There are well over 1 billion Catholics spanning every culture, race and nationality. Most are quite faithful. If you are interested in the Catholic Church, you have probably met some Catholics who are wonderful examples of Catholic life.
Being Catholic does not mean being perfect. If only! It means we strive to follow Christ – in His Word and through His Church. This is our lifelong commitment and struggle to become saints. When we fail, we examine our conscience, confess, receive absolution and try our best to do much better. All faithful Catholics, including the pope, go to confession.
As professed Catholics, we are obliged to follow the teachings of our faith. Some things (dogma and doctrine) are not up for debate, they are simply the truth. Other things (discipline such as priest celibacy) are practices of the Church but could change. On some topics, the Church has taken no position although reasonable theories may have been advanced.
We must accept Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the Magisterium (the pope and bishops). Some things are black and white, the truth is known, and of them we are not free to individually decide something else. That is, we are not free to have personal interpretations of dogma and doctrine.
Non-Catholics sometime see this as oppressive. They are often (officially or not) able to decide truths for themselves within their Christian community. Yet there is only one truth, not a multitude of equally acceptable but different truths. Who is correct and does it matter? They don’t know and yes it does. Catholics do not suffer this struggle.
A concrete example is abortion. The Church teaches that we are commanded not to kill and that human life begins at conception. The purposeful taking of a baby’s life is not a “choice” but an intrinsic evil. We are not free to weigh the pros and cons of bringing a baby to term vs. killing it. We are not free to decide when life begins as that is a known, immutable fact.
You may be a member of many organizations. They all have rules, created by people, usually for good reasons. You may disagree with some rules. You may lobby to change them. In many cases you could even morally ignore them.
The Church is uniquely different. It was instituted by Christ to guide us to the salvation He earned for us on Calvary. He personally and directly gave the Church its authority. He promised its protection. To be disobedient to the Church is to be disobedient to God.
Does this mean the Church is perfect even if we are not. No, the Church is imperfect and has made mistakes. Most things written by the Church, said by priests, bishops or even the pope are not new infallible teaching. In fact, that is rarely the case.
Some popes have been canonized as Saints. Most have not – meaning we do not know if they are in heaven or not. We do know that some led scandalous lives. Yet for all the popes (266 from St. Peter to Pope Benedict XVI), sinners all, the few bad ones did not teach infallibility. They did not, for example, speak ex cathedra declaring themselves to be God (or even without sin). The Holy Spirit protected the Church.
Conversely, there are many examples of great popes who have given us much needed insight or made remarkably good decisions in the face of popular opposition from both inside and outside the Church. A recent example of this was during the “sexual revolution,” Pope Paul VI created a commission to study the morality of the newly available artificial birth control. After careful study, the commission voted 54 to 4 in favor. The results then were presented to 15 bishops who concurred. This was a very popular result which Pope Paul rejected in Humanae Vitae. It turns out, Pope Paul was correct and well guided by the Holy Spirit (see: this article, one of many good analysis).
Some Catholics are not obedient to the Church out of true ignorance. That is a failure of catechesis and they are not culpable.
Some Catholics are not obedient to the Church intentionally. They may reject one teaching or many. This often puts them in a state of mortal sin and very grave danger. Not from the Church, but at God’s judgment. They have the free will to put prideful arrogance above humble faithfulness, but are not free of the eternal consequences.
Yet, there is hope. Fallen away Catholics can come home, just as the prodigal son did. They often call themselves “reverts” and exhibit a zeal for the faith seen in many converts. Renewed as members of the Church Militant, their path straightened, they continue on the journey to salvation. That after all, is the purpose of Christ’s Church.