“What do I do when two priests disagree with each other about something?”
“How do I know which one is right?” I’ve been asked this before, and it is a distressing question. Not that all priests should always agree on every detail, but people usually only ask this question out loud when it concerns some significant teaching on morality, liturgy, or doctrine. Of course, I hope the irony of the situation isn’t lost on you, dear readers. After all, I’m just one priest, so how can anyone be sure that my method of deciding between disagreeing priests is accurate?
You can’t be. It is the nature of the beast that we call reality. There is always some measure of trust and always some room for doubt. Nonetheless, I will offer some tips for discerning the truth amidst conflict. As you’ll soon realize, this article is far too short to cover everything and the links I provide are often to much longer articles. If you really want to engage this topic all the way, it’ll take some work, but I hope that this at least gets some people thinking.
First of all, not every priest has to agree on everything. There are a large number of issues and concrete decisions that allow for a variety of answers. Many problems we face in the world boil down to how we prudently apply some key principle or teaching. Especially when it comes to politics, it is often perfectly fine for Catholics to take different approaches. So, the first question should be “is this a moral principle or a prudential application of that principle?” For example, the moral principle might be “stealing is wrong.” When it comes to deciding how to punish thieves, however, there can and will be disagreement about the method and duration of that punishment.
Ultimately, if the Church teaches it officially, we have to obey. But, the practical problem is that it is not always easy to figure out what is her official teaching and what is merely opinion or conjecture from someone who claims to know Church teaching. This is complicated by the fact that no one person is always right, not even the Pope. We obey the Pope and Magisterium when they teach in an official capacity, even when it’s not infallible. But, not everything that comes out of the mouth of the Pope and Bishops is authoritative or binding. It is possible for a priest, bishop, or even the Pope to be wrong about something while an ordinary lay person is absolutely right. Still, there are a few basic steps that can point us in the right direction.
Starting Point, Guiding Light
Ultimately, the search for Truth has to involve our conscience. Yes, this is a guide for when two priests disagree, but it could work well enough for when our own conscience disagrees with a single priest. The conviction of conscience is an important (but not the only!) component in seeking out the Truth. We should strive to form our conscience according to Church teaching – that means taking time to study and reflect on that teaching.
Additionally, we must maintain an attitude of humility and openness. When dealing with authority, interpretation, and obedience, the conversation can get very convoluted. We must be careful not to make ourselves into a private magisterium. It is possible, and even a little common, for someone to read a Church document, misinterpret it, and then think that they can justify ignoring a Bishop or the Pope.
Sincerity can go a long way. Christ tells us that if we ask, we shall receive, that if we seek, we shall find, and that if we knock, the door will be opened. Pray often for guidance. Spend time in silence in the chapel listening to God. Be brave enough to pray this prayer “God, I think this is right, but if I am wrong, please show me” or “I am open to admitting I’m wrong if that means I draw closer to you and your truth.” Pray it and strive to mean it.
Up The Ladder
So, I just said it’s possible for an uneducated layman to be right when the Pope is wrong about a single issue, but we still have the hierarchy for a reason. Generally speaking, we can and should rely on those with legitimate teaching authority. Our default position should be trust. This only fails us when someone in a position of teaching authority is obviously contradicting the very faith they are sworn to teach. Now, what is “obvious” to one person may not be “obvious” to another, so we will have to be careful about jumping to conclusions concerning another person’s search for truth.
Anyway, the point is this: if two priests disagree with one another about some aspect of faith or morals, go up the ladder. What does the bishop say? What does the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) say? What does the Pope say?
If you can’t find an official or binding teaching in the hierarchy, try digging in to the foundation of the faith. We are a Church built on tradition. The Pope and Bishops only have authority to hand on what they have received. They teach, interpret, and develop the deposit of faith, but they cannot add to it or take away from it. If their teaching isn’t infallible or binding, and you have a genuine suspicion that they are not handing on the faith, then look back at what we have received.
Are there any Church Documents that address this particular issue? Is this particular issue something addressed directly by Scripture? For example, if a bishop wants to say that premarital sex is not a sin, then you can easily find several examples in the New Testament, and hundreds of teachings throughout Church history that say the opposite. In such a case, the bishop is obviously failing his responsibility to hand on the faith and replacing it with his private opinion.
To Sum Up
Sincerity, prayer, and humility are crucial. Forming one’s conscience sometimes takes a lot of work and wrestling. If you are confused or conflicted because of contrary claims from priests, ask these questions:
- Is this a matter of faith and morals?
- The Church has no authority on mathematics, science, or literature. (e.g. The Pope cannot bind your conscience to believe that The Lord of the Rings is the greatest work of fiction in the 20th century. It is true, but it’s not the Pope’s job or power to teach that.)
- There may be a faithful Catholic who does have authority, like a scientist or sociologist. We should respect their opinions as the opinion of experts in that field, but it’s still not a matter of the assent of faith.
- Is this a principle or a prudential application of that principle?
- We can and should respect the opinion of priests and bishops on specific issues, but a priest cannot tell you it is a sin to disagree with him on term limits for congress.
- Prudence is still not a free-for-all. Sometimes, a prudential application of a principle is actually pretty clear cut. If there is no other logical, reasonable way to apply a given principle, then it might be a sin to disagree.
- Has someone with authority given us a clear teaching on this matter?
- Are they trying to teach us, or was it a private opinion taken out of context?
- We should defer to their authority and strive to understand why they teach it.
- When two people with the same authority contradict each other, what does the tradition say?
- Are you sure they contradict each other?
- Are you sure they are at the same level of authority?
- It may be possible for both of them to be wrong or only half-right.
- Scripture, Councils, Church documents – what do these say, if anything?
- Can I interpret these apparent conflicts with a hermeneutic of continuity?
In the end, things are not always as clear as we’d like to believe. Ultimately, we are judged on how well we follow what we know to be true. So, follow your conscience, but never stop forming it. Remember that Christ saved us through obedience and we are saved through obedience (Heb 5:8-9). And pray for us priests and for all teachers of the faith, we really need it.