"They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders" (Matt. 23:4)
When I joined the apologetics department at Catholic Answers in 2003, my boss gave me quite a few helpful lessons in practicing apologetics, many of which I continue to use to this day. The one I found most helpful was her admonition that Catholic Answers expects its apologists to “speak with the Church’s voice.” What that meant, she explained, was that we were to “give the Church’s teaching in the way the Church gives that teaching. Do not require more, or less, than does the Church.”
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is simple, until you realize that there are all sorts of issues on which you’d like to give a personal opinion that goes beyond the guidance the Church gives.
Advice can be subjective, but others might take it objectively
For example, consider Lenten fasting and abstinence. In the Church in the West, Catholics are required to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. They are required to abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent. In comparison to the fasting and abstinence requirements for Eastern Christians, and to the fasting practices of many non-Christians, these mild requirements may seem too easy. It can be tempting to criticize the apparent laxity of the Church’s practice and favor stricter requirements instead.
Perhaps you think you are doing a service for Catholics and the Church, especially if you are in a position of authority in the Church or if you have a respected platform from which to offer your ideas on the matter. But you may actually end up sowing confusion about what the Church requires or distrust in the Church’s authority to teach. There is also the problem, when you do not “speak with the Church’s voice,” that you might set yourself up as a spiritual guru—someone whom people follow because you scratch their “itching ears” and confirm them in “their own likings” (2 Tim. 4:3).
Advice affects lives
Then, too, is the problem that you do not have to live with the results of your advice in someone else’s life. For you it may not be a problem at all to fast and abstain with more stringency than is required by the Church, so it may be difficult for you to imagine that what you encourage others to do could have a negative impact on their own lives, especially for those who are scrupulous.
The Church has good reasons for the disciplines it enjoins upon the consciences of the faithful, reasons formulated over 2,000 years of shepherding souls. It is simply a matter of personal humility to accept that the Church is more likely to be right in the disciplines it enjoins than you are.
Does this mean that you can never offer a personal opinion on the Church’s disciplines? Of course not. But it does mean that you must be careful about how you offer it. Here are some suggestions for offering your opinion in a way that does not bind another Catholic’s conscience.
Explain the Church’s discipline. First and foremost, put your emphasis on explaining the Church’s teaching. State exactly what the Church teaches. Offer citations from magisterial documents, such as the Catechism or the Code of Canon Law, whenever possible. If you can do so in good conscience, praise whatever you can about the discipline. In the case of Lenten fasting and abstinence, you might acknowledge that the mildness of the discipline opens it up to wider participation by the faithful, no matter their personal circumstances, throughout the worldwide Church. But, whatever you do, refrain from direct criticism of the Church’s discipline, particularly in essays published for the public on the open Internet.
Flag personal opinion as personal opinion. Let your readers know up front when you are offering personal opinion, or when you are talking about your own personal practice. It is one thing to share what you and your family do for Lent, and quite another to present your personal practice with the expectation that others ought to go forth and do likewise. Any suggestion that you are following a “calling” from God to do differently than the Church prescribes ought to be avoided. “My husband and I like to [insert practice]” or “I find it helpful when I [insert practice]” are much better ways to present a personal practice or preference than “God spoke to my heart, and my family now does [insert practice].”
Affirm your readers in their permitted choices. If someone contacts you with questions about personal practice, or leaves a public comment about it, affirm the permitted choices they make as permissible—even if you would not make the same choice in similar circumstances. If someone asks you if it was okay that he did not pick out the bacon bits from his salad before eating it on Ash Wednesday, let him know that the Church permits “condiments derived from animal fat” on days of fast and abstinence. Whether or not you would have picked out the bacon bits from your own salad is immaterial. You have the right to do that, but you do not have the right to require anyone else to do that when the Church permits it—or even to encourage someone to do as you would have done if such encouragement could create or aggravate scruples in another person.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have not always succeeded in overcoming temptations to give my personal opinion or to vent about a personal pet peeve. On occasion, I have crossed over the fine line between applying the principles of Church teaching to an individual’s personal circumstances and letting people know the way I think the Church ought to be run. When I falter, I try to remember G.K. Chesterton’s advice on the problems reformers face when they don’t understand why the original laws exist:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it” (“The Drift from Domesticity,” The Thing).