How Do Catholics Come to Believe What They Believe?

How Do Catholics Come to Believe What They Believe?

It’s no secret that many Catholics do not accept all the teachings of the Catholic Church. Almost 70% don’t believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Large numbers of young Catholics don’t think homosexual activity is immoral. Vast numbers of Catholics contracept. Most Catholics believe other religions can lead a person to salvation

How is it that so many Catholics reject what are official teachings of the Catholic Church? Some of it of course can be put at the feet of our disordered wills; people often don’t want to believe something that makes them change their lives. Blame can also be laid at the feet of terrible “feel-good” catechesis over the years. 

But I would argue that the reason a lot of Catholics don’t accept the teachings of the Church is that they’ve been taught not to…by the Church.

Many Teachers of the Faith

What do I mean by that? Simply put, for decades now the Church—through her leaders, teachers, and other representatives—have been “teaching” Catholics to reject fundamental teachings of the Church. To understand how that occurs, we need to understand how Catholics come to their beliefs in the first place.

Learning the faith is not like something out of the Matrix, where Catholics just have a catechism downloaded into their brains. In real life, countless “teachers” form each Catholic’s beliefs, including a pastor’s homilies, media reports, Church documents, home life, papal interviews, peer influence, and many other sources. 

This has led to a vast dichotomy between “official” Church teaching and how Catholics have actually been taught. It would be easy to see all these other “teachers” as unofficial and therefore not important, but that would ignore the very real way the Catholic faith has always been passed on from generation to generation since the time of Christ. The Church is not a “document Church,” simply consisting of declarations and teachings that we must assent to. It is a living Body made up of men and women that passes on the faith in all the ways humans have always passed on knowledge. So even though the Church might officially teach one thing, from the perspective of the average Catholic, “the Church” may very well teach the opposite.

Understanding the reality of learning the Faith through multiple “teachers” is important, even if it can be frustrating. Traditional and conservative Catholics usually want to see only official Church teaching as the source of a Catholic’s knowledge. If someone challenges or questions Church teaching, they believe the debate is over if they can just show what the Church “really teaches.” 

Yet history has shown that this isn’t sufficient. When Martin Luther ignited the Protestant Reformation, a Catholic couldn’t just say, “Official Church teaching is that you can’t sell indulgences,” and expect the debate to be over and Luther to go back to his monastery, tail tucked between his legs. Many political, economic, cultural, religious, and other factors contributed to the formation of European Catholics of the time, and these factors led vast numbers of them to leave the Church.

What matters is recognizing how things are, instead of pining for how we want them to be. Understanding how malformed views of Church teaching originate can help us to do better at combating them. 

A Multi-Teacher Case Study

Let’s look at a concrete example of how the faith is taught: the relationship between Catholics and Muslims. This is a relationship with a long (and often violent) history, and it has radically changed in the past few decades. Because of these changes, Catholics today are taught to view Islam in a far different light than previous generations. How has this changed teaching come about?

First, a quick review of the Catholic view of Islam before Vatican II. St. John of Damascus in the eighth century treated Islam as a heresy of Christianity; in the 11th century, a monk of France, likely Hugh of Cluny, wrote that Islam was led by Satan and drew many souls to Hell; and St. Thomas Aquinas referred to Muslims as “unbelievers.” An overall negative view of Islam—ranging from Satanism to heresy—dominated Catholic thought until the middle of the 20th Century.

However, the Second Vatican Council did much to change the view of Catholics in the pews in regard to Islam. It stated, 

“The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth…Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” (Nostra Aetate 3). 

We can see the major change: what seemed Satanic in the 12th century is now held “with esteem.” Far from condemning Islam as a false religion which must be resisted, as many popes throughout history have done, Vatican II states that we must strive for “mutual understanding” and work together “for the benefit of all mankind.” 

This view of Islam from Vatican II has dominated the Church since the Council, and has not changed in any significant way since that time. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, released almost thirty years after Nostra Aetate, simply repeats Vatican II teachings on the subject. Yet even without changes in official teaching, how the Church interacts with Muslims—and how Catholics view Islam—has developed since then. Looking at how popes since Vatican II have addressed Islam is one indicator of this development.

A few years after Vatican II, on a 1969 visit to Uganda, Pope Paul VI told Muslim representatives that he had “high respect for the faith you profess.” He compared the Catholic and Anglican Ugandan martyrs to “those confessors of the Muslim faith who were the first to suffer death, in the year 1848, for refusing to transgress the precepts of their religion.” Finally, he expressed the hope that “what we hold in common may serve to unite Christians and Muslims ever more closely in true brotherhood.” We have now moved from “mutual understanding” to “brotherhood,” and to referring to Muslims as having “faith,” a term that formerly was reserved to Christians. 

Pope John Paul II continued to develop the Catholic view of Islam during his pontificate. In 1979, he told a group of Catholics in Ankara:

“When I think of [the Muslim] spiritual heritage and the value it has for man and for society, its capacity of offering, particularly in the young, guidance for life, filling the gap left by materialism, and giving a reliable foundation for social and juridical organization, I wonder if it is not urgent, precisely today when Christians and Muslims have entered a new period of history, to recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us.”

No longer are we simply working together and holding Muslims in esteem, now the pope is stating that Catholics and Muslims are united with “spiritual bonds” and is offering unqualified praise for good things Muslims do. In 1985, John Paul II further stated to a group of young Muslims, “The Catholic Church regards with respect and recognizes the quality of your religious progress, the richness of your spiritual traditions.” More unqualified praise for a religion that previous generations of popes warned against and considered false. 

It’s not papal statements alone that have shifted Catholics’ views of Islam. In 1986, Pope John Paul II gathered many world religious leaders for a World Day of Prayer for Peace, and the prayer service made headlines around the world, including images of the head of the Catholic Church gathered with leaders of other religions, including Islam, in prayer. To the average Catholic, these images put Islam and other religions on equal footing with Catholicism.

More recently, Pope Francis has gone beyond both Paul VI and John Paul II in his public appreciation of Islam. In 2014, Francis told a group of Christians and Muslims that Muslims can “expel the bitterness within our hearts, which embitters our hearts…with the Quran,” thus holding up the holy book of Islam as a beneficial guide. Most controversially, a document signed in 2019 by Pope Francis and Amhad Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, states that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions… are willed by God.” We have moved far beyond the esteem Vatican II said Catholics are to give Muslims to stating that their holy book is to be followed and that their religion—for centuries considered false by the Church—is willed by God.

These papal actions “trickle down” through the Church to the pew-sitting Catholic. It is now common for Catholic leaders, from bishops to parish priests, to emphasize the common beliefs of Catholics and Muslims, as well as the need to engage in “dialogue” with Muslims. Although it might be the case that some priests, for example, believe Islam to be false, there is no contemporary public statement or even suggestion by Church leaders that Islam is a false religion, or that the Catholic Church is the only path to heaven. The acceptance of Islam by the Church has become an unquestioned part of being Catholic. 

For the average Catholic, what is the result of this shift? A Pew Study in 2008 found that 62% of Catholics believe that Islam “can lead to eternal life” (another 18% answered “Don’t know”). A 2014 Pew Study found that 68% of Catholics believe that some non-Christian religions, including Islam, can lead to eternal life. Note that the poll question is not simply if an individual Muslim can make it to heaven. It’s whether the practice of Islam (or other non-Christian religion) can of itself lead someone to heaven. While the Church has acknowledged the possibility that a non-Catholic can make it to heaven, she has always officially taught that it is only the Church—and not the mosque—that dispenses the graces of salvation merited by Christ’s saving work. 

Forming Catholics Against Catholicism

This example regarding Catholic views on Islam that I’ve been belaboring is intended to show that there can be a wide divergence between “official Church teaching” and “what Catholics actually believe.” Most importantly, this divergence is often due not to negligence on the part of average Catholics to understand that “official teaching.” Instead, it’s due to the various ways Church leaders can send signals which are easily interpreted in a way contrary to official Church teaching, without actually being explicitly against that teaching. 

If leaders in the Church spend decades never mentioning the necessity of Catholicism for salvation, while at the same time praising over and over the faith of Muslims, the beauty of Islam’s spiritual heritage, and even suggesting that Islam itself is “willed by God,” then it’s only natural that most Catholics, who don’t spend their time digging into official Church documents, will think Islam can lead to heaven. The average Catholic has been “taught” a teaching contrary to official teaching by the words and actions of Church leaders that don’t technically contradict official Church teaching.

These various and subtle—and sometimes not-so-subtle—ways in which teachings are imparted to Catholics have a huge impact on how Catholics view their religion…and other religions. Continuing with the example of Islam, if Muslims—and often by extension, other non-Christian religions—can obtain eternal life by following their religion, then Catholics have no incentive to evangelize Muslims or any non-Catholics. They will not believe that Catholicism is a unique way to salvation. In many ways, it undermines the whole purpose of Catholicism itself. And it’s not the outside world that’s led to this undermining of Catholicism, but it’s been Catholic leaders and teachers who have done so.

Image: Pope John Paul II convenes an historic gathering of religious leaders in Assisi to pray for peace. 1986 Credit: L’Osservatore Romano