Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Church is NOT a Faction. Thoughts on Cafeteria Catholicism and Political Pharisaism Today

It happens whenever we change administrations in America. Catholics who favor those who are now in power view opposition from the Church as partisan behavior, injecting their opinions into political debates. With Trump, the bishops get opposed for stating the Church teaching on immigration. With Obama, the bishops were opposed for stating the Church teaching on abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, religious freedom, and transgender issues. We could certainly go further back—for example the bishops expressing concern about the bellicose arms race under Reagan. In all of these cases, those Catholics who agreed with president of the time attacked the bishops for acting politically, while those who opposed him cheered the bishops for standing up.

The underlying problem here is a dangerous error which holds that the Church has one opinion, the State has another, and I am the judge who determines who is right. This is just another form of “Cafeteria Catholicism” where I choose what I will find and treat the rest as unimportant in God’s eyes. Of course that’s presumption. When God tells us to keep His commandments (John 14:15), and warns us that to reject the Church is to reject Him (Luke 10:16), we should not take their teachings so lightly. 

Of course many will take offense with this. People associate “Cafeteria Catholics” with liberalism, and Pharisaism with conservatism. But the fact is, any faction can play either role. The Cafeteria Catholic decides when to listen to the Church and when to ignore it. The Pharisee determines that whoever does not follow their interpretation of Church teaching is not a good Catholic. I’ve seen liberals and conservatives play both roles.

What we have to remember though is the Church is not a faction with an opinion. She is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). She is the one who binds and looses (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). When our bishops warn us not to be swept up into a popular view, at odds with Church teaching, we should be paying attention, not assuming their words are partisan or uninformed.

This is a lesson easier to see with other countries, and when those of a different ideology do it. We praise Bishop von Galen of Germany and Cardinal Sapieha from Poland for standing up against the Nazis. We praise many who suffered for speaking against the communists. In all of these cases, some people thought they were being political because these people agreed with a policy the Church condemned. We also praised the bishops for standing up for religious freedom against Obama (I’m not trying to say these were equivalent threats, mind you).

But when the bishops stand up against a popular policy, people treat them as if they were particularly uninformed, and ignorant of Church teaching when Church teaching actually says more than is cited. For example, people accuse them of being ignorant of St. Thomas Aquinas (the most popular currently is STh., I-II q.105 a.3, which actually is about evaluating God’s Law in the Old Testament) or the Catechism saying that nations do have a right to regulate immigration but ignoring the full text of ¶2241, which also talks about helping those in need as much as possible).

It’s the same error—treating the successors to the apostles as being merely one faction with an uninformed opinion and oneself as the judge who evaluates it. 

However, this error must not lead us into the opposite error of a political pharisaism. The fact that the Church teaches we are obliged to act in a certain way does not mean we must support political platform X which seems similar to it. The Church has never said we must vote for one party or one specific program. We do have to consider what the Church teaches and try to be faithful. Those Catholics who say “You must vote for this party/proposition” are misappropriating the teaching authority of the Church.

That does not mean we can vote however we like or support whatever we like. We’re obligated to form our political preferences to follow Church teaching. If we decide one Church teaching can be ignored in favor of another, we have malformed our conscience with Cafeteria Catholicism. If we decide whoever does not support the candidate or platform we do is on the side of evil, we have fallen into Political Pharisaism. Both are wrong.

What we need to realize that we should be listening to the Church when she warns us about dangerous mindsets. We should not be thinking of the bishops as idiots when they dare to speak against what we prefer politically. Otherwise, we might find at the last judgment that we have fallen away from the Church without realizing it, and we will hear Our Lord say, to our horror, "I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:23).

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Thoughts on Sinful Anger

Then the Lord said to Cain: Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it. (Genesis: 4:6–7)


 

21 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:21–22)


___________________________

When I stopped and gazed intently,

I saw muddy people in that mire,

all naked and with indignant looks.

They struck one another not just with hands,

but with heads and with chests and with feet,

tearing each other with their teeth, bit by bit.

My good master said: “Son, now see

the souls of those who are defeated by anger…

 

 The Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Florentine by Birth, but Not by Character: Canticle One, Inferno, trans. Tom Simone (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2007), 70.

If one looks at recent disputes on Facebook or Twitter, it’s clear that they are filled with anger. Disagreements are now seen as affronts that must be avenged. Insults and attempts to destroy reputations are common. If it were just the worldly who did this it would be bad enough, and show us we have a lot of work to do evangelizing. But it seems all too often the ones who are savaging each other are those who profess a belief in Christianity. Where Tertullian could once write that pagans marveled and said to look and see how Christians loved one another, the modern worldly people can marvel and say how we behave no differently than them despite our claims.

This is not just a byproduct of refuting error a little too passionately. This is an example of Christians bearing witness to how we preach but do not practice, or as Pope Francis put it, "So many Catholics are like this and they scandalize. How many times have we heard—all of us, in our neighborhood and in other places—'But to be a Catholic like that one, it would be better to be an atheist.’ That is the scandal. It destroys you, it throws you down.”

Our Lord warned us of sinful anger, but we prefer to think of our own anger as “justified” and only the anger of others as being sinful. This is the danger of this generation. WE are crusaders for a righteous cause. THEY are vicious people. We believe God is angry at others, not us personally. But the problem is, our anger leads us to view those we are at odds with as enemies to be crushed, not as fellow sinners just as much in need of mercy as we are. Their sins may be different from ours, but we should not think that difference makes us superior. The deadliest sin is the mortal sin that sends us to hell. If we do not commit adultery, but instead we commit calumny, we endanger our souls just as much as the divorced and remarried we rage against.

We need to remember that we need salvation and we have a warning—that God will forgive us to the extent that we forgive those who wrong us. If we are determined to savage each other, how will we forgive each other. And if we won’t forgive each other, how will God forgive us?

Pope Francis has made it the mission of his pontificate to spread Mercy throughout the world. This means both making God’s mercy known to the world—urging them to accept it—and it means giving it to others if it we would receive it. But too often we think we will give mercy when they are as good as us, not before. Thus we become a scandal that prevents others from entering the Kingdom of Heaven while refusing to enter ourselves.

Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves how we got here. How did we go from loving others to treating them as scum to be destroyed? I think each person will find the path to be different. But I suspect the path will show we allowed ourselves to forget the other person is a person first, no matter how abhorrent their views might be to us. I think we allow our revulsion with wrong views to become revulsion towards a person

But once we do reach that stage, we tend to think the obligation to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) can be set aside. We accuse (or imply) they knowingly holding evil positions out of malice. We don’t consider the possibility of the other being sincerely in error and needing gentle correction, or of being faithful but simply disagreeing with us (not the Church) on how to best be faithful Catholics. Unfortunately that leads to the hurling of mutual anathemas against each other on Facebook, and people divide into irreconcilable factions, each convinced the other is going to hell, and never considering our own possibility of winding up there.

Just as each of us forged our own path to get to this point, each of us will have to overcome individual obstacles (with God’s grace of course) to get back. We’ll have to consider what sets us off, what weaknesses we have, and keep them in mind when we deal with things that offend us. We should consider the fact that, if we cannot even forgive someone who slights us, how will we be able to emulate the martyrs who forgave their killers? And if we cannot forgive those who trespass against us, how can we expect God to forgive us?

Friday, February 24, 2017

Blind Guides

24 Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel! 25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean. (Matthew 23:24–26)

Introduction

Fire breatherHow many Catholics on Social Media
Come Across Today, Sadly… 

There are very vocal groups of Catholics out there who are fighting tooth and nail about the belief that their preferences are the only true view, and pretending they are the defenders of religion. These groups have a hatred for whoever disagrees with them on the grounds they knowingly support the evils this faction oppose. While the political platforms they support are different, their tactics are the same. When the party they oppose is in power, they condemn what they do loudly. When their own party is in power, they ignore it when that party does wrong. Of course, these groups will point out the hypocrisy of the other faction, but ignore it when it found on their own side. They are acting against our Catholic faith, but both assume only the other group is.

These groups are adept at citing Scripture and Church documents to play “gotcha” with their foes—You claim to be Catholic, but you’re ignoring X! The problem is, nobody seems to pay too close attention to the full teaching. They downplay the Church teachings they value less, while angrily demanding everyone value the Church teachings they hold important. What they forget is they’re all important—the deadliest sin is the one that sends you personally to hell. If we forget that, and spend all our times looking at the evils of others, we’re acting like Pharisees—and that’s not a title that only applies to one faction.

These factions don’t have clean hands. When Obama was president, his Catholic supporters downplayed the Church teaching on abortion and sexual morality. Now that Trump is in power, his Catholic supporters downplayed the Church teaching on social justice. These factions bash the bishops as political when they speak out on the issues that their factions are wrong on, while using them as a symbol of purity when they speak out on what they already believe.

One Big Error Paired with Many Ideologies

The problem is thinking of this as a clash between two factions. Any faction can be a part of this. It’s based on the assumption that whoever disagrees with me must support the opposition. Thus whoever speaks against a political evil stands accused of all the evils the other side supports. Whoever questions whether an accusation is just is accused of defending the crime. Logically this is the either-or fallacy and it ignores the possibility of there being a third choice or a rejection of both positions. 

The clash between two positions can only be valid if there are only two positions, and everybody takes one of these two sides. But if there are more than two sides, then a person can say, “I think you’re both wrong.” It would be wrong to accuse this person of standing for evil or ignoring other issues simply because they disagree. Yes, some  take a partisan view about their faith, but not everyone. So when we see someone accusing another of being a “anti-abortion but not pro-life,” or a “Hillary supporter” because the target disagrees with their conclusions, this is a sign of someone blinded by their ideology.

Avoiding the Error

What we need to remember is this: We need to accurately learn what a person holds, and critique that. We can’t assume that because a person disagrees with us, that he endorses the opposite view. The critic may simply think we have gone wrong in our argument. In that case, we need to understand why this person rejects our reasoning. This is not an argument calling for relativism. Rather, it is the Church, led by the Pope and bishops, who interpret how to apply Church teaching in each generation, and they are the measure of orthodoxy. We trust God protects them from teaching error in binding matter (which can be a case of guiding the shepherd not to teach at all). 

So if a person deliberately rejects or misrepresents Church teaching, this must be opposed. But we also have to consider the possibility of others faithfully following Church teaching, but preferring a different way of doing so, or even of being sincerely in error. It would be monstrously unjust to accuse them of being false Catholics willfully defending evil.

Conclusion

If we would avoid being blind guides leading others into a ditch (Matthew 15:14), we have to consider whether we have misunderstood those we disagree with, or even our own faith. St. Paul once believed he was doing good in persecuting Christians, because he thought he was opposing a blasphemous heresy. He learned he was wrong about how God viewed Christians, hating what God Himself willed.

Yes, there are Catholics out there who support evil positions, and think the bishops are “political” when they speak against these evils. Yes, they need to be corrected, but corrected with charity so as to return them to the sheepfold. Even if we’re defending the right view, if we drive people away from considering the right way to live, what have we gained? And if we’re defending a position contrary to God’s will, while believing we are faithful, we do great harm.

So we need to be certain we properly understand what the Church teaches, we need to be certain we properly understand what our opponents are saying, and we need to respond in charity. If we fail on one or more of these, we run the risk of being blind guides leading people astray into thinking our personal preferences are truth and driving them into error.

Monday, February 20, 2017

It Didn't Start With Francis


While I don’t particularly like the song, it’s practically mandatory 
to show this video in a post like this

Introduction

One common trend in social media is a number of Catholics claiming that things were wonderful under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the opposition against Popes only arose in reaction to the things Pope Francis did. From their comments on social media, I can identify three groups:

  1. There are a lot of Catholics who were not aware of the controversy in those pre-Internet/Smartphone times
  2. There are a lot of recent converts out there who missed the attacks against previous Popes, and are encountering something they never were aware of.
  3. Some Catholics have conveniently “forgotten" their hostility to previous Popes

I will leave it to God to judge whether anyone is in category three, but I think the first two probably explains a lot of it.

Before the internet, the only way to get information was either to rely on the media, or order encyclicals from either Daughters of St. Paul or the publishing company of the American bishops (I can’t even recall what it was called back then). On one hand, Catholics had to wait until the document was published in the country. On the other hand, so did reporters, and they would usually call a local pastor to get commentary for their news articles. So things were slower back then. There were still attacks, of course.

We Forget How and Why the Rebellion Happened…

No, it didn’t start with Francis, and it didn’t start with Vatican II.

We forget that the priests and religious who caused problems after Vatican II were ordained before Vatican II. We forget some of them were highly respected. Fr. Schillebeeckx, for example, was a highly respected moral theologian, whose early manuals are still cited by orthodox Catholics because of their quality. We forget some of them were highly respected by the bishops who would later find them problematic. We forget that some who were later honored by St. John Paul II were viewed with suspicion by the Holy Office, (St. Padre Pio, Benedict XVI), and some of them were silenced.

We forget that a generation rose up and rejected authority, political and religious. Nations that were not Catholic, or even Christian, had unrest. We forget the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the mistrust of government, and the hostility to unjust laws (like segregation) influenced a generation. Unfortunately, they didn’t stop at opposing injustice. A large portion of a generation began to think the state and the Church were to blame for these things by their very existence. When the state enforced the law, when the Church insisted some behaviors were morally evil, this was “fascism.” Never mind they were using this epithet against a generation that opposed fascism.

We also forget the dramatic change that came in 1968 (not 1965). Everybody was expecting the Catholic Church to “change her teaching” on contraception. Because they misunderstood how the Church worked, they assumed that because the majority report (going beyond their authority of investigating whether the Pill was contraception) urged a change in teaching, that it was a guaranteed thing. So when Blessed Paul VI reinforced the traditional Catholic teaching, many were angry. They irrationally felt betrayed over the Church “betraying” them in something she never promised and would never do.

Because we forget this, I think we are unable to understand the scope of what the Church faced, and what a monumental task it was to repair. Theologians were called to get back in line with the Church, and when they didn’t, several were suspended from teaching theology.

We Forget the Rebellion from the Right Happened at the Same Time

We also forget that certain Catholics, trying to remain faithful, became embittered with the inadequate response from the bishops. Committing a post hoc fallacy, they assumed that because the unrest followed Vatican II, the unrest was caused by Vatican II. So they began to agitate for reversing the Council. The SSPX rose at this time. When the bishops, and later the Pope, began to crack down on their abuses, they refused the obedience which was a keystone to the pre-conciliar teaching that they professed to support. Archbishop Lefebvre was suspended by Blessed Paul VI for illicitly ordaining priests against a direct order not to, and was excommunicated by St. John Paul II for consecrating bishops against a direct order not to.

What people forget is the SSPX and those who sympathized with them hated Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II for their actions taken. These people constantly gave their actions a negative twist, accusing them of heresy and modernism[†]. Even some who were not part of the SSPX blamed the Holy Father for not cracking down on the dissenters they disagreed with, while saying that the defeat of that faction should take priority[¶], but he was ignoring them to punish the SSPX and others.

Between Scylla and Charybdis with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI

This resulted in the Pope being hated by both sides, each accusing the Popes of favoring the other side. Cries of “Why don’t you punish them for X?” appeared in religious newspapers, magazines and others. It was assumed that the continued existence of a faction without a public censure was “proof” that the Pope identified with this side. When St. John Paul II wrote about social justice, he was accused of identifying with socialism. When he wrote on abortion, he was accused of being right wing.

Generally speaking, vocal factions in the Church argued that whatever he did against them was proof of being political or heresy[§], while what he did that they agreed with was “too little too late.” They certainly confused Catholics trying to be faithful. With so much smoke, people wondered if there was fire. Catholics trending towards liberalism began to believe the accusations that the Pope was cold hearted and insensitive. Those trending towards conservatism began to believe the accusations that he was weak on dissent and was sympathetic, uncaring, or ignorant of what was going on in the Church.

The Rise of the Internet and the Smartphone

We also forget that knowledge (or misinformation) of and criticism about Papal actions grew with technology. The Printing Press was invented in 1440. The Telegraph was invented in the 1830s. The Fax Machine was invented in 1846. The telephone was invented in 1876. The radio was invented in 1894 (Vatican Radio began in 1931). With each step, it was easier and faster to distribute news, and the Church was able to distribute her documents more widely and quickly. But everything still depended on hard copy (except for the relatively few items on microfilm and microfiche). If a copy was not available in bookstore or library, you had to either drive long distances or do without[Ω].

The media depended on experts to interpret what the Church said, and that depended on some ludicrous situations. When it was announced that the Pope was releasing a new encyclical, the media wondered if this meant the Church was finally changing her teaching on contraception, abortion, and women’s ordination[√]. Then they would call local pastors and bishops and be disabused of their notions.

The next phase of communications emerged when Internet was commercialized in 1995. Over the next 20 years, more information would get onto the internet, but so would misinformation. In addition, more people would be given an audience[ø]. This also meant the critics of the Pope would be able to increase their reach. Then in the late 2000s, the Smartphone combined the internet with instant access without having to be at a computer, allowing the individual to be instantly informed about things happening around the world.

Unfortunately, a chain is as strong as its weakest link, and, when it comes to news on the Church, that weakest link was the media that believed that someday the Church would have to change her teaching. These reporters, with their religious illiteracy, did not understand the nuances of moral theology or how the Church taught. For example, when Benedict XVI gave a book length interview with Peter Seewald in 2010, he gave a hypothetical example of a gay prostitute with AIDS to illustrate how a person might begin to think about an issue in terms of morals. But the media thought the Church had finally changed!

It wasn’t the first time. In 2006, his lecture in Regensburg was wrongly portrayed as a denunciation of Islam, and his Caritas in Veritate (2009) was portrayed as a movement towards liberalism in terms of economic policy. Reporters and their editors thought that the world would eventually change the Church, and viewed each unfamiliar concept as a change towards their politics.

This led to a new situation. The Church would speak, the media would misrepresent, and Catholic critics would blame the Pope for the confusion. Never mind that the media never once stopped to confirm their information. Never mind that they’ve been consistently wrong, and the actual documents or transcripts show Popes did not say what they were alleged to say when taken in context.

Getting From There To Here

So, what we have here is a set of attitudes from different factions that contribute to confusion:

  1. A rebellion against the authority of the Church when it goes against a faction
  2. A belief that the Church has to change or revert to avoid error
  3. A belief or fear that this change is imminent
  4. A tendency to make hostile interpretations of actions as having sympathy or support for the other side (believed to be in error)
  5. A religiously illiterate media that does not understand the depth and nuance of Church teaching
  6. Blaming the Pope for those misinterpretations.
  7. Increasingly rapid communications from people responsible for the above problems
Put these factors together and we have instantaneous response to the actions of the Pope which are affected with the biases of the person responding. It’s the same actions, but it happens faster now than it did in previous pontificates and reaches a far larger audience.

And Now, Here We Are

This is why I must shake my head in sadness and disbelief when I encounter Catholics who say, “Things were never this way before Pope Francis.” They certainly did happen back then. But before the Smartphone (which only took off in the later years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI), before the Internet (which arrived only during the pontificate of St. John Paul II), things were much slower and some errors could be refuted before they spread too far. 

But now, with the internet and the smartphone, a wild rumor can spread around the world before the Vatican Press Office can respond[π]. If a reporter wrongly thinks the quote,“Who am I to judge?” means the Pope is going to change Church teaching on homosexuality, there’s not much the Church can do to stop the misinformation from happening. She can only offer a correction and encourage people to listen to what was made in context.

This is the situation Pope Francis inherited.

  1. A rebellion from day one when radical traditionalists called his election “a disaster.” 
  2. Some hoping and some fearing change to Church teaching.
  3. A belief that this change would happen.
  4. A hostile interpretation as heretical overshadowing everything he said or did
  5. A religiously illiterate media quoting out of context, and predicting he would change Church teaching on homosexuality, abortion, contraception, etc. and hostile factions believing it.
  6. Blaming the Pope for those out of context quotes. 
  7. An instantaneous communication misrepresenting what Pope Francis said and did. 
It is these factors that lead to confusion in the Church. It has been true since the rebellion of the 1960s, and continues today, aided by improved communications of error. We didn’t hear as much about this confusion from his predecessors because the internet and the smartphone came relatively late to the game. 
 
Conclusion
 
There will always be some incidents where a Pope doesn’t act as we think a Pope should act. Since, a Pope is a sinner in need of salvation like the rest of us, it is possible a Pope will do something regrettable. But this catastrophic view of the Church we have today shows a lack of knowledge of problems we’ve always had. Blessed John Henry Newman, for example, had to defend Pope Pius IX from those who received faulty understanding about what he said as reported by an ignorant media.

We need to avoid the argument from ignorance fallacy. Just because someone is not aware of the controversies involving the predecessors of Pope Francis does not mean these controversies did not exist. They most certainly did—but they had a much more limited reach than today. We should keep this in mind, and not assume that because this is the first time we’re noticing it, that this is the first time it happened. Once we clear out this misinterpretation, we can see the real issues clearly and perhaps come to a better attitude in dealing with them.

_________________________

[†] Prior to Benedict XVI’s motu proprio on the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, they made the same attacks against him.
[¶] When these critics were questioned about the censures given, it was never enough. They believed the Holy Father should have excommunicated them, even though that was not the established penalty.
[§] For example, the picture of St. John Paul II kissing the Qur’an, and the Meeting in Assisi were portrayed as “proof” that he was a heretic.
[Ω] As a personal anecdote, in 1992, doing my senior thesis for my B.A degree, defending the Church against the charge of “sympathy to the Nazis,” I had no access to Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge or Pius XII’s Summi Pontificatus which denounced the Nazis, and was unable to use them (I still got an A, even though my thesis advisor was overtly hostile to the position I took). Nowadays, anyone can do a Google search and get the full text
[√] These were the big three the media obsessed over during this era. They really seemed to believe that a change was possible, which should have served as a warning to how incompetently they would deal with Pope Francis. 
[ø] For example, without the internet, I am sure that I would not be able to reach the audience I have with my blog The expense of publishing would have made it literally impossible.  
[π] If the Vatican News Service would lock the reporters on the plane until the full transcript of a press conference was released to the public, I’d be all for it. 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Little Knowledge Is Dangerous: Catholic Combox Warriors Revisited

But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.

 

John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei, #4

Introduction

Encountering some anti-Francis combox warriors, one of them alleged that: "Even if the Pope claims to speak ex cathedra, but what he said was not in line with the authentic Magisterium, they we cannot follow his teaching, as it would be outside the Church. In which case, it would not be ex cathedra.” When I saw that, I was left kind of stunned at the ignorance. When the Pope speaks ex cathedra, that’s a guarantee that he is not teaching error at all! But this person (and others commenting on the post in question) have reached a state where they would rather deny the authority of the Church than consider the possibility of being rebels against the Church they profess to believe in.

This isn’t a problem linked to one faction (and, to be fair, it doesn’t involve all Catholics in a faction). I’ve seen modernist/liberal Catholics try to argue that the Catholic teaching goes against Our Lord’s teaching on love and mercy. I’ve seen traditionalist/conservative Catholics argue that a Pope (from St. John XXIII to the present) goes against previous teaching. In both cases, the Catholic in question argues that the Church is in error and will remain in error until she becomes what the combox warrior thinks it should be.

The problem is, whether the critic is citing the words of Our Lord or a teaching of the Church, the quote is usually ripped out of context. It’s obvious that the person has not considered the rest of what the text says or what else has been said. For example, yes, Our Lord did speak on love and mercy—but also about hell and the need to follow Him and His Church to avoid it. Yes, in some centuries, Popes emphasized certain aspects of the Church teaching against attacks from that direction, but that emphasis was not a denial of the other aspects. 

An Example Where Catholics Go Wrong

Let’s take the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam. I have seen Catholics cite the line[†], “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” to deny that non-Catholics can be saved and to insist that every Pope from St. John XXIII forward who speaks about the salvation of those outside of the Church are heretics. What they overlook is the fact that Pope Boniface VIII was dealing with the Caesaropapism of the French king, Philip the Fair, who refused obedience to the Pope and insisted that the clergy owed him obedience over obedience to the Pope.

Yes, it is true there is no Salvation outside of the Church as St. Cyprian of Carthage put it. But what this means is whoever is saved is saved by Christ and His Church, not through Buddha or some other figure, nor from some other religion. But it does not mean that only Catholics will be saved (that’s the heresy of Feeneyism, condemned at the direction of Pope Pius XII). In fact, Even before the First Vatican Council, Pope Pius IX spoke on the possibility of those outside the Church being saved. In Singulari Quidem #7, he said, “Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control.”

Vatican II reaffirmed the necessity of those who know of the necessity of the Church to enter and remain within it: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (Lumen Gentium #14). The Church recognizes (Lumen Gentium #16) that those who never received knowledge of Christ might be saved when they seek to do right, but…

[O]ften men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

In other words, we don’t despair of people who die who are ignorant of Christ and His Church through no fault of their own, but to save them from falling into evil ways or despair, we have to reach out to them. What many people think is indifferentism, is actually a discussion of what is and is not humanly possible in carrying out Our Lord’s work.

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

This is just one example I’ve encountered over the years. People pull one quote off of a site which portrays it as contradicting a later statement (which actually clarify what the earlier statement means) and go on their merry way wrongly believing the Church today is in error and trying to persuade others of this misinformation. The problem is, there’s no real effort made to understand what the Church has taught and how she has deepened her teaching. Likewise, when they encounter something that doesn’t square up with how they interpret these out of context quotes, they assume the other must be in error, not themselves.

The problem is, this is vincible or culpable ignorance, not the invincible ignorance a person who has never accurately encountered the teaching of the Church might possess. As Catholics belong to the Church established by Christ, shepherded by the successors of the Apostles, we don’t have an excuse when we reject that authority. Yes, individual bishops can reject the authority of the Church and promote error (as the early centuries of Church history show), but the safe path has always been with those shepherds who follow the Bishop of Rome. Whenever a Pope has believed an error, it was always a private error and never a binding teaching. 

And that’s why a little knowledge is dangerous. People ignorant of the history of Popes Liberius, Vigilius, and Honorius I cite them as “proof” that a Pope can be a heretic and “teach error,” even though they never taught error and historians are divided over whether they ever held it. Such people wrongly believe John XXII “taught” heresy on the beatific vision, even though he did not teach (he did mention it in two homilies), and the issue was not defined until his successor, Benedict XII decided to settle the issue.

Unfortunately, some Catholics choose to undermine the teaching of the Church by embracing arguments that attack the authority Our Lord gave the Church. That’s dangerous because when one has a difficulty, we have an obligation to investigate it, and not let it fester into a doubt. That doesn’t mean that Catholics must abandon their families, live as monks and study obscure documents. God understands our limitations in our vocational obligations or ability to study and doesn’t expect us to do the impossible. But He does expect us to put faith in Him and the Church He established, offering obedience (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16, John 14:15) when the shepherds teach in communion with the successor of Peter. When we find a difficulty, we ought to seek an answer while trusting in God to protect His Church.

Conclusion

The teaching of the Church is vast. For example, I read theology for pleasure as well as for study, and even I discover new things every day on how the teaching can be applied. There are many in the Church wiser and more knowledgable than me and they too discover new things every day. None of these discoveries have ever shown the magisterium of the Church going from “X is a sin” to “X is permissible.” That might surprise the person who has wrongly believed that Pope Francis “contradicts Church teaching.” But this false belief comes from being ignorant of what the present Pope really said, being ignorant of what his predecessors really said, or (often) both.

What we need to remember is God has been protecting His Church. He has protected us from wicked Popes changing teaching to justify their behavior. He has protected the Church from Popes making a teaching out of erroneous materials, even when not teaching ex cathedra[§]. This protection did not end in 1958 (when St. John XXIII became Pope), 1962 (when Vatican II began), 1965 (when it ended), or 2013 (when Pope Francis was elected). If there was ever a time when this protection was withdrawn, Our Lord’s promises in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 28:20 would be false (a blasphemous charge) and we could never know when the Church was teaching wrongly. Those who hate the Church have argued for centuries that they are right and the Church has fallen into error. If Vatican II could teach error, why not Trent? If Blessed Paul VI could teach error in promulgating the Missal of 1970, why not St. Pius V in promulgating the Missal of 1570?

We must stop assuming the fault is with the Church when the magisterium teaches differently than we think the Church should teach. We need to ask whether our limited knowledge is the cause of this error, and seek to learn from sources which remain faithful to the Church today, and not those sources adversarial to her. Otherwise we risk the ruin of souls through our vincible ignorance.

 

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[†] Ironically, critics of the Pope seem to have forgotten the quote since Pope Francis became Pope. Their quote-mining would indict them for refusing to follow what they demanded before.

[§] For example, when Blessed Paul VI called a commission to study whether the Pill was contraception or not [Because it didn’t work like barrier methods, the question was whether it was legitimate like medicine], nobody knew that the Pill had an abortifacient effect. If the Ordinary Magisterium (which some Catholics wrongly believe can be error-prone) had ruled it was not contraceptive, we could have wound up with the Church approving an abortifacient while condemning abortion

Friday, February 17, 2017

Thoughts on Difficulties and Doubt

Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of religion; I am as sensitive as any one; but I have never been able to see a connexion between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There of course may be difficulties in the evidence; but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines, or to their compatibility with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a particular answer is the true one. Of all points of faith, the being of a God is, to my own apprehension, encompassed with most difficulty, and borne in upon our minds with most power.

 

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), 264–265.

Introduction

Let’s begin with a personal anecdote: Sometimes I come across difficulties with parts of Scripture and theology. I ask myself How does THAT work? Whether it’s some harsh passages of the Old Testament, or when a Pope or a Saint says something that seems different from my understanding of how things fit together, it can be jarring. Then there’s always the example of Catholics behaving badly throughout history, I have an ideal on what the Church should be, and I compare that to the real life example if actual Catholics, and find that even heroic Catholics have done troubling things.

But while I have difficulties at times, I have never had any doubt about the authority of Church teaching or Our Lord’s protecting the Church from error. So I submit to the teaching of the Church, trusting  that however God might judge an issue, it will be done in a way that reflects His justice and mercy both. I would certainly resent any accusations that I denied or doubted the teaching of the Church because of my difficulties on comprehending how a teaching works. Why? Because I do not reject the teaching as I try to understand it better.

I believe that if I were to doubt the mercy of God or the teaching of the Church on a matter, I would soon find myself at odds with both God and His Church. I would be making myself the arbiter of what should be where I presume to pass judgment on things I have no right to do so. I think those paying attention to what goes on in our faith are aware of the factionalism arising in the Church. We’ve been seeing the anti-Francis attacks since the day he became Pope which assumes what he does differently is “heretical.” Sadly, we’re seeing an emerging position that declares all persons who oppose the Pope must be “schismatic.” I think both of these movements confuse difficulty and doubt, either in their own minds or in the behavior of others, and we need to discern the real difference to avoid the twin dangers of losing faith by harboring doubts, and the rash judgment of assuming another’s difficulty is a doubt.

Doubt from Ourself

I think we harbor doubt when what we see something we do not understand and assume something must be wrong with it because we’re not comfortable with how it sounds. If we’ve invested in a certain opinion or school of thought, then a shift of emphasis sounds like “error” instead of a legitimate change of how we approach something. If we take this difficulty and assume the Church must have gone wrong, we are harboring a doubt in the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error. In a similar way, when we try to find reasons to deny that a teaching we dislike is actually a teaching, we are harboring doubts about the authority of the Church to bind and loose.

These and similar attitudes to these lead to doubting that what the Church teaches is done with God’s authority and with His assurance that He will not permit the Church to teach us error. Once we embrace this doubt, we will replace trust in God with trust in ourselves, thinking that if the Church does not act as we see fit, she must be in error.

Assuming Doubt in Others

On the other hand, some assume that a difficulty with a teaching automatically equals a rejection of that teaching. A person who voices their concern with how people might misinterpret a Church teaching (while accept the validity of that teaching) is not doubting. Yes, we want to avoid legalism in following Church teaching, but one can wrestle with understanding what the teaching means and one’s limited capacity to understand (and by being human, we do have a limited capacity).

One example I see with this, is in the recent attacks on Cardinal Burke in Social media comments. I have seen some Catholics treat him with the same abusiveness that anti-Francis Catholics direct at the Pope. But, regardless of what thinks about how he’s handled things or how his supporters have used/misused his words, much of what he says and does seems based on difficulties in reconciling the teaching authority of the Pope with his understanding on the Church teaching on marriage—but he does not doubt either one. While I don’t approve of how he handled the issue of the dubia, he denies the Pope is in heresy, and should not be treated as a schismatic that rejects the authority of the Pope along the lines of Canon 751.

Conclusion

I think we need to remember our limitations. The fact that we have difficulties reconciling two teachings of the Church does not mean one must be false. But, if we try to downplay one in the name of defending our conception of the Church, that is a warning that we are harboring a doubt. At the same time, when we see people expressing a misgiving, we should be certain they are actually harboring a doubt before accusing them of doing so. They just might be trying to accept the truth but are having trouble in understanding how to do so. We must be careful in not being the stumbling block that turns their difficulty to doubt.

So let us avoid turning difficulty to doubt by remembering that while our own knowledge and power are finite, God’s knowledge and power are not—and He can and will protect His Church. And let us avoid accusing a fellow Christian of doubting if all he is doing is working his way through a difficulty. If such a one submits to the authority of the Church while struggling to understand, we should help them, not attack them.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Losing the Sense of Sin: A Reflection

Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin. Smother that, deaden it — it can hardly be wholly cut out from the heart of man — let it not be awakened by any glimpse of the God-man dying on Golgotha’s cross to pay the penalty of sin, and what is there to hold back the hordes of God’s enemy from over-running the selfishness, the pride, the sensuality and unlawful ambitions of sinful man? (Pope Pius XII)

The words of Pope Pius XII about the greatest sin being the loss of the sense of sin is a good warning for our times, but I wonder if we actually consider the fullness of what it implies. For years I interpreted it as an indictment of modern psychology and sociology denying morality in general. No doubt that is one aspect of it. But I’ve begun to wonder if there’s more to it than that. It seems to me that there’s another aspect to it, and that aspect is, “others sin, but I don’t—at least not in important ways.” That kind of mindset allows us to be religious, but focussing on the sins of others and never asking whether God is just as offended with us as he is with others. That’s dangerous because, if we think this way, we don’t examine our consciences seriously and don’t repent of what we do—except superficially.

This temptation can be found in all different factions—and the danger is to only see it only in them, not us. It’s easy to do. We might ask, “Why does the Church speak out on X (whatever we think is minor, or perhaps justified) but not on Y (what others do, but we don’t)?” The conservative Catholic might think of X as social justice, and Y as sexual morality. The liberal Catholic might think of X as sexual morality and Y as social justice. The Church speaks on evils involving both, but we tend to resent it when the Church teaching jogs our conscience and tells us we have to change.

He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. 10 “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ 13 But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14).

I think the hostility of the Pharisees to Jesus serves as a good example for our own hostility. The Pharisees sought to live what they thought was a pure life pleasing to God. I don’t think we can doubt their sincerity. The problem was, they lost sight of the fact that they needed to repent as well. So, when Jesus spoke to them in parables showing that they were falling short, they responded with anger. After all, they were trying to live rightly! The tax collectors weren’t even trying! Why didn’t Jesus speak against them! But instead, Jesus told them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. (Matthew 21:31b)” He didn’t say that because He was morally lax and wanted to change teaching. He said that because the one who knows he is a sinner and wants to repent will enter Heaven before the self-righteous who thinks he doesn’t need to change.

Pharisee and Tax collector

Yes, we do need to speak out on sin to the world that has been deceived to think that guilt over sin is merely a psychological disorder. But we also have to look to ourselves and consider how we have acted against what God calls us to be, constantly repenting and rejecting what is against His will. We must do this regardless of what the world does. We certainly cannot say that we’re fine because we’re not as bad as them (whoever we consider “them” to be).

As long as we cannot do this, we will be like the Pharisee who lost the sense of his personal sin.