Understanding the Church’s Teaching


How it Works

No doubt you have played Chinese Whispers at some time; that game where somebody whispers a sentence into another’s ear; the second person whispers the message to a third, and so forth. Finally the last person speaks out loud the sentence he has heard—and it is usually comically different from the first.

The Church has been passing on Jesus’ message, just as he told us to, for two thousand years, and you’d think that the differences by now would be enormous—but they aren’t! The message has developed, but not changed! This is because our Lord has

guaranteed that it wouldn’t. He promised us, together, the Holy Spirit, and said that whoever listened to us (as the Church) would be listening to him, and that whoever listened to him was listening to God himself.

When the Holy Spirit comes, he will lead you to the complete truth.

John 16:13

Anyone who listens to you listens to me; anyone who rejects you rejects me, and those who reject me reject the one who sent me.

Luke 10:16

It is important that this is a ‘together’ thing. Our Lord did not promise to any one individual that he or she alone would know the truth, but that we would do so. It is a collective activity, not just those who were alive then, or those who are alive now, but of all who are in the Church. God is one, the truth is one, for God is truth. So we can today be taught by St Ignatius of Antioch (died about 112), St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Pope St Pius X (1835-1914) and Mother Teresa (died 1997), because they all teach and reflect on the same truth. Their reflections on this truth bring about what we call ‘development of doctrine’: not a change, but a greater deepening of understanding of the one truth as the ages go on.

Our Lord’s guarantee of abiding in the truth, then, is a collective thing, given to his Church, and not to individuals. But how can we know if we are in the Church? By our communion with (receiving the Sacraments together with) St Peter, who, our Lord said, is the rock on which the Church is built.

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.

Matthew 16:18

If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:31-328

The Church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of the truth.

1Timothy 3:15

The Bottom Line

You might say that in theory there could exist in the future a Church of only one person—the Pope, St Peter’s successor. But the Church would still abide in the truth. That is the guarantee. But nobody who is not in communion with him would have that promise. Where Peter is, there is truth. This gives us what we call Papal Infallibility.

Infallible? Really?

There are few Catholic doctrines more misunderstood. We need to get clear straight away that we are not saying that everything the Pope says is infallible. Popes have made mistakes, and continue to make mistakes. Popes have at times in the Church’s history been very naughty indeed—or perhaps it is better to say that wicked men have sought and then used the office of Pope for their own ends. That doesn’t change the basic fact that what Jesus promised, he has fulfilled. The Church would abide in the truth, and it continues to abide in the truth. The Pope is not the master of the truth, to change it as he sees fit, but the guarantor that the faith will keep to the same course set by our Lord as it goes through time and develops in profundity. That is the Pope’s job, and that is why from time to time he has to call people to account who appear to be wandering from that straight course and, worse, encouraging others to do the same.

When the Pope says, ‘look, really sit up and listen; this is important and I am telling you the truth’, we would be wise to listen very carefully in our hearts if we wish to abide in the truth, to listen to our Lord.

Doing ‘my thing’

We live in an age when we all want to determine things for ourselves, and it is sometimes hard to accept that, genuinely, somebody else knows more about things than we do. We want a life to suit us, and that includes a religion to suit us. We will pick the bits we like, and reject, or disbelieve in the bits we don’t. It’s not really a good philosophy of life.

Desire and Denial

We call it ‘being in denial’, which can be dangerous. I may prefer not to believe in avalanches, but that’s not a practical approach to ski-ing. I love fried breakfasts; heart attacks are things which only happen to other people.

The whole package

Our faith, then, is not something personal to ourselves, but is shared in common with all the Church. We have no personal mandate to interpret the Bible or the Tradition on our own: that mandate was given to the Church as a whole, and we have the wisdom and teaching of all the great scholars and saints down through the ages to ensure that, yes, we are abiding in the truth.

Our age is one that values highly the ability to express our opinions on any subject—we are taught from the very classroom freely to express what we feel or think about things. In one sense, this is very good. But if one opinion is then held to be as good as another, then we had better make sure that what we are saying is not of crucial importance, because if it is truly vital, then we had better make sure we know and fully understand all the facts before we hold forth. The world has far too many bar-stool philosophers.

The point about religion is that it is of vital importance—not merely for our own lifetimes, but for eternity, and for our children’s eternity. If we are going to disagree with the Church’s teaching, we really need to make sure we know and understand just why it teaches what it does, because far greater minds than ours have been pondering these things for centuries. Perhaps, just perhaps, they might understand better than we do, however many magazines we have read.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Full online Text

Buy full text

The Compendium; a shorter, question and answer, Catechism

Online Compendium

Buy the Compendium

Youcat; Catechism designed for young people, but suitable for all.

Buy Youcat

The Fathers of the Church

These are the great theologian saints of the early centuries. Reading their writings is a great means of deepening our faith and understanding, we can also see how the one truth that we profess today was the same faith that they professed.

New Advent

Some Patristic links on the Catholic University of America site

Some links to sites that explain items of Catholic doctrine


Our Catholic Faith.org —a straightforward expression of our faith

Fisheaters: the Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

Apologetics: Defence of Catholic doctrine: how to help others understand why we believe as we do

What is apologetics about?

Catholic Apologetics Information

The Catholic Apologetics web ring

There are many other sites like these out there; use Google when you need to know the answer to something.

I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10


So, we need to approach these matters with a certain humility. A disciple is one who follows and who learns from a master; our master, the greatest of teachers, is Jesus Christ.

St Paul uses the analogy of Christ’s body for the Church. This, as he says, has a lot of implications, but it means that the Church continues the actual presence of Christ on the earth. Very imperfectly, of course, because we are sinful and of only limited capacity. But, as a Church, we continue to perpetuate the things he did all those years ago in the Holy Land. We continue to teach, to heal, to comfort, to encourage, to rebuke at times, to feed the hungry to set prisoners free. We can’t each do everything on our own, but with our brothers and sisters in Christ we can indeed be Christ to the world.

‘What would Jesus do?’ is not really the question. It is, rather, ‘what does Jesus do through me?’ If the answer is ‘not very much’, then perhaps we need to think about that, and truly become part of his Church.

Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.

Matthew 11:29

The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40