This past January brought big news for the Church in Alberta – Pope Francis accepted the retirement of Bishop Fred Henry (for health reasons) and appointed Bishop William McGrattan (currently Bishop of Peterborough, Ontario) to take his place leading the diocese of Calgary. At the time of this announcement, many articles were written that praised the work Bishop Henry did in nearly twenty years leading Calgary Catholics, and others which described him as a dinosaur from a bygone era.
There was also much commentary (particularly from the secular media) hoping that Bishop McGrattan might be the one to finally bring Church teaching in line with modern times. There’ve been interviews with”ordinary” Catholics regarding their take on how they didn’t like how outspoken Bishop Henry has been in in defending Catholic positions on controversial issues.
These interviews bring up an interesting question when considering ‘ordinary’ Catholics whose issue is less with a particular Bishop, and more with some aspect of Church teaching (usually a moral issue). It’s really a simple question: can one be Catholic and still have disagreements with what the Church believes?
At first glance, it would seem that the answer is ‘no.’ When adults go through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) to convert to Catholicism, they are asked to make a profession of faith, publicly stating:
I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.
If this is what’s expected from converts, then it would stand to reason that this is what’s expected of every Catholic – we should all believe and affirm what the Church believes, teaches, and professes. Personally, I have no problem affirming my belief in Church teaching. (If I didn’t, I would not have spent my adult life studying about and working for the Church.) I love and trust the Catholic Church, but I know this isn’t the case for everyone.
I know there are people who sit in the same pews as I do Sunday after Sunday for whom different aspects of Church teaching are problematic (and others who’ve stopped coming at all.) This is why newspapers have no trouble finding ordinary Catholics to speak out against a variety of issues in the Church: under the umbrella of Catholicism, there are Catholics (and yes, they are absolutely Catholic) who have serious issues of disagreement with the Church. These sorts of discussions are a part of our history – and can be of tremendous good to us – provided we take the time to listen to one another.
Twenty centuries of Church history have brought with them many arguments and questions, beginning at the time of the Apostles. Thomas questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead (John 20:24-29). Peter and Paul argued whether Gentile converts to Christianity were obligated to follow Jewish dietary laws (Galatians 2:11-21). The early centuries of the Church provided some difficult discussions about the nature of Jesus, our understanding of the Trinity, and the canon of Scripture (which books go into the Bible). The answers found by these discussions are what have given us a creed to believe and profess in the first place.
More recently, questions around liturgy, morality, and Church authority are helping us to better understand who we are and what we’re about. Without the sexual revolution of the 1960’s – and the questions that followed regarding Church doctrine on marriage and sexuality – we would never have discovered the theological treasure of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
The Church’s task is to respond to society… to be a sort of conscience for society, challenging popular opinion specifically when what is popular is no longer good for us. Bishop Fred Henry was exceptionally good at this… which is precisely that which is at the heart of the accolades at criticisms which have accompanied his retirement.
Our sphere of influence is not likely to be as wide – nor as widely reported on – as was Bishop Henry’s. The key comes in what we do when we come across someone whose beliefs conflict with our own. If you’re like me, and you have a strong attachment to Catholicism- and to Church teaching – it can be easy to feel like an attack on one aspect or another of Catholicism is a personal attack, and to immediately go on the defensive. We can unload apologetics books and talk about all the reasons why Catholics are right. This can come across to others as self-righteousness, and often isn’t helpful, because most people who dissent from Church teaching do so for either emotionally charged personal reasons or because of reasonable, rational arguments. In either case, they deserve to be heard out. We need to be the first ones to listen charitably to others – Catholic and otherwise – who have big questions about our faith.
If, on the other hand, you’re having a tough time with one aspect or another of Catholic teaching, my invitation is for you to find someone knowledgeable in their faith to talk about it further. This could be a priest, deacon, youth minister, teacher, etc. Feel free to send me a question – if I don’t know the answer, I’ll look it up or put you in touch with someone more equipped to help you. The answers you are looking for are there to be found – and it’s my prayer that you’ll be courageous and diligent enough to find them.