided that they understand Catholicism far better than Pope Francis. They regard each of his decisions on doctrine and discipline with distrust and unjust judgment. And the reason is pride. They have such pride in their own understanding, that they no longer accept any teaching or correction from the Magisterium. It is as if they have made themselves judges over the Magisterium and the Church, to judge everything by comparison with their own understanding.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to How do Catholics decide which ideas are true?

  1. Francisco says:

    Unfortunately, very unfortunately I heard a Pastor Priest saying at the Holy Mass’ homily that this video shows that Pope Francis is a heretic and treating him with contempt, belittling and mocking him. The worst is that he doesn’t keep his misunderstanding to himself, but to manifest to a significant congregation of the faithful who might be led astray with this. I think it will take an Encyclical letter confirming what the Pope has said in this video that will trigger the apostasy to a greater scale.

  2. Francisco says:

    Adding to my comment above, Pope Francis comments in this particular video are backed by the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium (II, # 16), the CCC # 841(ss), Compendium # 170, Pope St. JPII Encyclical Redemptoris Missio #10. So, where and how is this video heretical? it’s obviously not at all.

    On a side note, in my opinion, Pope St. JP2 will be one day declared Doctor of the Church.

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