Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Whenever there are a large amount of people gathered together, disagreement is an inevitable result of differing opinions and perspectives. As a society can only run smoothly when people are tolerant toward other human beings, discussions can remain civil and be more fruitful if the participants genuinely try to understand the opinions of others. There is a way to remain respectful without having to endorse or even agree with the views of others! We all understand this concept in theory, yet in practice, it is very difficult because our human nature is broken, and therefore we tend to get annoyed whenever someone is not in agreement with us. We are all subject to the effects of Original Sin after the Fall occurred, but this does not mean we should not continue trying to overcome these obstacles, all with the help of God of course.
There are many controversial topics that are being discussed on this forum, but generally speaking, the most explosive topics seem to deal with the liturgy, especially in relation to the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. My intention in mentioning this is not to voice my own opinions on the Council or on the Mass of Paul VI versus the Tridentine mass. I accept whatever the Church teaches on the validity and liceity of the promulgation of Missale Romanum, and when Rome has spoken, the case is closed, in my opinion. The Church teaches that the Second Vatican Council is a valid Council, and to refuse to accept it is to remove oneself from full communion with the Church. The majority of Catholics appear to agree with this, as radical traditionalists — by far — do not make up a large percentage of the Catholic population at all.
While most Catholics here can agree on these fundamental principles, we tend to get caught up in the weeds and bicker about issues of lesser importance, such as what music is used in the liturgy, whether mass should be ad orientem, whether the mass should be said in Latin or in the vernacular. As beauty is created when opposites are reconciled with each other, part of the beauty of the Catholic Church is the potentiality of having unity and diversity come together as one, as St. Paul says, we are members of one body (1 Corinthians 12). Of course, different people in the Church will have different preferences and opinions, and the Church has tried to accommodate everyone. However, God is not subject to our merely human whims, and we cannot bicker on and on about matters of lesser importance, especially in regard to both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the mass, while missing the greater point. Christ is present in every valid Eucharist, and while people may have different opinions on the “aesthetics” of how mass is celebrated, we need to remember that every Eucharistic celebration is inherently beautiful in and of itself not because of the music or anything else, but because God is present. If we spend all our time and energy concerning ourselves with less important issues, and miss the bigger picture, then are we any better that the Pharisees?
The most important points, as the gospel demonstrates, are to love God first and foremost, and to love your neighbor as yourself. We need to remember this whenever we post, and think of this when we are tempted to judge others or even call them “heretics” because they disagree with our opinions.
The question now becomes: there is certainly a difference between heresy and harmless disagreement, but where should the line be drawn?
We need to understand that there are two types of law: ecclesiastical law and divine law. Ecclesiastical law is man-made, while divine law comes from God Himself. Ecclesiastical law, which includes liturgical directives can be changed by the appropriate authority if he deems it to be appropriate. On the other hand, divine law, or dogma, comes from God Himself and cannot be changed, not even by the highest authority of the Church, the Supreme Pontiff. Keeping these distinctions in mind, it should come as no surprise to us that throughout the history of the Church, it is clear that practices and disciplines have changed and developed considerably over time. The liturgy itself has changed over time as well. Provided that the substance of the liturgy is retained, and the dogmatic teachings in regard to the mass, in particular the Eucharist, are retained, practices and disciplines regarding the celebration of the mass are certainly subject to change if the competent authority judges revision to be appropriate and prudent. From this, it becomes clear that to contradict dogmatic teachings, with full knowledge about the particular error in question, and done with full consent of the will, is most certainly heresy, a grave sin that warrants excommunication latae sententiae as well; but is also is evident that a Catholic may, in good conscience, disagree with the Church on matters of ecclesiastical law and still remain in good standing. So if a person wishes to express opinion on disagreement with a practice of the Church, other Catholics may not unjustly label him a “heretic.”
We are all free to state our opinions on various issues, but we all must humbly submit to the legitimate authority of the Church not only when it comes to issues of divine law, but also issues of ecclesiastical law as well. Divine law, coming directly from God, cannot be questioned, but ecclesiastical law can be changed by the competent authority to better suit the needs of the faithful in a specific time and place. While it is impossible for changes in, say, liturgical directives, to please everyone, we need to trust that God will protect His Church, and that the Church desires first and foremost what is most beneficial her people, and that the Supreme Law of the Church is the salvation of souls. That — the salvation of souls — is the ultimate end and the entire purpose of all the Church’s ecclesiastical laws, and as Catholics we need to trust that the Holy Spirit guides the Church not only in defining and clarifying Christian truths, but also in giving those in authority the grace to make prudent decisions directed at this ultimate end, namely, the salvation of souls.
My conclusion is that the beauty of the Church comes from the integration of both unity (as we are one Body of Christ) and diversity (as we are different members). This is also applicable when it comes to disagreements on controversial subjects, liturgical practices in particular, as it can be observed through this forum. By understanding the distinction between divine and ecclesiastical law, we will be able to tell when someone is truly in error in regard to Christian truths and be able to correct them in charity, and we will also realize when our disagreement with another person is on opinions only, and be able to agree to disagree if necessary. Hopefully, by making this distinction, we can avoid a lot of unintended hostility that may arise — as it inevitably does from time to time — when we are discussing difficult subjects on a public forum. By focusing less on disagreements over small details concerning practices, we should focus more on seeking Truth and living in accordance with it, and through this, fulfilling Christ’s two greatest commandments, love God and love your neighbor.