Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Some dangers of giving too much authority to the “mainstream magisterium”

July 14th, 2013, Promulgated by benanderson

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that I am a supporter of Catholic Radio, TV (EWTN), and popular book publishers and magazines. They have helped me immensely as they have countless other people and it certainly serves a good purpose of bringing lost sheep into the fold. In some sense, it’s the “new evangelization” at its best. Over the years, though, I’ve started to notice a couple of dangers that I think aren’t pointed out enough. Catholics who take their faith seriously need to graduate beyond the mainstream sources at some point and be fed spiritually by reading Scripture, the Saints, and Magisterial documents. This reading material ought to be balanced across the full gamut of Catholic history. It seems easy to get caught up in the mainstream and end up filling your book queue with mainstream/popular/modern Catholic books. And that’s only if you’re serious enough to do more than just listen to the radio or watch the TV. I believe this focus greatly skews one’s understanding of Catholicism. Some people may take it for granted that the modern Catholic professionals are giving them equal doses of Catholic teaching from all the centuries of the Church’s existence, but I don’t think this is necessarily the case. Case in point was Dr. Gregory Popcak telling parents on the radio (and in blog form) that they are doing an injustice to their little children if they don’t take them to mass. I’ve expressed my opinion on this matter and I seem to be in a pretty small minority that thinks it best to leave small children home from mass. And I’m fine with being in a minority on that. But what I’m not fine with is the judgment of the “mainstream magisterium”. Some will say, “Who are you to disagree with Dr. Gregory Popcak and all the other professional Catholic media personalities”? My response – “and what is their magisterial authority?”* Another case in point – a couple of weeks ago, I jumped in my car and heard this statement on the Catholic Radio: “the main purpose of life is to spread the good news”. Now I didn’t hear the full context, but I’m still not sure what context that could be put in that doesn’t lead to some serious misconceptions. Here’s an excerpt from the section of the Baltimore Catechism titled, “The Purpose of Man’s Existence” that seems to suggest something different.

3. Why did God make us?

God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.

Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him. (I Corinthians 2:9)

4. What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?

To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.

I bring up this particular point because I think over focusing on evangelization at the expense of proper formation is a risk that is too easily overlooked. I also mention it because I think there should be more public service announcements on these shows saying, “if you’re not regularly doing spiritual reading and setting aside time for prayer, then turn off the radio, turn off the TV, and get your priorities in order”. And to avoid hypocrisy, I will now tell you (and me) to get off the Internet and go read and pray 🙂

*sidenote: my wife and I bought his “Parenting with Grace” book before I was a Catholic. I had some reservations about it, but I had more reservations about myself and my Protestant faith. So as I continued in my journey towards the Catholic Church, I somewhat unknowingly swallowed the erroneous thought that, “well, I was wrong and the Catholic Church was right, so I guess I’ll listen to Dr. Popcak’s advice”. I will accept responsibility for how flawed that logic was, but I wonder if there are others who might fall into a similar trap.


18 Responses to “Some dangers of giving too much authority to the “mainstream magisterium””

  1. G1j says:

    No one can express every view of Catholicism to all Catholics and have them be in 100% agreement.

    I do disagree with your statement to leave younger children at home. A family should attend Mass together.

  2. Scott W. says:

    No one can express every view of Catholicism to all Catholics and have them be in 100% agreement.

    I do disagree with your statement to leave younger children at home. A family should attend Mass together.

    Try reading Ben again more carefully. His point is not that there is disagreement, but rather that there is is this layer of professional/celebrity Catholics acting as a pseudo-magisterium that makes pronouncements on subjects giving the illusion that they are binding when they are not. I happen to take all my children to Mass every Sunday, but only a louse would tut-tut someone who didn’t as if they were violating some Church precept.

  3. y2kscotty says:

    Would this also apply to Michael Voris? Or maybe to certain “distinguished” canon lawyers? We have to be very careful and discerning about the weight we give to these Lesser Magisteria. I think Ben is making some important points.

  4. Scott W. says:

    Would this also apply to Michael Voris?

    Yes, and no one here has implied differently.

    Or maybe to certain “distinguished” canon lawyers?

    I assume you mean Dr. Edward Peters. First off, yes it would, and no one here has implied differently. Secondly, say who you mean and without the scare quotes. Perhaps you were just trying to be clever and didn’t intend to come off as passive-aggressive, but that is how it reads.

  5. DanielKane says:

    Thanks Ben.

    One firstly needs to get the basics right. Sacraments, Prayer, Spiritual Reading must be the cornerstone. Jesus literally prays every 2nd or 3rd page of the Gospel and it is documented for a reason…just talking to myself here Church!

    Taking kids to Mass, Homeschooling, etc. is a matter of parental prudence and is particular, it seems, to the temperament of the child(ren)and parents, their style of prayer, the culture of the parish even the time and place. Everyone has an opinion on this an everyone is right – as it pertains to their particular set of circumstances.

    Your point is well taken. There are celebrity Catholics in the culture – a circumstance heretofore unobserved prior to this era. While I absolutely consider Ed Peters a highly reliable (near magisterial level)canonist, I do so because he holds a doctorate in Canon Law issued by the Holy See, an academic appointment at a Seminary I consider reliable and is the only layman appointed to the Apostolic Signautra (the Vatican Supreme Court). Those are some serious credentials but outside of Canon Law, I consider him a well intended, well thought, well educated Catholic with a blog.

    Try as they might in good faith, Dr. Popcak and I and dare I say Weigel and I have parted ways on topics that boil down to prudence. Ditto Mike Voris, Fr. Pavone, Mark Shea, Ray Guarandi (sp?), Fr. Z, Jimmy Akin and a host of others. Great folks who I respect, really smart, well intended, authentic apostles who seem to seek holiness and follow the Church; sometimes I concur sometimes I do not on prudential matters. I consider them “interesting sources” – my own category that describes who to me is a loyal apostle of the Church with whom I share one point – a desire to follow Christ as a Catholic. They are all honest, hold generally well formed opinions are fair touchstones, but not the final word, not by a long shot.

    With the exception of Peters on Canon Law, they are simply well intended neighbors. Which BTW, is exactly how one should read my own mutterings. I am not a voice crying in the wilderness, I am a beer can rattling down an alley so caveat emptor.

    To the greatest extent possible one should confer with original source documents like the CCC and RSV(CE) Bible and 95% of problems are settled there. Things like taking kids to Mass, are matters of prudence and the acceptable range is quite large. Even highly complex things like embryo adoption (which remains a disputed point in the Church) gets a pretty decent start with the CCC and the Bible.

    It is really an exercise of prudence and the first exercise is to understand that the size of the megaphone is certainly NOT proportional to the expertise of the person behind it.

  6. Catinlap1 says:

    To study the Catholic Faith, and especially to evangelize and to teach it, go to the books and study programs that are listed on the Conformity List of Catechetical Materials. These works have been scoured by multiple theologians and approved by proper ecclesial authorities. There is even a RCIA text and teachers’ manual on it. While not infallible by any stretch, they have been thoroughly vetted.

  7. annonymouse says:

    Daniel – I would add “service” to your “basics.” From sacraments, prayer, spiritual reading (which I hope starts with the Bible!), loving service must flow. True Faith leads to love.

    Many of us focus too much on our “religion” which can result in alot of religious/spiritual/ecclesial navel gazing, including our internet time. Not enough of our time is focused on the right and true object of our focus – Jesus Christ.

  8. Hopefull says:

    Scott W. uses a very appropriate term: Celebrity Catholics. I have been very concerned about this occurrence, and it seems to me that a Celebrity Catholic is a target for the evil one. I don’t think we need to look much further than Fr. Corapi, who spoke eloquently for the Lord, whose teachings, books, CD’s were faithful and still useful, but who fell so badly and so prominently, and from whom we have heard nothing of apology, self-accusation or reform. Not one of us is above such a fall. The more people look to us as individuals, compliment something we’ve done, seek advice, the greater the risk we face. James 3:1 is not without purpose: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”

    I applaud and support Catholic Radio, ardently. But over the years, some of the show hosts have become the focus of their shows (some on Protestant stations too.) I’d love to play one of the host’s early programs when they were grateful for the opportunity and overflowing with love for the Lord, back-to-back with a current program.

    One afternoon show often involves about 20 minutes of ‘it’s all about me’ introductory discussion about credentials, upcoming presentations, available books and materials. I have found myself saying aloud: “Get on with it! Start talking about God.” One promotion came with an offer of an autographed picture of the “Celebrity Catholic.” As if I care!

    We who are still in the race need to be very cautious; that is why reading the writings of the saints is so much more important than reading a book by a Celebrity Catholic, who is still running the race. We know where the canonized saint ended up, we don’t know where the Celebrity Catholic will ultimately be. Plus, in reading spiritual books written by a canonized saint, we can pray for their assistance to help us in understanding. They aren’t worried about their royalties or media image.

    I’d like to suggest some 10 guidelines as to how to recognize a “Celebrity Catholic” who is stepping into the danger zone. I hope others will add to the list. For a starter:

    Five on the positive side:

    -do they clarify what is their opinion on prudential issues vs true church teaching?
    -do they respond charitably and truthfully to criticisms of something they’ve said?
    -are they well-informed on relevant current events, and supporting Church position 100%?
    -do they refer knowledgeably to the Bible, Catechism, encyclicals? saints writing?
    -do they charge reasonably for personal appearances on subjects of their own expertise?

    Five on the negative side:

    -do they use up the time when people could be learning with fluff or about themselves?
    -is the answer to most questions a referral to their own books, tours or conferences?
    -do they ask for money for their own projects, ventures, materials, tours?
    -do they make light of any aspect of church teaching?
    -are they afraid to get into controversial issues because it might hurt their ratings?

    Please add your thoughts / comments to the above list. One more thought. A member of the magisterium is not above becoming a Celebrity Catholic. Pope Francis was perhaps alluding to this with finger-pointing toward some Curia members, and he certainly was avoiding the lure of it by demanding his own unauthorized statue be quickly removed in Argentina. But isn’t it a fair question whether or not Cardinal Dolan’s blog, ebooks, complimenting of Obama, Cuomo and Bloomberg publicly, giving Obama a platform at the Al Smith dinner without regard to the distress of his flock, giving a shout-out to Biden from the high altar of St Patrick’s, and so much more, all pandering to his own image as well as to being liked by the Church’s opposition? Is Cardinal Dolan a Celebrity Catholic too? I hope we don’t get a CC as our next bishop.

  9. Richard Thomas says:

    There is one issue most of these “Celebrity Catholics” won’t touch with a 10 foot pole. The issue of active homosexuality in the Clergy, especially the bishops and cardinals. According to Church Militalt TV, these celebrity Catholics are more worried about their book deals and their contacts with the clergy so they remain silent. They fear loss of income. Too bad because this may be one of the most compelling issues in the Church today.

  10. annonymouse says:

    Hopefull – excellent post.

    It is hard to argue that Cardinal Dolan fits the bill as a “celebrity Catholic.” Unless he is playing the media and politicians like a fiddle to his own eventual advantage, but the evidence is not strong, not given how completely our governor disregarded his counsel in the recent legislative battle over abortion.

    I would note that Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” identifies the CEO’s humility as the highest indicator of organizational success – the more self-focused CEOs who required the more ego stroking tended to preside over less successful organizations than those CEOs whose singular focus was the success of the organization. That same principle holds true in the Church, if not more so. That is why, I think, the Holy Spirit gave us Francis at this time – in order to focus the Church singularly on Our Blessed Lord, the evangelization of His Name, and her service in the world to that end.

    One final point – other leaders (bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay) in the Church can suffer from a sort of celebrity Catholic status as well. Anything that distracts from personal humility and a realization that outside the Lord and His Spirit we are all powerless presents the risk of ministry / service / Word going to anyone’s head.

  11. Rich Leonardi says:

    Popcak, in particular, has a penchant for treating areas of prudence and preference dogmatically. I’m thinking of his curious parenting theories, specifically Attachment Parenting, e.g., baby slings, co-sleeping, etc. He claims these practices are not only unassailable due to the “neuroscience” that backs them but as outpourings of the Holy Spirit.

  12. Richard Thomas says:

    Full of themselves. Unfortunately many prelates of the Church, especially those in high positions are fatally attracted to the presteige of the position. I see a bishop like Fabian Bruschevitz (spelling),of Lincoln Nebraska, as an example of someone who was extremely faithful and whose flock prospered. He talked the talk, walked the walk and was not full of himself.

  13. Dominick Anthony Zarcone says:

    Ben, where is your concern regarding Weigel’s “Evangelical Catholicism”?

    I read no reference to his book. Your only referral to some concern about ‘evangelical’ is in the sentence: “I think over focusing on evangelization at the expense of proper formation is a risk that is too easily overlooked”.

    For clarity’s sake, help me understand, Brother Ben; is that perceived over focus at the expense of formation in regards to something you read in Weigel’s book “Evangelical Catholicism”; or is it in regards to what you heard on the radio or is your concern over the perceived contradiction between ‘the Church exists to evangelize’ as exhorted by Pope Paul VI in EN,14 and the purpose of Man’s Existence as quoted from the Baltimore Catechism?

    While all of the posted concerns regarding the so called “mainstream magisterium” and “celebrity Catholics’ are reasonable, I think questioning evangelization’s priority is a mistake.

    Some short quotes are listed below to document my contention that the good news, our reception of that announcement, our living that announcement and our announcing that saving message are the heart and soul of Catholic spirituality and formation:

    1)She (the Church) exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection. EN,14
    2)To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh. III,71,4 ad 3.
    3)Lay people also fulfill their prophetic mission by evangelization, “that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life” CCC,905
    4)This witness of life, however, is not the sole element in the apostolate; the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers . . . or to the faithful AA 6 § 3; cf. AG 15.
    5)The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his state LG,17

    Lastly, Ben, I think that all of the good, solid Catholic spirituality that preceded the Second Vatican Council is not at odds with Evangelical Catholicism but rather informs and helps sustain our holy efforts to live in Christ and bring him to a world in desperate need of his salvation.

    For example, Ralph Martin is both a committed evangelizer and a student of the saints’ wisdom regarding the spiritual life. I perceive no contradiction there nor any effort to be a celebrity. (See his THE FULFILLMENT OF ALL DESIRE and any of his works available at

    Maybe I have missed the point of your ‘Some concerns regarding Weigel’s “Evangelical Catholicism”‘

    In any event, thank you for this discussion in which I expect more concrete concerns regarding George Weigel’s book will be included.

  14. Ben Anderson says:

    Thanks to everyone for your comments. I always find it interesting to see where the conversation goes and to see if I was able to transfer the loosely connected thoughts in my mind into somewhat coherent thoughts with my keyboard 🙂

    Hopefull said:

    We who are still in the race need to be very cautious; that is why reading the writings of the saints is so much more important than reading a book by a Celebrity Catholic, who is still running the race.

    This is really what I was driving at… at least half of it anyway. The other half I may not have highlighted well enough and reading the comments has made me aware of this. The CCC is an excellent resource and certainly spending time reading it is time well spent, but that’s not really what I was getting at by resources that are “balanced across the full gamut of Catholic history”
    (side note – while typing this comment, I found this address by Cardinal Ratzinger on the CCC:
    I skimmed it, but definitely will come back to it. He provides some rather interesting insight. Anyway, what I was getting at was older works – pre-conciliar magisterial documents. I am in no way a v2 hater. I have read most of it and have greatly benefitted from the texts. However, it is only 1 of 21 ecumenical councils. The fact that it is more voluminous in comparison to previous councils only adds to the idea that the other councils should be read as well. How often do you hear it suggested by the “mainstream magisterium” that informed Catholics might want to read these other councils? I feel there’s this sense that these old texts are just so distant that they couldn’t possibly be useful anymore and besides it’s all wrapped up neatly by V2 and the CCC, so you needn’t bother reading the old stuff anymore. Perhaps I had some of that mentality until I read the Council of Trent. It blew me away how easy it was to read, how accessible, and how relevant it is. I immediately started reading the Roman Catechism and have found the writings of pre-conciliar popes just as helpful and useful. And I’m only scratching the surface. Bundle up these texts and the writings of the Saints and I see very little room in my book queue for modern works.

    To quote Ratzinger (linked above)

    In pre-conciliar manuals the general orientation was usually set by natural law thought which largely prevailed. The renewal movement of the period between the two wars pushed strongly towards a theological conception of moral teaching and proposed as its structuring principle the following of Christ or even simply love as the all encompassing place of every moral action. The conciliar Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) supported this distancing from the purely natural law-centred mentality and emphasized Christology, especially, the Paschal mystery as the centre of Christian moral teaching.

    Here’s a microcosm of some of the problems I’ve discovered in modern Catholic thought – phrases like “distancing from the purely natural law-centred mentality” are all too quickly interpreted as “natural law bad… people used to be dumb… old Catholic thinking is embarassing”. (I’m obviously exaggerating to make a point.)

    Anyway, I’m rambling now and need to save some of these thoughts for the upcoming posts in this series.

    DAZ said:

    Ben, where is your concern regarding Weigel’s “Evangelical Catholicism

    Not to be found in this post. This is just part 1. I’m setting some background for how/why I’ve been reading some modern authors with a more critical eye. I find Weigel to be misleading. I don’t think I’ll be contradicting much (if anything) of what you’ve written Dominick and I applaud you for your reviews.

    For clarity’s sake, help me understand, Brother Ben; is that perceived over focus at the expense of formation in regards to something you read in Weigel’s book “Evangelical Catholicism”;


    or is it in regards to what you heard on the radio


    or is your concern over the perceived contradiction between ‘the Church exists to evangelize’ as exhorted by Pope Paul VI in EN,14 and the purpose of Man’s Existence as quoted from the Baltimore Catechism?

    no, but I’ll admit I haven’t read EN. It’s been added to my queue – thanks for mentioning it again. How blessed we are to have so many great resources at our fingertips. Sometimes I shutter imagining myself standing in judgment before God and he says, “How did you not learn to love me more considering the unbelievable amount of resources I put at your disposal?”

    I also see no contradiction between your numbered points and the BC quote.

    I think that all of the good, solid Catholic spirituality that preceded the Second Vatican Council is not at odds with Evangelical Catholicism

    My interpretation of Weigel’s words would suggest differently, but that post might not come for another month or so.

  15. Dominick Anthony Zarcone says:

    A disclaimer: Pastoral Strategy Is Not Infallible; Even A Pope’s.

    Therefore, on a trial basis I will set aside the Church’s
    strategy emphasizing Scripture, CCC, and Documents
    of Second Vatican Council for this The Year of Faith.

    Today I start reading The Canons and Decrees of The
    Council of Trent.

  16. DanielKane says:

    As I see it the hermeneutic of continuity – is relevant but as a layman with an active family, full time job and near full time apostolate, I seek to find this continuity in the documents of the day. Lumen Fidei speaks to this present era and the Year of Faith that I am called to participate in.

    Reading Trent for the sake of Trent or most pre-Conciliar Magisterial works (except the ones on labor that even 100 years in the rear view mirror are still celebrated) can be a distraction, not to mention a time and energy drain to me.

    There are documents of some vintage that remain very relevant like Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi and of course, Humanae Vitae. There is John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, to name a few. To counter Ratinzer’s quote regarding natural law, I can only say that the body of the Magisterial work of JPII is nearly totally centered on Natural Law.

    My personal study is always the current documents of the Holy Father (Lumen Fidei) and what references it may contain with the CCC and RSV(CE)always on the desk. That is how I see “The Church in the Modern World” in this moment. Lumen Fidei is the means in which the Church calls me to act today. It is instruction for my time and place. I do supplement my own review of Lumen with reliable commentary I have found relevant to my status, state, method, etc. giving what weight I will to a number of commentators. But the responsibility remains mine to understand as I can and more importantly to work as I can in accord with the desires of the Church.

    That is the heart of Evangelization – a person to person encounter ending with “come and see”. No level of knowledge, or level of technology or any future development will alter the simple notion of “come and see”.

  17. Dominick Anthony Zarcone says:

    Come and See

    I love that invitation.

    As stated earlier by me, I will take a look at what
    The Lord Jesus’ disciples saw before.

    It is time consuming but if it’s all about Jesus,
    it’s worth it.

  18. Ben Anderson says:

    I will set aside the Church’s strategy emphasizing Scripture

    DAZ, please don’t do this based on what I’ve said. Scripture should always be primary.

    There are documents of some vintage that remain very relevant like Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi and of course, Humanae Vitae.

    Come on now, Dan. We’re Catholics. 40 years isn’t vintage 🙂

    And again to quote Cardinal Ratzinger (linked above) again:

    If one bears in mind that it is thus addressed not only to individuals with very different levels of preparation, but to all the continents and varied cultural situations, it is evident that this book cannot constitute the point of arrival in a process of mediations, but must undergo further mediations closer to the different situations. If it were to become more directly “dialogical” for a specific milieu—for example the Western intellectuals—, it would adopt their style, and be beyond the grasp of all the others. Therefore, its style had to remain above specific cultural contexts and seek to address people in this way, leaving further cultural mediations to the respective local Churches.

    So the CCC is very general. I’d argue that Trent and the Roman Catechism is quite relevant because it addresses Protestantism so directly. For us living in a Protestant nation, and as a former Protestant, I found it very helpful – especially the decree on justification:

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