The Vatican Says . . .

No such thing.

In this topsy turvy world in which we live, there are so few things of which we can be sure.  But there is one truth which endures:  if someone tells you, “The Vatican says,” then it probably doesn’t.  And what do they mean, “The Vatican,” anyway?  And what do they mean, “says?”

The phrase “the Vatican says” doesn’t really mean anything, but it’s used all the time, in two main ways.

First is when the mainstream media latches onto a headline that’s too juicy to verify.  The typical secular reporter knows as much about the teaching of the Catholic Church as I know about the inner workings of the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, and generally their intention is to confirm everyone’s suspicion that the Church is a backward cabal of pedophilic, ovary-obsessed, doddering weirdos.

And so we read,VATICAN SAYS ALIENS ARE OUR BROTHERS or VATICAN SAYS “HACKING IS A-OK” What they usually mean by this is, “A retired cardinal had a little too much sangria at lunch, and told the bus driver . . .” or “The homeless guy who sleeps near St. Peter’s was heard to mumble . . . ”  Or, “The Pope said something reasonable, so we’ll pretend he said something else, instead.”  Naturally, these statements are generally not binding on the Catholic conscience.

The second popular use of “the Vatican says” is when a Catholic wants to show another Catholic that he is sinning.  Now, a little fraternal correction, done charitably, is a wonderful thing—but it’s pretty important to make sure we actually know what we’re talking about.  If you’ve dug up a crusty old pamphlet that your grandmama found in the back of the church in 1953, and you find in it proof that your neighbor is going to Hell—you might want to double check your source.  If someone sends you a link with a few out-of-context lines touting some little-known but extremely important Canon law regarding your clothes, your eating habits, your money or your marriage, then remember, context is vital.

Some people have an agenda to push, and have no qualms about distorting the truth to make you see the putative error of your ways.  And many more people are well-intentioned, but ignorant.

I am no scholar, and so I will not attempt to make a list of which sources are and are not sufficiently authoritative.  This collection of questions and answers from Catholic Answers will give you an idea of how complicated the issue can be.  But there are a few things to keep in mind, when someone accosts you with something “THE VATICAN SAYS,” and it sounds fishy to you:

First, don’t freak out.  Even if it turns out that it’s true, and the Church actually teaches something that you never heard of before, and you’re now required to change your life —you’ve got time.  Ask God for guidance, peace, and courage.  Don’t forget, He’s on your side.

Second, when someone confronts you with some purported authoritative teaching of the Church, ask for an original source.  A paraphrase is not enough—ask for a direct quote.  If it’s truly a binding teaching of the church, then it’s worthwhile to hunt down the source.  No one is going to be damned for breaking a rule that’s impossible to find.

Third, if you’ve found the source and are not sure of its authority, then ask someone who will know:  a faithful priest, a well-known apologist, or a truly knowledgeable friend.  Don’t ask the nice folks on your wool felting message board, and don’t ask your Aunt Simone who used to be a nun and now sells cat milk soap at the farmer’s market with her partner, Adrienne.  Most Catholics who are serious about their faith will be delighted to help a fellow seeker learn more about what God really wants from us.

Fourth, some things may not be binding, but they are still worth considering.  For instance, when the Pope expresses an opinion about a particular war, we can’t just say, “Well, he wasn’t speaking ex cathedra, so nyeah nyeah!”  Likewise, if you read something in the Bible and you have the distinct impression that the Holy Spirit is shouting in your ear while hitting you over the head with a spiritual hammer—don’t just say, “Well, there’s nothing in the catechism specifically about this, so I guess I’m off the hook.”  God uses many, many different devices for getting through to us.  He may very well be calling me, as an individual, to change my thinking or behavior at a particular point in my life, even if the Church doesn’t require this change under pain of sin.

Fifth, repeat step one.