What is "Catholic orthodoxy?"
When learning about the Roman Catholic Church, it's important to get orthodox information. Here, "orthodox" means the same as "faithful and accurate."
Faith is serious business. Especially your own faith: this is about your life, remember?
And faith is about the truth. Really. With a capital 'T', as in "The Truth." At least, that's what Jesus said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
So, would you want to make a decision about your faith based on something... less than the truth?
Of course not.
That's why Catholic orthodoxy is important.
The world isn't perfect
The fact is, you'll get your information about the Catholic Church from people. And since people aren't perfect, you won't always get perfect information.
When you get the wrong information about the Church, most of the time it's because someone just doesn't know truth themselves, and so they can't teach it to you in turn. Someone else told them the wrong thing at some point, and they're just passing it on.
(The rule of charity is very important here: don't think badly of someone who's not teaching good doctrine. Assume that it's either ignorance or their own struggle with some issue that's preventing them from being able to teach faithfully. We're all works-in-progress. Pray for them.)
The point here isn't to scare you. You just need to be aware of the situation.
(Of course, this has always been the situation! Even at the beginning, some people decided to go off on their own and teach their personal beliefs instead of what the Apostles had received from Jesus. The more things change, the more they stay the same....)
Why even the small things matter
This is so important that I have to say it again: it's essential for you to get accurate information, faithfully taught.
Not just for the big things. The little things matter, too.
Here's why: think of your faith as being like a crossword puzzle.
As you learn things, you're filling in rows and columns of the puzzle. Every word you fill in will affect the rest of the puzzle. If you write in some wrong words, even small ones, you won't be able to put the right words into other places later. Do you want to have to re-work parts of the puzzle later to set things right?
So: Learn sound doctrine, even for things that seem small.
Unfortunately, the area where you'll often find the worst information is in the one area where it matters the most: how we should live as disciples of Christ. We call this area morality.
Moral teachings are widely misunderstood, often taught inaccurately, and sometimes outright rejected.
And yet, morality is central to your life as a Christian. So especially for moral questions, make sure you're getting solid guidance.
How to get sound doctrine
Here are some tips for getting reliable information:
- Tell people that you want to learn "what the Church teaches." Tell them that you'd like orthodox doctrine, so please tell you if they're not sure, or if something is just their opinion.
- Get a reliable written guide or two, and check things out for yourself. (I've listed reliable references in the appropriate places throughout this site.)
- For anything that seems odd, check the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is the official word of the Church herself about what the Faith is—the gold standard of Catholic orthodoxy. It's indispensable. You must have a copy. (That link lets you read it online, too.)
- If you have questions, find a priest or layperson who understands the importance of fidelity and orthodoxy, and tries to live it.
- A good sign is if someone loves & supports the Pope, whomever the Pope may be.
- A bad sign is someone who begins sentences with words like: "Well, that's what Rome thinks, but...."
- (This isn't just my opinion: union with the Pope in faith is essential for the Catholic. See the Catechism, numbers 834 & 882.)
Should you quiz them?
So, here you are, a beginning Catholic who's looking for solid guidance. You've found someone you like. But you need something specific to help you determine if they'll give you reliable, orthodox advice.
I hate to suggest giving someone a test...
...but I think you need to do exactly that!
This is very important. You're about to put your life—your soul—in their hands. So I think it's fair for you to ask a few questions first.
You're not judging whether they're a good or bad person. You're just trying to tell whether they're likely to give you sound advice based on orthodox Catholic teaching, or not.
Three specific questions
So ask them what they think about three specific things:
- The possibility of ordaining women as priests
The Catholic Church has taught definitively about each of these topics. A faithful Catholic cannot reject those teachings.
For each of those three issues, your potential advisor should tell you that the Catholic Church unambiguously teaches that they're not allowed.
- Contraception is always gravely immoral
- Homosexual acts are always disordered, and are gravely immoral (although we must have great compassion for people who are afflicted with this disorder)
- The Church is bound by the nature of the sacrament of Ordination, which by Christ's deliberate choice is restricted to men.
I know—substantial numbers of Catholics reject those Church teachings. All I'm saying is that you do not want them as a guide to the Catholic faith, or as a spiritual advisor!
- Remember: it's one thing for you, or any other ordinary lay Catholic, to be struggling to accept any Church teaching. Many of us do that at some point. The way of Christ can be challenging!
- But it's a very different thing for a priest, catechist (teacher), or spiritual director to reject Church teaching. Such a position requires that they teach orthodox doctrine.
Don't worry if the person tries to be understanding of any doubts you have, or says that some Catholics struggle with those teachings. Compassion is good! But make sure they also tell you clearly and firmly about Church teaching.
Personally, I'd look for someone who gives clear and accurate answers, is enthusiastic and positive, and who is very understanding and approachable. Such a person is likely to be an outstanding guide who can help you find and take each new step on the way to Christ.
Biggest danger area: morality
Again, morality is probably the hardest area in which to get accurate information about Church teachings. Be particularly careful here. If you ask about the morality of something and you're told to "just follow your conscience," then find a better source of information.
Conscience is widely misunderstood these days, and many believe it's a giant loophole for doing whatever we darn well please.
- Conscience is just the facility to make judgments about whether actions are right or wrong, based on objective moral principles. Conscience is not the source of those principles.
- We need to form our conscience by learning true moral principles—and as Catholics, we look to the Church as the sure and reliable source of moral teaching. The Church faithfully hands on Christ's true teaching, guided by the Holy Spirit.
- See the full article on conscience for details.
There is another section of articles just about morality. Be sure to read and understand the "foundations of Catholic morality" section of the article about Catholic morality.