Catholics in the U.S. are strikingly unorthodox. According to a recent New York Times and CBS News study, 78% of the respondent Catholics answered they would follow their conscience instead of the pope’s teachings, and 83% responded they think it is possible to disagree with the pope and still remain a good Catholic.
What do American Catholics think being a Catholic consists of? If something is clear, it is that the Catholic Church is not an Evangelical congregation where everyone’s bodies are their own temples.
Under traditional Catholic doctrine, the Church is a paternalistic institution set by Jesus in order to guide individuals toward God and salvation. For that mission to be possible, individuals must allow themselves to be guided. Those who think they don’t need guidance, but instead think they can guide their own morals according to their conscience are the lost sheep. This idea runs contrary to American democratic and liberal idiosyncrasy, and that’s why U.S. Catholics find it so difficult to digest.
On this I must say Latin American Catholics have a better idea of what being a Catholic consists of: venerating the pope as a superior authority and acknowledging the infallibility of the Roman Curia, a stance rejected by 46% of the American respondents and held by only 40%.
Why is the pope infallible? In order to become pope, an individual spends decades of study, reflection and prayer. They become experts in scriptural reading and interpretation, they master many languages, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (the original languages of most of the sacred texts), and they are usually advanced theologians. This is the reason traditional Catholics follow their teachings to the boot, because they believe a true Catholic must have the humble disposition to claim ignorance in to moral teaching and accept the guidance of those who knows better: the bishops and ultimately, the seat of Saint Peter.
Before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger was the prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the congregation that oversees the Church’s doctrine), an office he held for 23 years. If there was someone who knew better than most of the people in our lifetimes, that was Joseph Ratzinger. So how can true Catholics claim superior knowledge of morals and say that they rather follow their self-formed consciences instead of the teaching Church doctrine says should be guiding any conscious act? They can’t. This is one of the most important cleavages between Protestants and Catholics. True Catholics hold to a universal and eternal teaching undisturbed by circumstantial and whimsical changes in public opinion and individual will.
The Catholic Church is not a democracy, and people claiming adherence to it must begin by humbling their wills and seeking guidance in order to overcome mere opinion. One of the reasons the Church has survived modern times is because it has not fallen into the temptation of paying too much attention to public opinion. Governments rise and fall, politicians succeed and fail, republics and empires conquer and are conquered, modern ideas spread and fade away in disrepute, but the Catholic Church remains standing. Why? Because the Church resists modern relativism, the empire of the whimsical public opinion and populist democratic ideas, by holding steadfast to the universal morals emanating from God and nature.