I have a love/hate relationship with social media. It has brought me dear friends and helped me grow into a more authentic version of myself. On the flip side, though, it’s too often a contentious space filled with self-proclaimed experts on everything from vaccine morality to whether Catholics can be feminists. Based on ‘Catholic’ social media accounts (priests and bishops included), we’d be hard pressed to come up with a clear answer of what the Catholic Church teaches. How do we know what to believe amid so many differing opinions, all claiming to speak for what is “Catholic”? What do we say to friends or coworkers wondering if Catholics really believe “that” - whatever the topic may be?
The beauty of having a Faith that’s 2,000 years old is the richness of teachings that we’ve inherited to answer these very questions. We’re not a Church of “hot takes,” but rather one where philosophical, scientific, and sociological experts have spent years studying and understanding the human person. These teachings have been debated at many Church Councils throughout history and ultimately are aligned back to the Bible and to the Church’s Tradition, starting with Jesus and the Apostles.
The Hierarchy of Teachings in the Catholic Church
Something many people don’t know is that there’s a hierarchy of Church teachings. First, there are teachings that a Catholic must believe to be genuinely Catholic (dogma). Dogma never changes and it includes teachings such as the existence of the Trinity, that Jesus is the Son of God, and the Assumption of Mary.
Second, there are teachings that we should believe to be the most faithful Catholics we can be (doctrine). Doctrine can develop over time and it includes things like the principle of religious liberty, understanding natural law, and capital punishment.
Lastly, there are teachings that are good to believe but not definitive (discipline or opinion). Discipline can be changed and modified, and it includes guidelines for fasting, priestly celibacy, and holy days of obligation. For another great explanation of the difference between dogma, doctrine, and discipline, you can check out this video by Fr. Mike Schmitz.
Much of the noise filling our social media feeds falls under the category of discipline (or opinion), which is not Truth revealed by God. More often than not, the conversations on social media lean toward debating what is good for us to be doing (or not doing) in order to be “good Catholics.”
Where to Start If You Have Questions About What the Catholic Church Teaches
While it requires effort, having a basic understanding of Catholic teaching is helpful when navigating the often muddy waters of opinions on social media. So, where do we begin? Just like we learned in grade school, start with primary sources. Here are three that offer a foundation for discerning whether to listen to what you’re seeing and hearing:
1. The Catechism: The Catechism explains the essential beliefs of the Catholic Church. If you have a question about the Faith, there is probably a section in the Catechism about it. To find answers to your questions, you can use the Table of Contents to find the right section in a printed copy or type in your topic in the search box of the USCCB’s online version.
2. Catholic Social Teaching: The Catholic Church has a collection of teachings that show us how we should love God by loving our neighbor. Like the Catechism, it functions as a one-stop-shop to find answers to questions about the Church’s teachings on social justice issues. This is a great resource for learning more about human dignity and our call to fight for justice.
3. The Bible: One easy place to start is to read the full passage when someone quotes a Bible verse. You can also read the New Testament in particular and reflect on Jesus’ words. Let yourself be challenged. The Bible can be compared to a library, full of books with different styles of writing: some meant to be read literally, others figuratively. Luckily, Bibles like this one have plenty of explanatory notes and guidance.
How I Decide Which Catholics to Listen to Online
Sifting through nearly 2,000 years of Church teaching is, frankly, a lot of work. That’s why people around the world get PhDs in theology. But for the rest of us, how do we know who to listen to as we try to figure out what we should believe and do as Catholics?
Since we are a Church with a hierarchy, I encourage you to always start with the pope. Beyond that, these are a few things that I keep in mind when I’m deciding who I should listen to online. I usually keep scrolling if I notice any of the following:
- The presentation of an issue degrades those who disagree.
- Fear is employed as a motivating factor, rather than the hope and freedom that we can find in Jesus.
- There isn’t an openness to pursue all of the Truth found in Scripture and Tradition beyond what is presented.
- Opinions are presented as fact, or expertise is claimed without foundation.
- There is a disdain for legitimate authority in the Church, such as the Pope.
At the end of the day, solutions to many of the issues we face are not cut and dry - there is nuance. We have to navigate our path as best as we can, but we can look to actual Church teaching to guide us along the way. If nothing else, look for these signs of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Anyone living out their faith well will manifest these things.