Sunday, May 1, 2016

Do We Follow the Church or Does the Church Just Happen to Agree With Us?

24 “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. 26 And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”  (Matthew 7:24–27).


*  *  *


18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18–19)


Some people become or stay Catholics because they agree that the Church has the authority to teach and give their assent to that teaching. Others become or stay Catholics because they find her position on certain topics compatible with their own. The former is like a house built on rock, the latter is like a house built on sand. Like the houses in Our Lord’s parable, the one built on sand faces ruin.

Why do I say this? Because the Church is simultaneously gifted with Our Lord’s authority (Luke 10:16) and protected from teaching error (Matthew 16:18. Matthew 28:19-20) on one hand and filled with sinful people who need salvation on the other. So when the Church teaches and we dislike the teaching, or if we get scandalized by the bad behavior of some churchmen, the only thing that will keep us on the right path is faith that God protects His Church. If we treat our affiliation with the Church like a political affiliation, what will we do when the Church goes in a direction we don’t like?

Oh noes(probably this...)

Let’s face it. Some parts of Church history were pretty ugly with corruption or weakness. People expecting every past Pope acting like their favorite Pope will find themselves  disappointed and sometimes appalled. Yet, those flaws did not change the truth of her teaching. Popes committing sins condemned by the Church does not change the truth of her teachings.

In the same way, the Church teaches consistently from age to age, but the emphasis she gives in carrying them out can change with changing circumstances. Sometimes certain situations arise that are new. How does the Church apply her teachings to them? Sometimes the relationship between Church and State changes. Ways of evangelizing that worked in a pre-industrial Europe where all Christians were Catholics will not be effective in a 21st century computerized and secularized world.

With both cases, people who like the way the Church handled things in one era are shocked when seeing a change, thinking it a contradiction. If people are part of the Church simply because they like her views and not because they believe the Church received Our Lord’s authority to bind and loose, then a time will come when they do not want to go in the direction the Church teaches we must go. When that happens, they rebel. This rebellion might not result in formal schism or heresy. But they will believe they are right and the Church is wrong.

This is how we get contradictory reactions. Some believe the Church is too conservative and defy her teachings on morality. Others think she is too liberal and defy her teachings on social justice. Both make themselves judges against the Church when it comes to right and wrong. But judging the Church as conservative or liberal misses the point. God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. He is neither a modernist nor a traditionalist. When we judge things from what we like, we miss the point of what the Church is.

The Church is our mother and teacher. Our mother because she cares for us, our teacher because she guides us to follow Our Lord faithfully. Our Lord will not let corrupt members hijack her message. If He did, we could never know when we could trust Church teaching. If God doesn’t protect the Church under Pope Francis, how can we know if He protected the Church under St. Pius X? If we deny God protected the Church under Vatican II, how can we know whether He protected the Church under the Council of Trent? This works both ways. The “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholic who rejects the past has no basis for invoking the present because the authority of Vatican II depends on the authority God gave His Church from the beginning.

This is why we must look at our attitudes. If we think of Church teaching as liberal vs. conservative, we make the Church into a merely human institution. When we think it goes wrong, we lobby for change. But if her teaching comes from God, then our antics are not lobbying but rebellion.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Quick Quips: Bulletproof Personal Infallibility

It’s time for some more short observations on topics. I write this set about the rebellion against the magisterium and how we excuse it when we find ourselves in the wrong. We do this so well that whenever the Church teaches something we dislike, we automatically treat it as proof of their error. 

Double Standards Make Us Hypocrites

Dual hypocrisy2

When it comes to people citing Scripture or Church teaching in a partisan attack, it always gets quoted in a way which condemns an opponent but ignores one's own transgressions. The liberal Catholic points to Scripture or Church teaching about charity and care for the poor, condemning his conservative opponent for hypocrisy. But he ignores them on morality. Likewise, the conservative Catholic points out what they have to say about living rightly, but ignores them on the topic of mercy. 

Both of them take pleasure in accusing the other of being bad Christians but both behave hypocritically. They edit Scripture Church teaching to what pleases them and ignore the parts they violate. Our Lord gets transformed into an endorsement of a theological or political position. The problem is, our faith calls us to be both moral and charitable; both just and merciful. If we only obey the faith we profess when it suits us, we disobey and cause scandal to non-believers who can plainly see our hypocrisy.

This does not mean we treat our faith as a checklist of laws to follow. What it means is we must constantly check our behavior and consider whether we are blind to our own wrongdoing. When we discover wrongdoing, we must seek to amend our lives and make use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation when needed. It means we must stop making ourselves into Popes and start listening to what the Church’s teaching authority tells us of right and wrong.

If we fail to do that, our actions declare God’s Word and His Church superfluous. When they agree with us, we don’t need them; when they disagree with us, they’re wrong. Who needs a Church that is unnecessary or wrong? If we want to truly bear witness to our faith, let us seek to live all parts of it out of love for Our Lord.

Casting Pearls Before Swine

When it comes to attacking the Church (whether from an anti-Catholic, a radical traditionalist or a liberal dissenter), there is a widely used tactic. This tactic is to take a personal interpretation of the words of the Bible, the Pope or another magisterial document and treat that personal interpretation as if it was the truth and no other interpretation was possible. When the Catholic defending the faith objects to the interpretation, the attacker claims the defender is willfully ignorant and trying to explain away “the truth.” If the defender speaks imprecisely, they pounce and twist words to portray him as holding a position he never held.  If the defender points out that the attacker is factually wrong, the attacker ignores the refutation and continues repeating the same point until the defender gives up in disgust. When the defender does finally walk away, the attacker claims victory, and says nobody could refute their argument.

In terms of reason and logic, this is a sham. There is no dialogue to find truth. The attacker has made up their mind and is only interested in bashing people over the head. It’s simply a case of harassment. When targeted with this tactic, our response should show people of good will what we believe. We should not get into endless debates with people who confuse interpretation of texts with the texts themselves. They’ll just treat the attacks on their interpretations as attacks on the teaching itself.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

A couple of weeks back, I was visiting my father and we watched some Blue Bloods on Netflix. One of those episodes caught my attention. It involved a police officer accused of brutality. Because his bodycam stopped working during the crucial part of the altercation, activists accused him of turning it off. During the episode, the police chief and some of his staff debated bodycams. The police chief said what he disliked about them was they testified to the fact that people presumed the police officer was lying unless there was proof to the contrary.

In the real world, we can (and do) argue about real police brutality and whether they prove a national problem, a regional problem or individual problems, but the program made a good point. It’s unjust to automatically assume one group is guilty until proven innocent. But I’m not going to argue about the police. I write about the Church and morality, after all. What I want to explore is tying together how the above musings illustrate how we assume the Pope and bishops in communion with him are in error unless proven otherwise. 

When the Pope or a bishop speaks about a moral obligation where we’re in the wrong, we respond by questioning their orthodoxy. When the Pope or a bishop speaks in a way when there is more than one interpretation, we choose the one that agrees with what we think. When we want our bad behavior justified, we pick an interpretation favoring it. When we want to disobey the Pope’s teaching on a subject, we choose the interpretation making him look bad. We never ask whether we’re in the wrong. 

As Catholics, we believe Our Lord founded the Church and gave her His authority. We believe He promised to be with the Church always and protect her from error—so long as we happen to agree with the Church. But once we disagree, we presume the Church is guilty of error unless she uses a precise phrasing saying no more and no less than what we demand as refutation. Of course, we make ourselves the judge of that evaluation, so we are never in the wrong.

When we do this, we become just as hypocritical as the people we denounce for disobeying the parts of Church teaching we follow. We don’t bear witness to Our Lord and we don’t evangelize. Instead we tell people they can do whatever they will, excusing their own behavior and condemning the behavior they dislike. Perhaps the first thing to do to evangelize our nation again is to start with our own repentance.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Persecution: American Style

Western nations attacking Christians don’t normally use the violent, brutal attacks we associate with the term “persecution.” Because of that, it is easy to pretend that Western Christians are not targeted for their beliefs. But that’s the fallacy of relative privation. The fact that attacks on Christians in Country A are far worse than harassment of Christians in Country B does not mean the situation in Country B is not unjust.

In the West, attacks on Christians begin over teachings against popular vices. Foes portray Christian opposition to moral wrongs as hating the people who commit them. Then they accuse Christians of violating an esteemed cultural value out of bad will. These accusations justify laws (or, more commonly, executive action and court rulings) against the alleged wrongdoing of Christians. When Christians insist on obeying their faith despite unjust laws, foes harass them by Criminal and Civil complaints aimed at forcing compliance. 

Political and cultural elites argue that the injustice is just a consequence of Christians doing wrong. If they would abandon their “bigotry,” they would not face legal harassment. The problem is, they accuse us of wrongdoing, but we are not guilty of wrongdoing. We deny that we base our moral beliefs on the hatred of people who do what we profess is wrong. They must prove their accusation. People cannot simply assume it is true.

In response, foes bring up the bigoted behavior of a few who profess to be Christians. The Westboro Baptist Church was a popularly cited bugbear before the group fell into obscurity. They argue that groups like this prove bigotry on the part of Christians. This means that those who deplore stereotypes stereotype us. They claim (and we agree) that people can’t assume all Muslims are terrorists or that all Hispanics are illegal aliens just because some are. But they do use fringe group Christians to argue all Christians are bigots.

To avoid guilt in this persecution, Americans must learn that our believing certain acts are morally wrong does not mean we hate those who do those acts. Yes, some Christians confuse opposing evil with hating evil-doers. You condemn them. But so do we. Just behavior demands you investigate accusations against Christians, not assuming our moral beliefs are proof of our guilt and claiming the only defense is to renounce our beliefs.

Please, do not try to equate our moral objections with America’s shameful legacy of slavery and segregation. We don’t deny the human rights of any sinner—for then we would have to deny them to ourselves—but we do deny that law can declare a sinful act the same as a morally good act. Do not assume we want to reinstate laws and punishments from past centuries to punish sinners. We’re also shocked by what nations saw as necessary to deter crime that harmed society [1]. But saying theft is wrong does not mean we think chopping off the hands of a thief is right. Even when an act is evil, there can be unjust and disproportionate punishments in response.

Also, please do not assume that your lack of knowledge of what we believe and why we believe it means we have no justification but bigotry when we say things are wrong, Just because a foe cannot imagine why we believe X is wrong does not mean we have no valid reason. I can speak only as a Catholic [I leave it to the Orthodox and Protestants to explain their own reasons when it differs with the Catholic reasoning] but we do have 2000 years of moral theology looking into acts, why they are wrong and what to remember for the moral considerations about personal responsibility. Our goal is not coercion or punishment. Our goal is reconciling the sinner with God. That means turning away from wrongdoing and doing what is right.

Foes may say they think our ideas of morality are wrong. But if they believe we are wrong, then they have an obligation to show why they are right and we are wrong—with the same obligation to answer criticisms of their claims that they demand of us. They cannot accuse us of “forcing views on others” and then demand we accept their views without question. That’s not the values America was founded over. That’s partisan hypocrisy worthy of the old Soviet Union, and should have no part in American discourse.

 

 

______________________

[1] Of course, remember that France as a secular nation did not abolish the guillotine until 1980, so perhaps we shouldn’t think we’re so far ahead of those times as we would like to think?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thoughts on Catholic Moral Teaching and Law

When people attack the Catholic Church and her teaching on morality, they point to laws in past eras that were brutal by our standards. They argue that these past laws show that the teaching that "X is a sin” caused brutal punishments. That presumes law and morality are the same, which is false. Not all sins are against the law, and sometimes law interferes with moral behavior. St. Thomas Aquinas makes this distinction:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and suchlike.

 

 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, STh., I-II q.96 a.2 resp. trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne,).

In other words, Not every sin was against the law in Christian societies. Morality distinguishes between right and wrong behavior. Morality tells what we must do or must not do regardless of what the law says. If theft is wrong, then we must not steal even if the law allows it. But while morality deals with what we must or must not do, law deals with what penalty we give when people violate morality in such a way that harms human society. Morality does not change over time, but laws can change over time.

Morality does not change from saying “X is good” to “X is wrong.” Theft was wrong a thousand years ago, is wrong today, and will be wrong a thousand years from now. Even so, law from a thousand years ago based on the morality that theft is wrong was different than the law today and the law based on that morality a thousand years from now will be different from the law today. We can and must adjust law when situations merit a gentler response, provided that gentler response is just.

For example, the use of the Death Penalty is not unjust by nature. But when society and technology advances to the point that the criminal can be safely contained without using it, then we can adjust the law so the death penalty is not easily applied. The change of the law does not mean Church teaching on the death penalty is wrong. It means we can adjust the law when the death penalty is not needed to protect the innocent from the criminal.

That’s assuming that the law is based on morality. Sometimes it comes from the vicious customs of a society. For example, slavery, lynching and segregation in the United States, Even though America began as a Christian nation, they adopted vicious customs which had been already condemned by the Church. For example, the Church condemned the reemergence of slavery in 1435—long before the Europeans encountered the New World. Despite this fact, unjust laws continued to treat blacks as property and even some Catholics in the United States owned slaves (just as how some Catholics support abortion today).

Often times, laws stayed in place from before a nation became Christian. Burning at the stake was a pagan Germanic practice. So were trials by ordeal. Catholics did not invent them. Should Christians have changed them? Yes. Do they show that some high ranking Catholics did wrong things? Yes. Do these things show that Catholics were worse than others? They absolutely do not! What they tell us is Christians can be as blind to cultural vices as everyone else.

When it comes to crafting or reforming law, we need to remember three things:

  1. We must be aware of objective right and wrong. 
  2. We must know which wrongs harm society.
  3. We must assess the proportionate penalty for doing wrongs that harm society.

The Church does these things. She teaches us what right and wrong are. She warns us of wrongs harming society. She also speaks out against laws that are unjustly harsh or lenient. Unfortunately today, just as in the past, some Catholics have not kept these things in mind and instead passed laws which fail one or more of these criteria. But what people overlook is that the Church also expands our moral knowledge. In applying it to new situations, the Church brings us to deeper understandings we did not have in past centuries.

We cannot create just laws by eliminating our Christian moral roots. We can only create them by being vigilant, studying why things are right or wrong and finding just ways of protecting society from harm.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Pope Francis, Mercy, and Misrepresentation

Chesterton orthodoxy

Introduction

Those who think the Pope’s emphasis on mercy supports laxity—whether critics or people who wrongly hope for change of teaching—misunderstand what mercy is. I find that Bishop Robert Barron has a good response, rejecting that view:

Many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer matters. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness.

Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 199-201). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.

His response is a good one. Jesus showed mercy to sinners. He did not tell the that their sins did not matter. The Pope doesn’t tell people that their sins do not matter either. What the Pope does say is it is not enough to tell people what is wrong. We also have to help them get back to what is right.

The Error of Contrast

While I reject the misrepresentation of Pope Francis, I do understand how they got to that point. His predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, had to take on a world openly hostile to the Catholic moral teaching, especially on sexual morality and the sanctity of life. These two Popes spoke to the world, showing why its values were harmful. The world, in response, misrepresented these Popes as caring only “about rules” while ignoring human suffering. They downplayed what these Popes had to say about mercy and love.

The error people make about Pope Francis is they assume his emphasis on bringing sinners back to a true relationship with God is contradicting his predecessors instead of complementing them. His critics and those who wrongly hope he is changing teaching and practice fall into the either-or fallacy. They assume Popes either emphasize teaching or emphasize mercy. The problem with looking at things this way is you will equate mercy with laxity instead of with love, and as Bishop Barron points out, "Mercy is what love looks like when it turns toward the sinner.” [*]

Our problem in looking at mercy as laxity is it is like wearing a defective pair of glasses. It distorts what we see until we take them off. People have to go past their perception of what they think is there and seek what really is. That means becoming self-aware of our flaws and learning more about the depth of our Catholic teaching, instead of assuming that what we know is that depth.

Confusing Interpretation With Assumption of Meaning

People who don’t do this have gone badly wrong about Pope Francis. They see quotes like “Who am I to judge?” and “I could say ‘yes,' and that’s it” [†] but do not see those words in context. They use “Who am I to judge?” to claim the Pope sees same sex activity as morally acceptable, and “I could say ‘yes,’ and that’s it” as encouraging the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist.

But theology doesn’t work that way. You can’t just take a single verse of Scripture or a line from the Pope’s words and contrast it with a single line from an earlier document. That ignores context. Nothing taught by the Church exists in a vacuum. Whether it is an anti-Catholic citing “Call no man father” (see Matthew 23:9) or a person citing footnote 351 in Amoris Lætitia, or a Papal Press Conference, one cannot build a claim around one quote. We have to investigate context and intention to see how it is intended.

Peter Kreeft described it this way in a Socratic dialogue:

Socrates: I think you are confusing belief with interpretation.

Flatland: No, I'm just saying we have to interpret a book in light of our beliefs.

Socrates: And I'm saying we must not do that.

Flatland: Why not?

Socrates: If you wrote a book to tell other people what your beliefs were, and I read it and interpreted it in light of my beliefs, which were different from yours, would you be happy?

Flatland: If you disagreed with me? Why not? You're free to make up your own mind.

Socrates: No, I said interpreted the book in light of my beliefs. For instance, if you wrote a book against miracles and I believed in miracles, and I interpreted your book as a defense of miracles, would you be happy?

Flatland: Of course not. That's misinterpretation.

Socrates: Even if it were my honest belief?

Flatland: Oh, I see. We have to interpret a book in light of the author's beliefs, and criticize it in light of our own.

Socrates: Precisely. Otherwise we are imposing our views on another.

Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 749-755). Kindle Edition.

So, if Pope Francis does not intend for his teachings to justify things people accuse him of justifying, they are making an error by assuming their belief is what he meant.

Exploring context does not mean “explaining away what he said.” It is investigating whether an opinion about the Pope’s intention is accurate If it is not, we must stop repeating the allegation as if it were true. That’s why we can’t accept the rushed mainstream media and anti-Francis blogs as true. By quoting things without considering the context, they cannot provide a trustworthy analysis of what the Pope intends.

Amoris Lætitia, Evangelii Gaudium and Footnotes 

Let’s look at one example where people are arguing about What It All Means when it all revolves from one point taken out of context. That item is Footnote #351 from Amoris Lætitia. People are arguing over one point in that footnote:  "I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).” People who interpret that as justifying Eucharist for the divorced/remarried (whether they favor it or oppose it) argue that the Pope was talking about the divorced and remarried in ¶305. From that, they accuse him of changing teaching or practice. But ¶305 is not dealing with changing rules about Sacraments. It is about priests not just reciting rules and assuming that all people in the same situation share the same level of culpability. It is about considering the culpability of the individual.

Evangelii Gaudium ¶47 (referenced in Amoris) happens to be about the fact that even Catholics who are living in opposition to Church teaching are not cut off entirely from the Church, and should join in at the level which is allowed to them. This section of Evangelii has its own footnote which references two early Christian Fathers on one not staying away from the Eucharist just because he is a sinner. [§]. But we can know Pope Francis does not use these citations to justify reception of the Eucharist. In his press conference returning from Mexico, he spoke this way:

Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration. And those two were happy. They used a very beautiful expression: we don’t receive Eucharistic communion, but we receive communion when we visit hospitals and in this and this and this. Their integration is that. 

In other words, when asked what he meant by integration, he explicitly said that it did not automatically mean “Eucharist.” When Pope Francis speaks of a path, he means exactly that. It’s a path back to reconciliation with God. That path calls priests and bishops to go beyond citing rules and helping sinners reconcile with God through a process. Some people may be in situations where they can receive the Eucharist.

Here’s an example. When the synod process began, I met many angry women on Facebook. They were angry because they were unjustly divorced by their husbands, and thought it not receiving the Eucharist was unjust. As the comments continued, we discovered something. Some of those women had never  remarried. They stayed away from the sacraments because they thought divorce alone barred them. They were amazed to discover they were never denied the Eucharist to begin with.

Not everybody is in an easy fix situation. But not all situations are impossible to reconcile with people of good will seeking to make things right. Even in situations where the person will not change their relationship, the Pope says not to give up on them. They’re still part of the Church even if their situation prevents them from receiving the Eucharist. As he wrote in Amoris Lætitia ¶309,

The Bride of Christ must pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who goes out to everyone with- out exception”.358 She knows that Jesus himself is the shepherd of the hundred, not just of the ninety-nine. He loves them all. On the basis of this realization, it will become possible for “the balm of mercy to reach everyone, believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst”. 

In that parable, the shepherd was not content with the 99 sheep that did not stray. He went after the 100th sheep that strayed. That is what this chapter of the Apostolic Exhortation is about. Not permitting sin. It’s about finding and helping those who did stray back to the flock.

Conclusion: Avoiding Eisegesis and Circular Reasoning

To accuse the Pope of promoting “Communion for the Divorced and Remarried,” a person must start with a preconceived notion that the Pope intends to do this.It’s begging the question, assuming something is true when accusers need to prove their claim. With this fallacy, every bit of “evidence” against the Pope entirely depends on the accusation being true—which is what we insist they prove first before we accept it. If one does not read personal assumptions into the Pope’s words and actions, what he says and does is entirely in keeping with his predecessors and what the Church has always taught.

People believe the Pope is heterodox because they interpret his words as changing the Church teaching in a break from what cannot change. The problem is, they interpret his words as being a break from unchangeable teaching because they believe the Pope is heterodox. That’s arguing in a circle. Each part depends on the other, but neither part stands on its own. Mistrust of the Holy Father builds into a monstrous falsehood that destroys people’s trust in God protecting His Church. We must reject this spurious reasoning that undermines the Holy Father and stop claiming his calls for mercy are calls for laxity.

 

______________________

[*] (Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 615-616). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition).

[†] Some Catholics have taken the translation of the Italian word Punto as finality ignoring everything he said after.

[§] Footnote 51 of Evangelii Gaudium reads: 

Cf. Saint Ambrose, De Sacramentis, IV, 6, 28: PL 16, 464: “I must receive it always, so that it may always forgive my sins. If I sin continually, I must always have a remedy”; ID., op. cit., IV, 5, 24: PL 16, 463: “Those who ate manna died; those who eat this body will obtain the forgiveness of their sins”; Saint Cyril of Alexandria, In Joh. Evang., IV, 2: PG 73, 584–585: “I examined myself and I found myself unworthy. To those who speak thus I say: when will you be worthy? When at last you present yourself before Christ? And if your sins prevent you from drawing nigh, and you never cease to fall—for, as the Psalm says, ‘what man knows his faults?’—will you remain without partaking of the sanctification that gives life for eternity?”

 

 Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Surreal World of Radical Traditionalism

Alice in Wonderland

Introduction

Membership in the Catholic Church is different from memberships in other religious groups. Unlike other religious bodies that simply insist on members accepting the authority of holy books or certain practices, the Catholic Church also insists her Pope and bishops are the successors to the Apostles and have the same authority which Our Lord gave to the Apostles. To reject the authority of the Pope and bishops is far more serious than a Presbyterian rejecting the authority of his minister. The Presbyterian can go to another denomination or to another church within his denomination and still be Protestant. But a Catholic who denies the teaching authority of the Pope and bishops has damaged their relationship with the Church we profess was founded by Christ.

That’s a serious matter. The person for whom membership in the Catholic Church is important, must justify rejecting the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him by arguing that he is not in opposition to the Church. Rather he is being faithful in larger matters. The people who do this have different motivations and political leanings. Some try to argue that the Church teaching is harsher than Our Lord ever intended and this justifies disobedience. But others claim that they follow the Catholic teaching as it was always practiced, claiming that the Church fell into error beginning with St. John XXIII and will be in error until the Church rejects Vatican II and all the changes which followed. This is the position of Radical Traditionalism.

Making Distinctions

Before continuing, we need to make some distinctions. A radical traditionalist differs from the Catholic who simply prefers the pre-Vatican II form of worship and devotion (commonly called “traditionalist.” [†] The traditionalist may wish the Church handled things differently, but recognizes the magisterium today has the authority to decide on these matters and seeks to obey despite misgivings over their prudence. The radical traditionalist rejects the authority of the magisterium when that authority challenges something they hold dear.

We need to remember that while all radical traditionalists are traditionalists, not all traditionalists are radical traditionalists. So we need to be careful not to assume that a Catholic who prefers the extraordinary form of the Mass must be guilty of disobedience. All A = B does not mean All B is A.

All a is b[Just because All A is B does not mean All B is A]

Radical traditionalists have many different factions. It ranges from people who stay within the Church while sniping at the Pope and bishops to those openly denying that the Pope is the Pope. Because of these factions, criticisms of the errors from the extreme side of radical traditionalism won’t apply to the “mainstream” versions, but all versions prefer their own interpretations to any teaching they disagree with. They claim to be the survival of truth within the Church while the Pope and bishops fall into error. They never assume that they fell into error. 

Begging the Question through Invented Theologies

To justify his claim, the radical traditionalist invents a theology that works this way. Based on the opinions of a few theologians who defended the Papacy in the 16th and 17th centuries, they claim that if a Pope teaches heresy his teachings cannot bind (some even claim this means he is no longer Pope). From that assumption, they argue that a difference exists between what the current Pope said and what the Church taught in earlier centuries. From that claimed difference, they claim the current Pope is a heretic. From this, they conclude with the argument that they can ignore (or sometimes, depose) the Pope.

The problem with this argument is this: It is the Begging the Question fallacy. The radical traditionalist takes as given several things which they have to prove before we can accept their claims as true.

  1. They have to prove that the theological positions in the writings of certain saints were more than just theological opinions.
  2. They have to prove that their interpretation of past Church documents are accurate and in keeping with magisterial interpretation
  3. They have to prove that their citation of past Church documents have the proper context
  4. They have to prove that their interpretation of Pope Francis is the same as his intention
  5. They have to prove that what Pope Francis intends to say is in fact error that contradicts past documents.
  6. They have to prove that they have authority in making these determinations.

They do none of these things. Instead they beg the question, appealing to their own non-magisterial interpretation against the magisterial interpretation of the Pope and bishops. But no matter how many arguments they make over how the Pope goes against an obscure document, they all assume exactly what they have to prove: That they, not the Pope, have properly understood the document. But only the Pope and bishops in communion with him can judge how to best apply past teaching documents to today’s situations. Not the layman. So, no matter how eloquent the radical traditionalist might be, they simply offer opinions, not authoritative teaching.

The Pope and Bishops, Not the Radical Traditionalists, Interpret and Apply Church Teaching

Once we recognize this, we can say about the radical traditionalist, “The emperor has no clothes.” He or she can't pass judgment on the Pope or bishops, or call them heretics. As St. John Paul II pointed out, radical traditionalism has a fundamental flaw. They have

...an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".

 

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

So, in the eyes of the Church herself, the person who rejects the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him is starting in error and ending in error. They can rage against the Pope for writing about social justice or how to help people in an invalid marriage, but their accusations of heresy have no authority. Canon 1404 tells us, “The First See is judged by no one.” Not a Council, not a personal interpretation of past Church documents.

Forgetting God’s Hand in the Church

Radical traditionalists falsely accuse other Catholics of “papolatry” when these Catholics insist on hearing the Pope and ignoring their accusations. They accuse us of believing the Pope cannot sin and of being blind because we say to the radical traditionalist, “You’re the one who is wrong.” But they forget what we remember: God is with His Church and protects her from teaching error. That’s vital. If the Church can bind error or loose sin, we can never know when she was right. We could only say we think she was right when we happen to agree.

But if God’s promised to be with the Church always (Matthew 28:20) and that the gates of hell will not prevail (Matthew 16:18), then we can have faith that He will protect the Church from allowing sin or forbidding moral obligations before God. That protection does not mean that old laws from the Papal States or certain condemnations given will be just. Those are not things that God protects from error. But God does command us to obey His Church (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17). Even if an individual Pope's personal behavior goes against our moral teaching, that does not remove his authority of binding and loosing (Matthew 23:2-3). 

The radical traditionalist has some bizarre ideas. He accepts that God prevented bad Popes like Benedict IX, John XII or Alexander VI from using their teaching office to justify their sins. But he assumes that Pope Francis uses his teaching office to approve error and sin left and right. So does God protect His Church or doesn’t He? The Catholic faith tells us He does, and Popes before 1958 [*] insisted on obedience to even the ordinary magisterium of the Church. For example, Pope Pius XII wrote in Humani Generis:

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

 

 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1939–1958 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), 178.

We can have faith in God to protect His Church or we can deny that He does. But God insists we obey the Church, and the Church has consistently taught that this obedience is not limited to a certain era. So we have a choice. We can either have faith that God will protect His Church from teaching error or we can pretend He does not when we dislike Church teaching. But God obliges us to obey the Pope when he intends to teach. We must obey God rather than men. God decrees we obey His Church. So to obey His Church is to obey Him and to reject His Church is to reject Him. Given that the radical traditionalist seeks excuses not to obey the Pope, we must say that their theology is counterfeit and has no authority over and against the Pope and bishops in communion with him..

 

_____________________________

[†] It’s important to make that distinction. Traditionalist ≠ Radical  Traditionalist. The traditionalist who faithfully follows the Church under the current Pope should not think I am indicting them alongside the radical traditionalist.

[*] The radical traditionalist usually believes there was a radical change in the Church beginning with the pontificate of St. John XXIII

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Seeking Truth: The Foolishness of "That's Just YOUR Opinion"

I find myself shaking my head in disbelief when I come across people who write off Catholic teaching with some variant of “that’s just your opinion.” I shake my head because rationally that means we can write off their views of right and wrong on the same grounds. If one rejects a Christian’s arguments on these grounds, one can reject the arguments of an atheist on the same grounds. Under those assumptions, we can’t find truth about anything and we can only use legal or physical force to compel anyone to accept something. It’s ironic that people who claim to champion reason and enlightenment should promote a throwback to “Do what I say or I will bash you with my club!"

It’s not surprising that people believe this tripe. I recall a teacher in High School once give us a couplet: "Opinions are never right or wrong. Opinions are only weak or strong.“ The couplet confuses “opinion” with “preference” or “feeling,” leading to people thinking that a religious view on abortion is no different than a preference for a flavor of ice cream. Many dictionaries give that interpretation to opinion as well. But that is only one of the meanings.

An opinion on matters of right and wrong, as Merriam-Webster describes it, “implies a conclusion thought out yet open to dispute.” This means that the value of the opinion depends on how it matches reality. A person may dispute what another says about right and wrong, but the value of the dispute also depends on how it fits reality. This means when people disagree on moral obligation, we have an obligation to investigate what is right, not simply dismissing what we dislike.

The problem is, the modern rejection of Christian morality is not based on truth or facts. Opponents distort Christian teaching and opponents accuse us of bad will (bigotry, etc.). Since opponents misrepresent our teachings and motives, they do not refute us. Nor do they prove we hate people belonging to certain groups popular with political and cultural elites. What they do is slander us, whether they do so out of ignorance or out of hostility.

To avoid slander or misrepresentation, people must investigate claims to see if a claim is true. If it is not true, we must stop repeating it. If it is true, we must act in accord with it. For example, when a culture learns that human beings are equal regardless of ethnicity, it can no longer treat some ethnicities as less than human. That means we must abandon slavery, segregation and racial hatred.

Those are obvious examples. Few people support those evils any longer. But people forget that today’s elites defend today’s evils in the same way that elites in past centuries defended slavery and segregation. For example, abortion denies the humanity of a fetus in the same way that slavery denied the humanity of a certain ethnicity. On the other hand, people assume moral objections against behaviors are the same thing as racism in the past. For example, some people see the Church opposing “same sex marriage” as the modern version of racism and segregation. But the Church does not see people with same sex attraction as less than human, nor justify mistreatment (legal, physical or in other ways) against them. 

What the Church does do is deny that de facto unions are the same thing as marriage, so we should not treat them like marriage. In making this denial, the Church offers definitions about the purpose of marriage and family. A person might disagree with how the Church defines these things, but one has to show that the Church speaks falsely in order to refute her. But proving that is not done by shouting words like “homophobe” or “bigot” (the common response).

Reason demands we examine the truth of claims and not shout down things we dislike hearing. If Catholics oppose abortion on the grounds that the unborn child is a human person, then accusing Catholics of being “anti-woman” is speaking falsely. If Catholics oppose “same sex marriage” on the grounds that marriage between one man and one woman open to the possibility of raising children is the basis of the family, it is wrong to use epithets like “homophobe” and “hateful."

Before anyone asks, yes, this means Christians must also use reason and examine truth, not shouting down opponents. Yes, some Christians do make the rest look bad by rashly judging motives and misrepresenting arguments. That is not how God calls us to behave. We must refute falsehood with truth, not with the tactics of those who hate us. An educated Catholic, faithful to the teachings of his Church will deplore the tactics of the Westboro Baptist Church as being unjust. If a Catholic should embrace those tactics, he does wrong.

But because the Church does oblige us to behave rightly, blaming the Church for those who behave wrongly is unjust. There is a difference between Catholics behaving hypocritically by ignoring Church teaching and Catholics behaving badly because they follow Church teaching. Assessing where blame lies calls for us to discover the truth in a situation, not merely assuming an unpopular opinion caused bad behavior.

But, doing that will force people to recognize that their accusations against the Church are false. That’s why people will continue to treat Catholic teaching as odious opinions instead of seeking the truth about us.