Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

…as I went away, I thought to myself, “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” [Apologia 21d]

 

Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes Translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb., vol. 1 (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1966).

Knowing less than you think you do is a dangerous situation to be in. It leads a person to act on what they wrongly think is real. When this happens, people reach wrong conclusions, perform the wrong actions, assume the wrong motives. The result is some sort of harm done to oneself or others. 

In some fields, it is apparent to most people when they are in over their heads. Take medicine. Doctors study for years to learn how the body functions, how it can go wrong, and how it can be made right—but even with all that knowledge, mistakes can be made. Now imagine the average person thinking he knows more about medicine than he does. Such a person might guess how to handle a simpler diagnosis, but not always. The more complicated the procedure, the more likely this person is to commit an error, and the more serious the condition, the more serious the consequences of an error.

Most of us know our limitations when it comes to obviously technical fields. But in other fields—especially when it comes out to determining the truth of how we ought to live—people act as if they are experts. They pass judgment on what they think is right, with no consideration as to whether their knowledge of truth or the situation might be lacking.

This is especially the case when it comes to determining the moral way to live. Human beings, by nature, tend to interpret things based on what they want. The assumption is that what they want is good, and those who interfere with that want is bad.

But, if you’re a parent who’s had to childproof a house, you know that what a child wants and what is good for the child are two different things. The child wants to put dangerous items into their mouth, or stick their fingers in dangerous places. He or she resents the parent interfering. The parent’s rules keeps them alive and eventually the child learns why the parent made the rules, learning it is not arbitrary, but based on truth about what causes harm.

In a similar manner, the person who rebels against the moral rules, thinking they know better, endangers souls and sometimes bodies. In assuming that the one who issues these rules are wrong, they think they know more than they do. To be clear, I’m not talking about a blind adherence to any rule. Yes, it is important to understand what the rules are. But it is also important to understand why the rules exist.

This is especially true when the Church teaches. As Catholics, we know that the Church has authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). Because of that, we know that Church teachings create a boundary between living as we ought and living contrary to what we ought. But if we don’t understand the reasons for the teaching, we run the risk of resenting those rules or of reading more restrictions into the rules than actually exist.

Take, for example, the Church teaching on social and economic justice. Certain Catholics resent these teachings—they’re at odds with their political preferences—and say that the Church should work on saving souls, not meddling in politics. The problem is, the person who says this is ignorant of our obligation as Christians to create a society that is just and not a hardship to do what is right. As Vatican II points out:

5. Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience.

 

Catholic Church, “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity: Apostolicam Actuositatem,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

Reforming society is not separate from our mission to save souls—it’s part of that mission. But if we’re ignorant of the what and why of Church teaching, we can end up fighting the Church while thinking our actions right. 

And that’s a major danger. Whether it is a liberal Catholic who resents teaching on sexual morality or a conservative Catholic who resents a social justice teaching, we have a person who thinks they know more than they do and demands that the Church follow his lead. But, because they know less than they think they do, it is dangerous to put trust in their views.

Laxity is not the only danger. Rigorism is another danger. When we start thinking that only those who act like us can be saved without considering whether the Church allows for more options in being faithful, we can wind up falsely accusing the faithful of error. We can start assuming that mercy is the enemy of justice. So, when the Church shows mercy, we run the risk of resenting it instead of rejoicing.

We cannot start to set limits on God’s behalf; the very heart of the faith has been lost to anyone who supposes that it is only worthwhile, if it is, so to say, made worthwhile by the damnation of others. Such a way of thinking, which finds the punishment of other people necessary, springs from not having inwardly accepted the faith; from loving only oneself and not God the Creator, to whom his creatures belong. That way of thinking would be like the attitude of those people who could not bear the workers who came last being paid a denarius like the rest; like the attitude of people who feel properly rewarded only if others have received less. This would be the attitude of the son who stayed at home, who could not bear the reconciling kindness of his father. It would be a hardening of our hearts, in which it would become clear that we were only looking out for ourselves and not looking for God; in which it would be clear that we did not love our faith, but merely bore it like a burden.

 

Joseph Ratzinger, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, ed. Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz Pfnür, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 35–36.

From what I have observed watching critics who want to “purify” the Church is they don’t seem to grasp the mission of the Church. Some of them want to reduce the Church to a charitable organization that discards the demands of morality Others want to turn the Church into an exclusive club where they are members, but sinners of a certain type are excluded—that type generally reduced to those who commit different sins from what the critic thinks acceptable.

Neither group seems to remember that the Church was established for bringing Our Lord’s salvation to the world. Neither group seems to remember that we need that salvation ourselves. The temptation is to demand the immediate repentance of others while deciding our own sins are not sins or are not important enough to repent of.

I think this ultimately describes the danger we face in not knowing that we don’t know—that our lives require a constant turning back to God, and that we cannot write off the sinner we deem worse than us.  Our Lord warned the Pharisees that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the Kingdom of Heaven before them. (Matthew 21:31b). Our Lord didn’t say that because he thought they were morally good. He said that because they were repenting while the Pharisees thought they had nothing to repent of.

In other words, the Pharisees did not know that they did not know how God was calling them to live. As a result, they assumed whatever was different from their views was error. When we err in that manner, refusing to hear the Church (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16) we are ignorant about our ignorance. But since we, as Catholics, have no excuse for not knowing that Our Lord made the Church necessary and authoritative, our ignorance is vincible and can endanger our souls. And that is more dangerous than not knowing that we know nothing about medicine.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Blind Leading the Blind

Blind leading the blind

Have you ever encountered someone who speaks confidently on a subject and offers his opinion as fact—but makes many errors about that subject? It happens in all areas of life. I find that it usually happens when a person assumes that what they have heard on a subject is correct, or that the opinions they have formed are the only way something can be interpreted. The problem is, if what they have heard is not correct, or if there is more than one way that something can be interpreted legitimately, then the conclusions they draw can be wrong.

In the Catholic Church, we believe that the magisterium guides us in coming to a correct understanding of how we must live to be authentically Christian. Things that run counter to the magisterial teaching cannot be called good.

Unfortunately, some Catholics believe that the magisterial teaching is an opinion to be judged—if it does not square with the individual’s interpretation, that teaching is judged an “error.” Thus we have some Catholics argue that Humanae Vitae is an anti-woman opinion that can be ignored. Others argue that Catholic Social Teaching is an opinion that “proves” that bishops are expressing liberal political views. It doesn’t occur to them that their own views are opinions that are at odds with the Catholic teaching.

This is not something that only one faction is guilty of. Liberals shamefully reject St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI while holding up their false understanding of St. John XXIII and Pope Francis. Conservatives shamefully reject St. John XXIII (Mater Si! Magistra No!) and Pope Francis while holding up a false understanding of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

What makes things worse is when these people take their views and spread them to others, teaching them that the Church was “betrayed” by the Popes they dislike, and we need to follow their views to get the Church back to where she should be. But if they are in error about what the Church requires and permits, how can they lead us to where the Church should be? Our Lord’s words should be heeded here: “If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14b). 

Our Lord spoke these words about the Pharisees, who challenged Our Lord over not holding His disciples to their views of moral obligation. Now, the word Pharisee has a lot of baggage. People associate them with religious conservatives—with all the negative stereotypes they associate with that faction. Religious conservatives resent that link because they don’t believe they behave with that attitude. Personally, I think it is a mistake to associate the term with a factional view. I think it is more accurate to understand Pharisees as group who believed that their views were right, and that those who disagreed were wrong—even when the one challenging them had the authority to do so.

I also believe that the Pharisee today is the one who clings to a set of views, judging others compared to their views, but never considering their rejection of the magisterium—which has Our Lord’s authority (Luke 10:16)—is rejecting truth for their own “traditions” (Matthew 15:6b).

If we want to be faithful to God, we must keep His commandments (John 14:15). Since he gave the authority to bind and loose to Peter and the Apostles (Matthew 16:19, 18:18), and we believe as Catholics that the Pope and bishops are the successors to Peter and the Apostles, it follows that the Pope and bishops today have that same authority and we must obey them.

Yes, every Pope and bishop is a human being, and therefore a sinner. Yes, they can say some cringeworthy things and do actions we find regrettable. The problem is there is a difference between a Pope or bishop speaking as a person (for example, in an interview) and speaking with the intention to teach in a way we are bound to accept. When the Pope teaches, we are obliged to give assent—even if his teaching is not given ex cathedra. If we refuse to give that assent, then we are dissenters—cafeteria Catholics who negate our claim to be faithful by picking and choosing when we will give this assent.

Once we understand that faithfulness to Our Lord includes listening to and following His Church, we can see that listening to the person who claims that the teaching of the Church is in error is to follow the blind guide—and doing so will result in our falling into a pit with them.

These blind guides will point to the existence of bad Popes and bishops in history. Since people did wrong, it is possible that the disliked Pope or bishop is doing wrong. They then go on to misapply history. For example, both conservative and liberal dissenters like to point to St. Catherine of Sienna and how she “rebuked” Popes for error (false—she rebuked them for not returning to Rome from Avignon). They like to point to how Pope Liberius “banished” St. Athanasius (false—the documents cited were debunked as forgeries). They like to point out how St. Robert Bellarmine taught how we could depose a Pope (false, he was mentioning different opinions on what to do if a Pope hypothetically became a heretic).

Using this misapplication of history, they try to argue that these examples justify their own dissent against the current Pope and bishops are justified. The problem is, they commit the fallacy of false analogy where the differences are greater then the similarities. They might cite the case of a privately held opinion of Pope John XXII (which was not yet defined), but the false analogy is they are not speaking on a personal opinion, but on rejecting actual Church teaching that they do not understand or dislike.

Ironies abound. They will reject Amoris Lætitia on the grounds that it is merely an apostolic exhortation that “contradicts” the binding Familiaris Consortio—but Familiaris Consortio is also an apostolic exhortation. They share the same level of teaching authority. In a similar manner, they deny the authority of a Papal encyclical (conservatives denigrate Laudato Si, liberals denigrate Humanae Vitae) because it is not taught ex cathedra, but we are still obligated to give assent to Church teaching even when taught under the ordinary magisterium. In fact, Pope Pius IX condemned (Syllabus of errors #22) the notion that we were only bound to obey things proposed infallibly.

The problem was described by Plato over 2000 years ago. In a Socratic dialogue, he described how some people did not know what was true—and they were ignorant of the fact that they did not know. Because of that ignorance, they thought that their misinformation was reality and reacted with hostility when their ignorance was revealed and their views debunked.

I believe the blind guides today share this problem. They don’t know that they don’t know. Their flawed view of Church history and teaching leads them to justify their own views against the Church, not realizing that a lack of knowledge leads them to judge wrongly when they are told that they are in the wrong. The Catholic who dissents against sexual moral teaching calls the Church patriarchal and conservative. The Catholic who dissents against social justice calls the Church liberal and modernist. In both cases, the error is not with the Church, but with them.

Ultimately, each Catholic will have to decide. Will they listen to the Magisterium of the Church today that tells us how to apply past teachings to current circumstances? Or will they listen to the disgruntled internet sites which tell them that the Church is in error until it complies with their own views? The person who does the first is wise. The person who does the second is following a blind guide.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Reformation Day 2017 and Catholic Dissent

With the run up to “Reformation Day,” we’re seeing some Protestant groups bring up the false claims of things the first Protestants “saved” people from. While the rehashed assertions are annoying (we never believed what they accused us of), they are not a serious threat. There is a mountain of books out there defending the Catholic Church from those charges—either showing that these things were taken out of context, or were abuses condemned by the Church.

We’re also seeing some Catholics repeating the polemics from the 16th century. These Catholics harshly condemn people like Luther, Henry VIII, and Zwingli for rejecting the Catholic Church. They also use the words written to rebuke and warn people who were choosing to leave the Church 500 years ago are applied to people who were never were part of the Church to begin with. Because modern Protestants are not Catholics, they are assumed to be defiantly rejecting the authority of the Church which they are assumed to know. That lacks charity and prudence. Regardless of the wrongs (John 17:20-21) done 500 years ago, God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39) still applies even to those we disagree with. In fact, the Catechism tells us:

817 In fact, “in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church—for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.” The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body—here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism270—do not occur without human sin: (2089)

Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.

818 “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers.… All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.” (1271)

819 “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.”274 Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”276

Curiously, many of these polemical Catholics, who denounce 21st century Protestants for rejecting the authority of the Church, also reject the authority of the current Pope and bishops in communion with him when they disagree. This makes me wonder if these “defenders” understand the essence of what they claim to defend. Given that the 16th century schism involved the question of who has the authority to interpret Scripture and past teaching, as well as to determine how Christians should live authenticity Christian lives in new circumstances, one would think that these defenders of the Church against Protestantism should recognize that authority and protection from error exists in every generation. If God can protect the Church during the pontificates of Liberius, Honorius I, or John XII, he can protect the Church in this generation, where we lack those kinds of corruption.

Instead, many of these “defenders” behave in the same way they condemned in Martin Luther.  Like him, they believe that the Church fell into error and needed to follow their views to get back on track. Like him, they view their interpretations as correct and the Church in error if the Church goes against their interpretation. But, if Luther was wrong to reject the authority of the Church, then the anti-Francis or anti-Vatican II Catholic is also wrong to reject it because it is the same authority. But, if they claim they are right to reject the authority of the Church when they disagree, then they play the hypocrite when they condemn Luther. They concede his principles and merely disagree on the particulars justifying rejection.

This doesn’t mean we treat everything that a Pope says or does as infallible (a common but false charge made by anti-Catholics and by anti-Francis Catholics). I wish St. John Paul II had not kissed that Qur’an. I wish Benedict XVI had not lifted the excommunications of the SSPX bishops and had not used that example of “the male prostitute with AIDS.” But these things do not take away from the authority of the Popes. What it does mean is that, when the Pope teaches, we give assent to his teaching, trusting that God protects His Church. That doesn’t mean that the teaching in question can’t be refined later (if doctrine) or changed (if discipline). The intellectually or morally bad Popes (and I reject the accusation that Pope Francis is one of these) never taught error, even if they sinned grievously. This protection from error is not a gift of prophecy. It is protecting the Church from binding error or loosing truth.

So, while I may get annoyed when certain Protestants repeat anti-Catholic charges, I think a greater danger comes from the Catholics who claim to defend the faith but actually attack the rock (Matthew 16:18-19) upon which Our Lord built His Church. I can understand (even though I cannot accept) how Protestants who have very little experience with Catholics can believe these myths and think that the Papacy is a human institution with no spiritual authority. But the Catholic has no such excuse. Since we believe that the Church was established by God and protected from error, we cannot reject the teaching authority of the Church when it does not go our way. 

We should consider the consequences of that stance. If we pick and choose when we will listen to the Church and when we will not, then what witness do we give to those outside of the Church? If we reject the Church when we think she went wrong, we give the non-Catholic ammunition for claiming that the Church went wrong 500 years ago or more. Why should they want to enter the Church if we give the impression that the Church can fall into error? 

Speaking in an insulting manner towards non-Catholics will not persuade anyone to consider entering into full communion with the Church. Behaving as if the Church can fall into error will not convince anyone either. If we want to bring converts into the Church, let us start by considering the example we give to others. Do we act as if we believe that the Church is protected by Our Lord? Or do we act as if the Church is merely a human institution that can fall into error, and that we can ignore her?

Let’s keep that in mind when considering how people will perceive our actions. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

14 Thoughts on Properly Understanding Church Teaching

Introduction

Last week, the Pope gave an address on the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In it he startled some people by proposing that the section on the Death Penalty be revised, saying it was never legitimate to use. As usual, people went berserk. The usual game was played: The Pope was reported as “changing Church teaching,” and the usual suspects either thought it was good or bad. Very few people I encountered asked whether this might not be a change of teaching in the first place, but actually a deepening of understanding regarding the value of life.

I think the problem is some people tend to know less about how the Church teaches then they think. As a result, whatever doesn’t square with their understanding is automatically a change. So these people tend to think that the Church is moving to the “left” or the “right” (sometimes factions accuse the Church of both at the same time).

This article is a response to this problem. I’ve come up with a list of 14 things we should keep in mind to properly understand Church teaching. This list is not done in a particular order. It is more a list that formed pondering the problems I’ve seen. Nor is it an exhaustive article. I could spend more time and come up with more things to consider (in fact, as I finalize this for posting, I think of more I want to add) but that would turn a blog post into a massive tome. Of course it is not a doctrinal article. I’m a member of the laity. I merely offer this as a set of thoughts on what we must keep in mind.

Things to keep in mind 

So here are 14 points I think are important to remember when dealing with the confusion around what the Church has to say.

1) There is a difference between “irreconcilable” and “I cannot reconcile A with B.” The first says that A and B are objectively in conflict and cannot be resolved. The second admits that the inability to reconcile is at the level of the individual or group, but not necessarily at the level of objective truth.

2) Since we hold that when the magisterium teaches—as opposed to a Pope or Bishop giving a homily or a speech—we are bound to obey, we must either trust that God will protect the magisterium from binding us to error, or we must reconcile our mistrust of the magisterium with Our Lord’s promise to be with and protect His Church always (Matthew 16:18, 28:20).

3) Discipline is not doctrine and, therefore, can change—even if that discipline has been held for a long time. Doctrine cannot change, though it can develop. So, if we think that a Pope is saying or teaching something “against doctrine,” we have the obligation to make sure it is not a change of discipline.

4) We must realize that our interpretation of Church documents is not the same thing as Catholic doctrine. We must also realize that our interpretation is not necessarily correct. We must interpret these things in light of the magisterium, not assume that we are right and the magisterium is wrong.

5) In different ages, the magisterium expressed itself in different ways. Sometimes forceful, sometimes gentle. We cannot assume by the language or the age of the document that something is doctrinal. For example, some believe that the language used by St. Pius  in Quo Primum (promulgating the Missal of 1570) means it was an infallible declaration, and the Mass in that form could never be revoked. There’s a problem with that claim. Blessed Paul VI used language in promulgating the Missal of 1970 affirming it was law and affirming it superseded previous documents [∞]. If tone is a sign of ex cathedra definition, then we already have cases of conflicting doctrine. It’s only when we investigate how the Church understands past teachings that we can determine authority.

6) When appealing to the Old Testament, we must realize that God did not mandate things like slavery, herem (putting all inhabitants of a city to the sword), divorce when they did not exist before. God actually put limits on things existing in even harsher forms among the Hebrews’ neighbors. God was moving them away from the barbarisms and towards stricter limits when the Israelites were able to bear them. So, a Pope taking a stand against the Death Penalty is no more going against Scripture than a Pope condemning genocide is contradicting Scripture on herem.

7) As the Church develops doctrine and changes disciplines, she sometimes limits pre-existing behaviors and eventually eliminates them. In the time of St. Paul, slavery and divorce were accepted facts of life in the Roman Empire. In Pre-Christian Britain and Germany, burning at the stake was considered a legitimate punishment. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the secular laws on slavery and divorce remained on the books, and continued to be followed. Some Christians justified the existence of these pre-Christian practices. While Popes condemned the reemergence of slavery in the 15th century, Christians continued to keep slaves. In fact, they pointed to the Old Testament to justify it.

8) However, we cannot use Divine Accommodation or the Church gradually overcoming the sins of the world to claim that the moral commandments can someday be superseded. Atheists sometimes attack Christians for following Biblical teaching on sexual morality by pointing to parts of the Jewish Law that we don’t follow. Some people try to argue that the condemnation of homosexuality is just as changeable as the condemnation of the eating of shellfish, but that is a false analogy. Divine Accommodation, culminating with the teaching of Jesus Christ has been about closing loopholes and holding the faithful to a higher standard (Matthew 5:22-48)

9) We must base our judgment on what is promulgated, not on what we fear will be promulgated nor on what we think should be promulgated. When the Pope gives an address or writes a book, that is not a teaching act. It is helpful in understanding how to apply Church teaching, but it is not teaching. In these non-teaching instances, we should listen respectfully and attentively. But we should not view those things as “proof” that the Pope is a heretic.

10) An individual priest, bishop, cardinal, friend of the Pope, unnamed source, etc., who claims to have the ear of the Pope or claims that the Pope is in error is not a proof that the Pope is in error. For example, Cardinal Kasper claimed that the Pope agreed with his views on marriage. But actually, Amoris Lætitia did not accept his ideas of treating divorce and remarriage as the Eastern Orthodox do, and the Pope has affirmed things that some people have claimed he would deny.

11) There is a difference between Church Teaching and the application of Church teaching. The former is doctrine. The latter is a discipline on how doctrine is carried out. If the Church forbids a certain application, then that application is closed to us until the Church sees fit to change it for our spiritual good. This is not something we can “lobby” the Pope and bishops over. Yes (per Canon 212 §2, 3), we can make known our needs and desires respectfully. But if they think it is inopportune or not needed, we cannot disobey without sinning. For example, In the Council of Trent, the Church determined it was not opportune to permit Mass in the vernacular. After Vatican II, it was permitted. But a priest who tried to say Mass in the vernacular when it was forbidden did wrong. The priest who does so today does not.

12) How we think Church teaching should be applied is not Church teaching. Some Catholics, including some priests, bishops, and cardinals, believed that all Catholics who were divorced and remarried must be treated as if they gave full consent to mortal sin. The Pope said that confessors must evaluate each case, and if culpability was diminished so that the sin was not mortal, the person might be permitted (i.e., not given a right) to receive the sacraments if conditions justified it [†]. This is not a change of doctrine or permitting sin. Nor is it a refusal to obey Our Lord on marriage or St. Paul on the Eucharist.

13) Abusus non tollit usum. (Abuse does not take away [right] use). The fact that people misuse the teaching of the Church or the writings of a saint does not make those things bad. I have seen people misrepresent St. Thomas Aquinas on Double Effect to try to justify abortion. That does not mean that the concept of double effect is evil. I’ve seen people misapply the Church teaching on just war. That does not mean that the teaching on just war is evil. People misrepresenting Pope Francis is not something new. It’s just that communications were not as swift before the Internet and the smartphone. People had to wait for St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor to be released and read it before they could report on it. People immediately spread errors about Benedict XVI’s Light of the World interview and so-called changes in Caritas in Veritate

14) The Church is not to blame for your misinterpretation. All of us have the obligation to seek out the truth and live in accord with it. That is different from making a literalistic “plain sense” reading of a summary of what the Pope said from a hostile or a religiously illiterate source.  All too often I have encountered people who misinterpreted the Pope and, when shown the quote in context, they blame the Pope for “not speaking clearly.” Assuming a negative interpretation from one’s words or actions instead of learning what is actually meant is rash judgment [¶]. 

Conclusion

I believe that remembering these things can go a long way towards remaining calm as people seek to disrupt the Church by remaking it into what they think it should be. If we realize that the magisterium alone has the authority to determine how to apply Church teaching, and realize that what we want may not be compatible with God’s will, we will be less likely to be deceived by those who claim that their claims about what they think the Church holds supersedes what the current magisterium of the Church says (Luke 10:16).

________________________________________

[∞] Missale Romanum: “We wish that these Our decrees and prescriptions may be firm and effective now and in the future, notwithstanding, to the extent necessary, the apostolic constitutions and ordinances issued by Our predecessors, and other prescriptions, even those deserving particular mention and derogation."

[†] I personally believe that if some bishops are accurately represented as having a “come if you feel called” policy, they misapply Amoris Lætitia

[¶] I think this is another problem that got worse with the emergence of the smartphone. A reporter rushing to be first with something he wrongly thinks is a change in Church teaching gets an out of context quote traveling around the globe before the actual transcript appears. People tend to treat that first report as the truth, and then the official transcript as a “walking back” or “clarification.”

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Fatal Flaw: Thoughts on the Anti-Francis Rebellion

The critics of Pope Francis unrelentingly tell us that he is promoting confusion and error in the Church through either malice or incompetence. They point to certain quotes popularized in the media and unfavorably contrast it with previous Catholic teaching as “proof” of their charge that the Pope contradicts what the Church has always taught. The problem is, when one reads these quotes and previous documents in context, we see that neither justify the critics’ interpretation. Once we recognize this, we see the fatal flaw in the anti-Francis rebellion—that the critics are assuming as true what they have to prove (the begging the question fallacy) and that the texts they cite as “proof” prove nothing at all.

These critics remind me of the anti-Catholic fundamentalists I have encountered over the years. They quote Scripture against the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church but are unaware that Church and Scripture are not in conflict. Sometimes it is a case of not properly understanding Scripture. Sometimes it is a case of ignorance about what the Church teaches. But in both cases, what they call the “plain sense of Scripture” is nothing more than what they think it means.

The same is true of the anti-Francis Catholics. They think, “Who am I to judge?” means an approval of homosexual behavior. They think, “Rabbit Catholics” proves contempt for large families. They think that speaking about compassion for refugees is a deliberate condemnation of the Trump administration. They think that calling for confessors to investigate the level of consent present in the divorced and remarried Catholic is permission for all of them to receive the Eucharist. None of their accusations are true. But these critics who repeat them refuse to consider the possibility of their making an error.

I think these critics indict themselves (see John 9:41) when they say that the Pope is “unclear” or “needs to clarify.” That’s an admission of their interpreting Church teaching or what the Pope said. But, if one realizes that it is a matter of interpretation, that person has an obligation to see if the perceived conflict is a matter of individual misinterpretation. That means looking at how the Church herself understands the teachings—not how individuals or groups understand it [†]. That means we look to the shepherds of the Church, not the preferred website which is notorious for hostility to the Pope. If we don’t find an answer immediately, that doesn’t mean the accuser proved his point. We have to keep searching, trusting that the Church has an answer even if we don’t know it [§].

The problem with the Amoris Lætitia attacks is, as I see it, that certain Catholics have lost sight of (or never learned) the three requirements for mortal sin: Grave Matter, Full Knowledge, and Sufficient Consent. If one of these is lacking, the sin is not mortal—though it remains a serious matter needing correction. The critics I encountered personally focus on grave matter (which nobody denies) and point out that no Catholic should have total ignorance that it is a sin. But they overlook that some sinners may have wound up in their situation without wanting to defy the Church. The Church has recognized this with the alcoholic and the sexual compulsive who want to stop their sins but keep getting dragged back in because of defective consent. The Church has recognized the plight of the Catholic whose spouse insists on using contraception against their own will. The individual has still done serious wrong, but is trying to oppose it (a lack of sufficient consent) and needs the help of the Church in finding an escape from what seems like an impossible situation.

Instead, these critics assume that the Pope is ignoring the words of Our Lord about divorce and remarriage being adultery. They ignore that the confessor has long had the obligation of determining culpability and that this can change (without denying the objective evil) depending on the individual sinner. Pope Francis did not “open the floodgates.” He reminded confessors to investigate the culpability in every case, rather than automatically assume that the penitent deliberately willed to reject the Church with a full understanding as to what it meant. 

The fact that the critics have never, to my knowledge, acknowledged this aspect of moral theology is a sign of the fatal flaw in their rebellion. They focus on what they think the Pope means, while begging the question in assuming that the Pope is either heretical or incompetent. Since they assume but do not prove [¶] that the Pope promotes error, they view the quotes through a distorted lens. The person who does not start with accepting their assumption will not accept the quotes as proving the point.

But instead of trying to prove the point, many argue that whoever refuses to accept the contested assumption is “blind” or a heretic themselves. The argument runs something like this:

Critic: The Pope is a heretic because he doesn’t follow Church teaching.
Me: I think your interpretation of Church teaching is wrong because of X, Y, and Z.
Critic: Then you’re also a heretic or blind to the reality.
Me: How does that make me blind or a heretic?
Critic: Because you don’t follow Church teaching.

The point is, the critic ignores the fact that we challenge his own interpretation, not Church teaching. The critic assumes that a right thinking Catholic will think the same way he does. If someone—even the Pope—does not accept that interpretation, it is “proof” of his being in error.

This is the fatal flaw: The critic errs in interpretation but assumes they are not in error. As long as the Church does not follow what they think the teaching should mean, they see it as “proof” that the Church errs and needs correction. But our opposition to the critics is based on the fact that neither have the authority nor the training [∞] to properly interpret the Church teaching against the Pope and bishops they disagree with.

At this point, I think we must realize that these individuals need our prayers, that they realize that they are making a shipwreck of their faith and need to stop thinking of things as the true faith vs. the Pope.

____________________

[†] For example, some critics condemn Amoris Lætitia on the grounds that certain bishops have implemented a “come to the Eucharist if you feel called” policy. But that policy runs counter to the actual text of the Exhortation which tells bishops and confessors to investigate individual cases. People forget that throughout history some bishops and theologians have misrepresented Church teaching to avoid changing wrong behavior. One of the more infamous examples of this were the bishops from the American South before and during the Civil War who portrayed the Papal condemnation of slavery as only a condemnation of slave trafficking from Africa—which the South didn’t do anyway.

[§] As a personal example, during my years at Steubenville, I was doing a paper on the writings of Charles Curran. One of his arguments for changing Church teaching on contraception was that the Church had changed teaching before on moneylending—once forbidding it and later permitting it. I thought his argument sounded false, but I could not find an answer to his argument. Ten years later, I discovered the actual encyclical. In it, Pope Benedict XIV called for an investigation into whether there was a difference between investment and lending to people in need. The condemnation of usury remained unchanged. Curran’s argument was false.

[¶] The whole flaw of this fallacy is that one uses the point that needs proof as “proof” itself of the point. But, if the point is not proven as true, then anything used as “evidence” under that assumption is only valid if the point is first proven. 

[∞] I am referring to the typical social media critic here, not the cardinals who made what I think is a problematic response. Any rebuke of them, I leave to the Holy Father, and do not presume the right to do so myself.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Collision of Errors: Reflection on the Anti-Francis Movements

On social media, I regularly encounter critics of the Holy Father. While these critics do not all move in lockstep, and do not all share the same outlook in general, they do tend to make the same arguments. It seems to me that this is the result of a growing number of Catholics believing attacks against the Pope and interpreting his words according to their own outlook. As these different groups agree with each other that the Pope is “wrong,” they tend to start viewing each other’s claims as a reinforcement of their own suspicions.

The Radical Traditionalist Error

One of these factions is the radical traditionalists [†]. They tend to view the Church and the Popes since St. John XXIII as suspect, if not heretical. While we tend to forget it nowadays, they hated St. John Paul II because of his actions against the SSPX, and they elevated his rare gaffes to deliberate heresy. They were hostile to Benedict XVI until his motu proprio permitting the increased use of the extraordinary form of the Mass

John paul ii kisses koranSt. John Paul II was mistaken about how to be polite,
but some said this was “proof of heresy.”

Some of them join fringe movements and a few even go so far as to claim that there is no Pope. Such Catholics start with the assumption that the Church and the Pope can indeed fall into error, while they are a “faithful remnant,” defending the faith. So, they have no problem with thinking Pope Francis can be a heretic. 

The Political Slant Error

Another way of thinking is that of the political conservatives. They tended to like St. John Paul II because of his defense of life and opposition to communism and Benedict XVI because he was the one who took action against politically liberal dissent. The exception was when they pointed out social and economic injustice. Then they try to downplay the authority of Papal teaching, calling it an “opinion” or “prudential judgment.” They have alleged that St. John Paul II was out of touch with “real” capitalism, since he lived in communist Poland. They also tend to think of issues like immigration reform and environmentalism as politically liberal.

They tend to think of a Pope speaking on an evil in general as a specific attack on them personally. So, when Francis became Pope, warning of injustices in these areas, they assumed he was anti-American or anti-Trump. Their assumptions on liberal vs. conservative led them to think of Pope Francis as a “liberal” and assume he supports the entire agenda of political liberalism in America.

The Self Appointed Interpreter Error

Another mindset seems to think that Catholic teaching is a case of “You make the call” from the NFL [§]. They rely on what they think the Pope means or what they think a previous Church document mean. But they don’t seem to consider that their own understanding can be flawed. They see a past document of the Church as saying X, and Pope Francis saying Y. They assume X and Y are contradictory, but lack a study in theology to understand the nuances. They often confuse discipline with doctrine, and misunderstand the phrasing in older Church documents. The result of this is, when a Pope decrees something that is different from their understanding, they think the Pope must be the one in error.

For example, when St. John Paul II taught that conditions when the death penalty could be justly applied were virtually nonexistent today, they appealed to older documents where the Church spoke about whether it could be legitimately used at all, thinking St. John Paul II was contradicting past teaching. But he wasn’t. It was the faulty reading by his critics that led them to draw that conclusion.

With Pope Francis, these “interpreters” assume that Amoris Lætitia tries to ignore the fact that remarriage after divorce is grave matter. It does not. 

The Guilt By Association Error

Another error I see is from those who assume “guilt by association.” So, if a liberal likes Pope Francis, that is a sign that Pope Francis is a liberal. They assume that the Pope appointing certain people to commissions for their expertise on a subject is “proof” that he approves of their errors and political slant—but they ignore the fact that he also appoints conservatives. From this, they also assume that whatever bishop or cardinal speaks in the Pope’s defense must be proof that they themselves must be in error.

They assume that he approves of everything Cardinal Kasper says, but do not realize that the cardinal went well beyond what the Pope was willing to accept. The cardinal seems to support the Eastern Orthodox idea of valid marriages after divorce. The Pope does not. Yet, people assume that the Pope endorses everything Cardinal Kasper stands for. A study of Pope and cardinal shows this is a false accusation.

Where it Collides

I see these groups (and they are not the only groups out there [¶]) reinforcing each other. The conservative who is suspicious of the Pope’s so-called liberalism hears the accusations from the radical traditionalists and thinks they are a confirmation that something is wrong with the Pope. The person relying on their personal interpretation of Church documents gets swayed by the conservative accusing the Pope of liberalism. The radical traditionalist assumes the Pope appointing someone they dislike is a confirmation of his “heresy.”

Each of these groups have false accusations against the Pope, based on their flawed outlook. Each of these groups hear the false accusations of other groups and thinks it is a confirmation of their own suspicions. Thus, they think there is a mountain of evidence when it is actually a begging the question fallacy. The “evidence” depends on their assumptions being proven true. If their assumptions are false, then their claims are not evidence.

Conclusion

Once we are aware of these factions and their errors, we can understand why a collection of small groups can have a large impact. As they continue to repeat their claims and more people assume that there must be something to them, people think, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  The Pope must be in error or people wouldn’t be complaining about him.

But if the groups making the complaints are in error (and I hold they are) about what the Pope said or what earlier Church teaching said, then they are not proof against the Pope, but rather a case of “the blind leading the blind” (Luke 6:39). To avoid falling into the pit they lead to, we must make the Church the final guide in interpreting Scripture and applying past teaching to the present circumstances. We must remember that Our Lord promised us He would protect His Church, and that promise is just as valid today as it was in our idealized period of Church history.

That doesn’t mean we think the Pope is infallible in his opinions or his press conferences. What it means is we trust that when the Pope gives a teaching we must give assent to (see canon 752), that God will prevent him from teaching error. An old example I recall is: if the Pope were infallible in mathematics, he wouldn’t have to get a 100% to be infallible. He could turn in a blank test, not answering any questions.

In other words, the charism of infallibility doesn’t just work in guaranteeing that what the Pope is 100% pure. I think that limited view is part of the problem. It also means the Holy Spirit can dissuade a bad Pope from teaching. Liberius, Honorius I and John XXII never taught error, because they never taught on the error they are associated with. So, for example, while some renaissance era Popes may have believed in a geocentric universe, they never taught geocentricism as a belief of the Church. If the accusations against Pope Francis were true, that would disprove the Catholic teaching on protection from error and call into question previous declarations from the Church.

To avoid error, we must hold fast to our faith in Christ protecting His Church under the headship of the Pope. If we believe this, then we must consider the possibility of our own error if we perceive a contradiction.

_________________________________

[†] It is important not to confuse radical traditionalists with those who simply prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. While all radical traditionalists are traditionalists, not all traditionalists are radical. [All A = B does not mean All B is A].

[§] I haven’t followed the NFL for years so I don’t know if they still use this as filler.

[¶] For example, I haven’t really touched on the modernists and political liberals who wrongly interpret the Pope according to their own prejudices and add to the fears of the “Guilt by Association” error.

Friday, September 22, 2017

In This I Remain Convinced: A Reflection at the Tenth Anniversary of this Blog

It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this blog for ten years now at this point. When I started it on Xanga, I figured I’d dabble and let it fade away. But every time I was ready to hang it up for good, something came up that led to a post. During the past ten years, the attacks on the Church came and went. The militant atheists, the virulent anti-Catholics, the government, the liberals and conservatives, radical traditionalists and modernists, all had their turn. I’ve even seen some of my views change (For example, to my shame, in 2007, and up until Benedict XVI visited America, I was contemptuous of the bishops). 

But despite the change in attackers, and the changes to this country, one thing has not changed. That is the Catholic Church herself. The Church I defended in 2007 is the same Church I defend in 2017. Yes, Popes, bishops, priests, and theologians leave and are replaced. But the Church has not changed her teachings. The accusations made about Pope Francis were made about his predecessors. There have been moments where the men running the Church have done something I didn’t like at times, but none of those actions were a change of teaching.

I remain convinced that Jesus Christ Himself established the Catholic Church, giving her His authority and protection. I believe this authority and protection has existed unbroken from the time of the Apostles to the present day. Even in the rare occasions when we had bad Popes (and i deny the current Pope is one), God protected them from teaching error.

I remain convinced that Our Lord will continue to keep this promise. That isn’t triumphalism or ultramontanism. I realize each Catholic has his or her task to perform in bringing about the Kingdom of God. But the Rock which Our Lord built His Church on will not collapse. We should remember that when we see things we dislike. I remain convinced that the most immediate danger to Catholics is the attempt to separate them from the Rock of Peter, rejecting the authority of the Pope and believing one can be a faithful Catholic in opposition to him.

I don’t know whether this blog will go on for another 30 years, or whether something will happen tomorrow that prevents me from writing another word. But I do know this blog will continue to defend the Catholic Church under the headship of the Pope and bishops in communion with him for as long as I am writing it. Not because of their personal talents, but because I believe in Our Lord’s promise. I pray I might never reach the state where I think I know better than the magisterium how to run the Church.