Friday, March 15, 2013

Five Reasons You're Not an Authority on Catholicism

As a convert to Catholicism, I have always found it somewhat disconcerting when any old Joe seems to think that because he was raised Catholic that somehow makes him an authority on Catholicism or, at least, somehow gives him credentials to speak authoritatively on the Faith, or considers his own opinions on par with that of our bishops.

You see it all the time, on TV shows, in the news, in politicians, in parishes, and in the random folk you meet every day. What makes it worse is especially on TV/in the news, when people are interviewed and asked their opinion on X, just because "they are Catholic" and/or "they were raised Catholic." The problem is that so much misinformation gets perpetuated this way, chief among which is the false notion that Catholics are independently free to form their own opinions on matters of faith and morals (and still be considered faithful/in good standing as Catholics), much less that their opinions are equally valid or authoritative as authentically Catholic positions.

So for those people, I offer these five analogies that illustrate why you're not a Catholic authority.

1. Being an American or raised an American doesn't make you an expert on the Constitution, U.S. government in general, U.S. economics, U.S. foreign policy, and so on; you get the picture. Growing up as an American no more makes you an expert on the United States of America than growing up Catholic makes you an expert on the Church nor the Faith.

2. Watching lots of movies does not make you an expert on film or the film industry. You may grow up watching movies. You may have watched hundreds of them in your life. This doesn't mean you know one iota about what it takes to make a movie, how to be an actor, how to be a director, or any of the various other minutiae involved. Nope, watching a ton of movies doesn't make you an expert on film any more than being baptized, confirmed, and going to mass makes you an expert on Catholicism.

3. Working at a large corporation for your whole career does not make you an expert on that organization. You may even be a division or department manager by the end of your career. You may be an expert at your job, you may spend a ton of time with the people in your department and on your teams, but your perspective is of necessity limited. Unless you are the CEO, and probably even then, there will be plenty of aspects about the company that remain hidden from you. And in any case, your expertise and experience is in one area. The Catholic Church has over a billion members spread all over the world; the doctrine of the Catholic faith has been reasoned about and practiced over nearly two thousand years. I guarantee, you can't speak for all of that, no matter how involved you are in your parish, no matter how long you've been Catholic.

4. Being raised among musicians does not make you an authority on music; it doesn't even make you a musician. You may be surrounded by music your whole life; you may attend many musical events with your family, but if you don't apply yourself to learn music, then you are nothing approaching an authority on it. In the same way, you can be around other Catholics your whole life, go to plenty of Catholic events, but if you don't apply yourself to learn the Faith and practice it faithfully, you are nothing like an authority on Catholicism.

5. If you grow up in a house of immigrants who speak a different language and came from a different culture, you are no expert on that language or culture. You may be able to understand it and relate to it; you may even be able to hold up a decent conversation, but if you didn't apply yourself to learn and practice the language and culture, you certainly would be no authority. Just so, growing up in the Church, learning the language of liturgy, and experiencing some aspects of Catholic culture does not make you an authority on it.

In all these cases, to become an authority, there is much more to it than just being raised in or around it, spending lots of time with others in the same organization/culture, attending events, or picking up the language. All of that is great and good in itself--nothing wrong with it, but it just doesn't make you an authority.

To become an authority on the Church, one should study ecclesiology, Church history, and/or canon law. To become an authority on the Faith, one should study one or more of the many specialties in Catholic theology such as dogmatics, moral theology, exegesis, and so on. Even so, it is impossible for one person to be an expert in all these things.

None of this is to say that it is hard to be Catholic nor that one needs to do such things to live a saintly life. In fact, one can easily and rightly be Catholic just by being baptized in the Church. It's just that "being Catholic" or even "being raised Catholic" by no means gives you any credentials to speak authoritatively on any aspect of Catholicism other than your own personal experience.

So I hope the next time you're tempted to say, "well, I was raised Catholic ," just keep this in mind--maybe add a caveat of your own lack of authority. And for the rest of us, too, there are plenty of authoritative resources freely available to learn about Catholicism. Judge what we say by them.  

But keep in mind also that as far as Catholicism is concerned, the authority on interpreting such resources is the Church itself, specifically the bishops in communion with the Pope. It is not the dissenting Vice President, not the dissenting former Speaker of the House, not the dissenting famous comedian, not the dissenting news anchor or talk show host, not the dissenting parishioners, not the dissenting womynpriests, not the dissenting sisters, not even the dissenting priests. You can even be a faithful, cradle Catholic and still not be such an authority. You can even be someone who, like me, has extensively studied the Faith, and still not be such an authority, although our answers may be more reliable in this way. Still, always judge what we say by authoritative texts interpreted the way that the bishops in communion with the Pope interpret them.

And if a Catholic steers you away from our authoritative texts, waves his arms and says they don't really mean what they say, or, most tellingly, suggests that the bishops and Pope are wrong in their "interpretation," those are all pretty good red flags you're on the wrong track to understanding Catholicism. Such a person is about as far away from being an authority on Catholicism as they can get, no matter how long they have been Catholic.