Recently, Rod Dreher posed a question about what a Catholic is to do when he thinks a magisterial authority has made some error of fact concerning, say, science, politics, or economics. Dreher’s post concerns the question of whether some bishops are mistaken to think morning-after pills are abortifacient, but it could just as easily pertain to some bishop holding forth on farm subsidies, water quality in the Columbia River, the violence in Gaza, or the output of Hollywood.
What concerns Dreher is how a Catholic walks the line between paying attention to what the bishops have to say and how to avoid what he calls "Mottramism":
This takes its name, of course, from Rex Mottram, Julia Flyte’s husband in Brideshead Revisited. At one point, Rex decides to convert to Catholicism in order to have a proper Church wedding with Julia. But the sincerity of his conversion becomes suspect when he is willing to agree with any absurdity proposed in the name of Catholic authority, and shows no intellectual curiosity into its truth or falsehood. As his Jesuit instructor, Father Mowbray describes his catechetical progress:
"Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, "I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’"
I don’t know any people afflicted by Mottramism, though there may be some out there, possibly living in a small community with those who adore Mary as a goddess, worship statues, and think chemical analysis of the Eucharist will yield DNA. On the other hand, I do know scads of people who think the bishops are fools even when they talk about faith and morals and who assume that the word "prudential" is Latin for "safe to totally ignore." The only real differences I notice among that vast crowd of American Catholics is which grave sins they think the bishops and the pope are fools and meddlers to concern themselves with: pelvic issues or war crimes.
But I digress. For myself, the situation Dreher faces in his particular example is not really what one is to believe but what one is to do. There is no matter of faith being proposed when a bishop (perhaps mistakenly) thinks that a morning after pill is an abortifacient. He is merely mistaken (or not) about a factoid. Nothing changes about the Church’s teaching (in this case, that thwarting the unitive and procreative purpose of the marital act is gravely sinful). Indeed, even when we are talking about proposing a dogma (which we aren’t in the case Dreher cites), one of the interesting features of Catholic teaching is that in an encyclical or other document formulating a dogma (such as, say, Unam Sanctam), only the dogma is protected by infallibility, while the reasoning and argument that might be adduced to support it in the rest of the document are not.
Thus, for example, we are bound as Catholics to believe the formulation: "We declare, say, define and pronounce, that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff." It is not, however, necessary for us to accept every detail of the argument Pope Boniface constructs to arrive at his conclusion. For instance, we need not also accept as dogma Boniface’s exegesis of the Gospels, when he reiterates the common medieval understanding that, "We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal." It’s a useful image and a reasonable exegesis of the moral sense of the text in the context of medieval Church/State relations. But it’s not something we must believe always, everywhere, and at all times as an integral part of the faith of the Church.
Similarly, while the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit in matters of faith and morals, how she might practically counsel somebody to apply those teachings in a given situation is not protected by infallibility and is often not a matter of belief but of obedience and practical prudence. Again, Unam Sanctam is an instructive example here. The Two Swords theory of the relationship of Church and State had a great deal of practical value in a time when the Church coexisted with monarchy, but nobody (least of all the pope today) would say that, as a matter of dogma, Catholics today must profess that when Peter showed Jesus two swords and Jesus said, "It is enough," the exchange was recorded in order to establish the dogma that "one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power" — meaning, "The Government of the United States should transform the United States into a Catholic confessional state that does what the pope tells it, just as Boniface wanted Philip the Fair to obey him." (If you want to know more about how Unam Sanctam can be read in our present context, go here.)
In a similar way, we are under no obligation to think that the Magisterium is composed of infallible scientists or economists or political theorists whose word on every stray matter of public affairs is the iron law of the layman’s soul. (Of course, we are also under no obligation to think the Magisterium is composed of uneducated men, either. Indeed, these guys generally are far better educated about stuff than the average American, who is often so ready to think they are still grumbling about Galileo.)
When it comes to "practical applications," the task of the Magisterium is usually to be informed but not infallible about the places Catholic teaching impinges on "real life." It is to offer broad counsels informed by the best that human wisdom and technology can tell us. Because of this, the general approach I think we should take is to assume our shepherds know what they are talking about, but leave wiggle room for mistakes in prudential judgments. That does not mean, "Look for loopholes in any Church teaching that is not ex cathedra and dogmatic," but rather, "Don’t have a crisis of faith if it turns out they make a blunder about some practical matter of fact in science, economics, politics, etc." So, for instance, if it turns out that (per Dreher’s example) the bishops get their facts muddled about the effects of a morning-after pill, so that they think it an abortifacient when it isn’t . . . well then, oh well. They were mistaken. It’s not abortifacient.
But so what? It’s still an artificial contraceptive, and the Church has always taught that this is contrary to the revealed purpose of sex and marriage and, yes, a grave sin. So not much changes beyond a comparatively minor detail. You still shouldn’t take the pill (nor indulge in the activity that necessitates it outside of the sacrament of matrimony). Saying, "The grave sin of contraception is not as grave as the grave sin of abortion" is true. But then, it’s also true that a stroke that leaves you totally paralyzed is not as grave as a massive myocardial infarction. Just the same, I’d rather avoid all these evils than choose between them.
So, in answer to the question of how Catholics should navigate the massive areas of life where the Church offers us wisdom, but not infallibility, I think the sound approach is summed up in the frightening-to-Westerners word "docility." We should assume that, unless there is very strong evidence to the contrary, a Magisterium teacher speaking by virtue of his office is basically is doing what they have ever done — articulating the teaching of the Church and giving broad and basically reliable advice on how to apply that teaching practically (along with lots of caveats about how this applies "in most cases" or "assuming the current science is accurate" or "if what the experts say about global warming or the Laffer Curve or the effects of gamma rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds or the situation in Gaza or the abortifacient qualities of morning-after pills is true").
If we make this assumption, then we discover that crises of conscience over obeying the Church tend to be very, very rare. I’ve been a Catholic for 20 years and have run across nothing in the Church’s teaching, nor in magisterial guidance for applying it, that has ever constituted anything like a crisis of conscience for me (though there’s plenty that constitutes a crisis of convenience and comfort). I don’t say that there are not areas where the Church’s prudential judgments in are or have been in error. I emphatically deny that Churchmen are incapable of doing or facilitating evil. And if, on the rare occasion I were to interact with a bishop, and that time should be spent with him counseling me to do something directly repugnant to my conscience or the plain teaching of the Church, I would disobey my bishop. But I am more worried about being struck by lightning.
Much more likely (but still vanishingly rare in my experience) is the confessor who counsels something stupid, impossible, or wicked in the course of celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. I’ve been given lots of dull advice and, once or twice, I’ve known priests who have foolishly counseled friends in struggling marriages to just chuck it and get a divorce. But this is very far from anything like a conflict between a believer and the teaching of Holy Church. It’s just some priest saying something stupid. I would, in such a situation, dismiss such counsel in a heartbeat — precisely out of fidelity to Holy Church. That’s just part of the rough and tumble of life in the Body of Christ.
But when it comes to the basic teaching of Holy Church herself, articulated by the Magisterium and (as is usual) proclaimed by her ministers and (just as important) by her great and wise saints, I believe that we do well to remember that the soul of the Church is the Holy Spirit, not the members of the Body — and that He is a very reliable guide. Therefore, my rule of thumb is that, unless I have extremely good reason to think otherwise, the smartest thing to do is follow Mother Church’s counsel and the counsel of her ministers (even the boring and unimaginative ones), even when her teachers might not have all the facts down perfectly. Knowledge of the technical details of science, politics, technology, economics, and the arts can be quite bollixed up in the mind of a bishop — just as the science Thomas receives from Aristotle can be somewhat dodgy at times — and the main point (and validity) of the Church’s teaching will still stand.
This helps enormously in prioritizing which battles to fight. Not only do I not need to waste time parsing minor differences between the grave sin of murdering a child and the grave sin of thwarting the will of God in creation, I also don’t have to let ideological temptations blind me to fairly obvious Catholic prudential applications of the Tradition. So, for instance, while I’m an agnostic skeptic on the whole global warming thing, I needn’t jump on the bandwagon of kneejerk conservative hostility to environmentalism evinced by some conservative Catholics when Rome gets behind reduction of carbon emissions and so forth. They’re leading by example — not in obedience to some lefty agenda, but to the command to tend the Garden in Genesis. The curia et al. might well be wrong to buy the science, but I can’t see that they are wrong to take a tiny step toward treating the planet a little better. That’s just obedience to Genesis, not a token that the Vatican is now run by Gaia worshipper cultists.
So, in the end, while the Magisterium is not guaranteed infallibility in the application of the tradition to the myriad problems confronting us in science, politics, culture, medicine, law and the affairs of nations, still they generally do a very good (albeit often ignored) job of applying the gospel counsels by the best light they’ve got. If the light is flickering and uncertain, the Church’s teachers might see things that aren’t there and miss things that are. And, of course, their own finitude and sinfulness will muck things up as well. But the Church’s basic principles remain the same. In 20 years, I’ve yet to find a problem with that approach to Church teaching, nor to discover a danger of Mottramism in it in living my day-to-day life.