St. Augustine wrote: “[Men who are made vain] take pleasure not only in bad things as if they were good, but in your good things as if they were their own.”
A friend of mine sent the following information. I will describe it in the abstract, no names or places. A couple with several children were taking RCIA instructions in their local parish in preparation for coming into the Church. The couple in question, in good faith, came from a practicing Protestant background. They were educated, informed about what the Catholic Church taught. I believe they had read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and had no problem about basic Catholic teachings. The truth of these teachings was what convinced them to join the Church. This official teaching of the Church is what they expected to hear in the baptismal preparations.
The local parish required a series of catechetical or instructional meetings before reception into the Church at Easter. Midway through the instructions, a guest priest was invited to present the marriage material. In his official instruction to people who intended to enter the Catholic Church, evidently with no objection from the local pastor, the priest explained that it was legitimate for a couple to practice birth control after they had three children. He knowingly told them, thinking to win sympathy, that the Church was old-fashioned and did not understand the modern needs.
The couple obviously knew that this opinion was not what the Church or the Holy Father teaches. They were well-informed. They accepted the teaching of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth, as a better way. They understood what was at stake. Needless to say, they were quite bothered — though they were not naive — that a priest, in an official capacity, unavoidably knowing what the Church did teach, told them the opposite in so serious a forum as preparation for admittance into the Roman Catholic Church. Not only were they not looking for this “out” that the priest thought he was providing, but they were concerned about their obligation to inform proper authorities about this erroneous teaching.
What we are dealing with here, of course, is something not at all uncommon in today's Church, namely, what do we do when a priest, on a given topic, teaches something contrary to the known position of the Church? The Catechism and canon law establish any Catholic's right and duty to bring to the attention of local or Roman authorities teachings that are contrary to the known and public teaching of the Church. (Notice that, in this case, it is not just a question of an individual priest's private opinion, but of his officially teaching about what the Church holds on a given topic.)
The couple did not, in fact, disagree with the Church's teachings; they were content with them. But even if they were not, they understood clearly that what was being taught was not what the Church held. This is the question I want to reflect on. That is, not merely what to do about such a situation, but to understand clearly what is happening. This is why I began with the citation from Augustine about what is good and what is bad. This is the ultimate disorder of soul, especially when taught by a person in an official teaching capacity. In Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Mark, we are reminded of “the man who is the cause of stumbling to one of these little ones.” I might add, or to “one of those who are quite intelligent and well aware of what the Church does in truth teach.”
No priest today can fail to know that this priest's teaching on the licitness of birth control is contrary to the official position of the Church. No matter what he may think of the Church or of its teachings, the fact is that priests are official representatives of the Church. They are to be what they are. They are not there to expound their own opinions. In the case of instructing people who are entering the Church, priests do not speak for themselves or their own wondrous theories. What a priest is obliged to teach is not what he thinks — not his, in this case, erroneous insights — but the vast wisdom of the Church. His very being announces to the world and to those before him that devotion to this official teaching is what justifies his existence. Why else be there?
If the priest (or catechist or whoever) does not choose to explain what the Church teaches, fine. But, in this case, he should simply not put himself forward as an ordained, official teacher. No priest today, as I said, can be ignorant of this teaching, though I admit that some theologians may have confused him. But even there, he knows what the Church maintains. He is aware that the Church does not teach what he is telling the people before him. These people are preparing in good faith to enter the Church. They are willing and eager to know what it teaches them. If they are falsely instructed, it is not just a cause of serious scandal, but of a betrayal of an office.
What should the faithful do on hearing such instructions? Very carefully, very accurately, very simply, they should write to the local ordinary (probably the bishop) what they heard, no more, no less. They should ask him directly if this instruction that they heard is what the Church teaches, since this is not what it teaches in the Catechism.
The text of your letter to the bishop may run something like this: “Father (priest's name), on (date), in an RCIA program in preparation for entrance into the Church, taught that ‘birth control is all right after three children.’ Your Excellency, is this what the Church teaches? Signed, (your name).” The bishop may be slow to act or even investigate. But at that point it becomes a problem of his conscience and his duty to teach.
This is what freedom in the Church means. The faithful are free to practice it. The bishops have a right to know what is being taught in their parishes. Converts have every right to hear what the Church in fact teaches. If they do not like it, they can go away. If they are deceived, everyone is cheated.
Father James Schall is a professor of government at Georgetown University.