Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Voice of the Stranger

That the confusion exists is not disputed. The question is who determines what causes it and leads us out of it. Many Catholics argue that to end confusion, we should listen to what they say, and not listening to them is seen as “proof” that the one opposed is causing the confusion. But we would be foolish to accept the word of just any individual—no matter how appealing their words might seem to us.

If we would be faithful Catholics, we need to recognize that we do have designated shepherds who lead the flock. Jesus, of course, is the Good Shepherd who leads us. But He has made clear that certain people have authority to teach in His name (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and has made clear that rejecting them is rejecting Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). When there is a conflict between what the Church says and what critics of the Church say, the voice to follow is the voice of the magisterium, not the voice of the critic.

This sounds alien to 21st century sensibilities. We pride ourselves on being rational individuals and what we see must be true. From that, whatever does not match our perception must be wrong. We then argue that when the Church does not match our views, the Church must be in error. But that view is incompatible with what we must believe.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola listed some attitudes faithful Catholics must have. One of them is vital, but easily misinterpreted in modern times:

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises
The modern misinterpretation thinks this means that even if the Church should teach error, we need to follow it—and it offends people. But this isn’t what it means. What this means is: If we think something is “white” but the Church says it is “black,” we must trust the Church and realize that our own perception must be false. If we rely on our perception and deny the statement of the Church, then we are in error, no matter how sure of our senses we are. Unfortunately, people tend to confuse the teaching of the Popes with things that do not involve Papal authority. So, when a Pope gives an interview or a homily, there can be imprecision. There can be things where a Pope thinks he remembers something but has to go back later and check. These are not teachings. A Pope can make a mistake here and not be heterodox

The magisterium determines what is the proper interpretation of Scripture and Tradition and applies them to the needs of the time. The needs of the time may require a greater emphasis on mercy or a greater emphasis on discipline. But we don’t have one without the other, and an increased emphasis on one is not a contradiction or a betrayal.

This is why, when I encounter those who claim that a Pope is in error, or heretical or some sort of lost shepherd, I keep away. They claim to know the real truth about what the Church is supposed to believe. But in showing a (probably unintended) rejection of God protecting His Church, I can see that they do not speak with the voice of the Shepherd not His vicar. So I flee their voice as the sheep flee the voice of the stranger. No matter what the past reputation of the critic in defending the Church, the fact that they are questioning that teaching authority now shows that we cannot use them as helps to understanding the faith until they abandon the view that their perception takes precedence over what the Church says.

The teaching authority of the Church is the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. It is not the individual blogger, priest, bishop, or cardinal who chooses to take a position apart from that teaching authority. Whether it’s the language of worship, how we receive the Eucharist, how we interpret Amoris Lætitia, or other topics, the one who tries to downplay or undermine what the magisterium today teaches is the one who is the stranger’s voice.

Our Lord tells us that the one who does not go through the gate is a robber (John 10:1) and He is the gate (John 10:7). It seems to me reasonable to conclude that the one who seeks to teach the faithful to oppose those in authority (the magisterium) is that robber. They might be malicious or they might have good intentions. But if they reject what the Pope does instead of accepting the Church saying something is “black” where they think they see “white,” they cannot be considered speaking with the Shepherd’s voice

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Masquerading as an Angel of Light

(From The Spiritual Exercises)

With the rejection of the Pope almost reaching the level of overt schism, it is time to look at a forgotten tactic used by the devil—the appearance as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). The words of St. Paul and St. Ignatius of Loyola remind us that our desires to be holy can be corrupted and lead us to deceive ourselves and be deceived by others so we wind up actually doing the work of the devil while we think we are doing the work of the Lord.

Unfortunately, the temptation is being so focused on the evil things we expect those we oppose to do that we miss the devil deceiving us by appealing to our desire to be holy while actually urging us to follow our sinful habits. If the devil can get us to believe our disobedience is not really wrong, then it doesn’t matter how many rosaries we pray or what form of Mass we attend—for we are working against God and His Church.

I believe that the rise of anti-Francis websites and books are a sign of this corruption. I have no doubt that these people are sincere in their desire to defend the Church. But I believe the devil is whispering in their ear, emphasizing the things that anger them, stirring up their suspicions and listening to only those things that reinforce their preconceived notions.

“The Preaching of the Antichrist”
(It’s always wise to ask where the whispers come from...)

In the current time of the Church, I believe we are seeing the devil as an angel of light whispering in our ears and telling us that when the Church does not go the way we want, it is “proof” that the Church has gone wrong. But obedience to the Church is something Our Lord requires (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). To protect the Church from error in this obedience, Our Lord gives the Pope and the bishops in communion with Him—as successors to the apostles—the authority to bind and loose. Yes, we’ve had morally bad Popes, we’ve had cowardly Popes and we’ve had Popes with questionable orthodoxy personally. But we’ve never had a Pope who used his teaching office to teach error.

When Catholics claim the right to pass judgment on which teachings they will accept as binding, they would be wise to ask whether what is urging them on is really God. Since Our Lord gives His authority to the Church, it seems more likely that the angel of light that we think we see is nothing more than the devil seeking to deceive us into rebelling against the Church. Remember, if the devil can lead us to hell, it doesn’t matter to him if we’re pious in doing so.

Whether one is opposed to Pope Francis but loved his predecessors or loves Pope Francis while hating his predecessors, it is a rejection of the same authority given by God to the successor of St. Peter when one rejects the teaching of the Pope (see Canon 752).

And when you feel angry at the Church, thinking there’s no way that God would want you to listen to His vicar, just ask yourself whether that’s really from God or whether it’s a counterfeit, a devil masquerading as an angel of Light

Monday, March 5, 2018

False Narratives: Garbage In, Garbage Out

One temptation in life is to replace seeking and finding the truth with attaching ourselves to a narrative and following it—even if it leads to error. I suspect that the reader immediately thought of people they disagree with (I did, and I’m writing it). But the problem is, it is difficult to look at one’s own narrative with the same scrutiny. If our assumptions are false, the way we interpret events and motives will be useless and probably harmful.

We see these false narratives everywhere. Whether in religion or politics (and, tragically, we tend to confuse the two), we are tempted to take our preferences on how the world should work and treat any deviation from that preference as a proof that the person we disagree with is in error—and probably maliciously so.

For example, in the 2016 elections, we saw Catholics struggling over which candidate would do the least harm. Disagreement over this issue led to accusations that the person with a different view was openly supporting the evils of that candidate. Or, after the Parkland shooting, we saw Catholics accusing each other of willingness to let innocents die or willingness to let people become victims.

Or, in terms of the Catholic faith, we see people assume that their personal views on what Church teaching means are true, and whoever takes a different view—even if it is the Pope—must knowingly support error.

In each case the assumptions ran:

1. My views are correct
2. This person disagrees with me
3. Therefore, this person willingly supports error.

But the first premise must always be investigated. Even if we desire to be faithful to the Church, it does not follow that the interpretation we give is correct. The magisterium, led by the Pope and bishops in communion with him, determines the correct interpretation. To go against that interpretation is to show that one’s assumption is false.

The second premise’s relevance then depends on whether the first premise is true. If my views are objectively true, then disagreement is a concern: For example, because abortion is an intrinsic evil, a person who disagrees with Church teaching is doing wrong.  But if the person disagrees with the view that opposing abortion means supporting political platform X, that disagreement is not necessarily wrong.

The conclusion is only true if the person has accurately interpreted Church teaching and the opponent has knowingly rejected Church teaching. If the person has misinterpreted Church teaching or confused Church teaching with an opinion on interpretation then the first premise is false. If the person has wrongly confused disagreement with rejection of truth, then the second premise is irrelevant. In either case, the conclusion is unproven. (Remember, it’s possible that both opinions can be in error).

To avoid a false narrative, we constantly investigate whether our assumptions are true and whether there are other ways moral obligation can be legitimately applied. As Catholics, we believe—or are supposed to believe—that the Church authentically guides us on how we must live. But there are different ways we can legitimately apply Church teaching. If the person we disagree with uses one of those different ways (as opposed to trying to evade Church teaching), we cannot accuse them of error.

From “Dogma and Preaching”
[From “Dogma and Preaching”]

The false narrative we must reject is that our preferences are truth and that to reject our preference is to reject the truth. We can be mistaken about things: Whether about how Church teaching works [†] or about the motives of the person we disagree with. To avoid this, we must constantly seek the truth about what Church teaching means and what those we disagree with really hold.

Otherwise, we are the blind trying to lead the blind (Matthew 15:14) because we cannot see past the view that we might err. The old computer programming maxim applies here: Garbage In, Garbage Out. If we assume error to be true, or truth to be error, the conclusions we draw will be worthless, if not harmful.


[†] I reject the notion that the Church teaches error. While she can change disciplines, she will never go from teaching X is evil to X is allowed. Many critics of the Church confuse discipline with doctrine with disastrous results.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Proxy Wars: Replacing Moral Belief with Ideology

Whenever America is involved in a moral debate, whether a national tragedy or change in leadership, her people get into a dispute about what we must do. The goal we should strive for is to consider what we want to change and what needs to be done to achieve it. But instead of doing this, our tendency is to pick the “sacred cow” of of our preferred ideology and substitute it for this investigation. Then, if anyone should disagree with our solution, we accuse them of “not caring” and being willing to let the evil continue.

But this is unjust. The person who rejects an ideological solution might simply disagree with the means put forward and think another solution is superior. In that case, the infighting is counterproductive. It leads to nothing being done on the grounds that each thinks that the other solution has no value.

The other side of the coin is when a proposed solution is just, but threatens something else we support, the temptation is to downplay the value of that solution, claiming that it will not help us and might cause extra harm. 

These two things combined make finding the truth difficult. A legitimate solution can be attacked by those who don’t want to follow it, while supporters of an illegitimate solution can savage those with reasonable objections.

If we want to find a real solution, we have to be willing to set aside our ideological preferences and search for the truth about a situation. Once we find the truth, we can see what needs to be done in response. But if we start with our own preconceived notions on what must be done, more often than not our “one size fits all” solution won’t fit at all.

As Catholics must be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the city of the world (Matthew 5:13-16), we have no excuse for adding to this confusion. We believe that God forbade bearing false witness. This means we cannot demonize those who have a different idea on how to best carry out Church teaching [†]. Because we believe we have a Church established by Our Lord, given His authority, and protected from teaching error, we must listen to what the Church teaches and base our political views on that teaching.

Tragically, we tend to label those teachings we dislike as “prudential judgment” as if a prohibition against doing X was a mere opinion and we were free to do X. This negates our witness that we have the truth for the whole world. If we denounce others for rejecting Church teaching that we happen to agree with while ignoring Church teaching we are at odds with, we are hypocrites. While the world may not be very good at picking up truth, it’s uncomfortably good in spotting when we don’t practice what we preach.

So, when there is a tragedy, when there is an election, when there is some sort of national crisis, Catholics need to stop confusing their ideological preferences with seeking out and doing what is right. We can’t replace that with scapegoating and assuming that whoever does not support our ideological ideas must be acting out of bad will. We need to be willing to sacrifice our political preferences in favor of doing what is right if our political preferences are wrong.

Unfortunately, it is easy to fall into the temptation of immediately thinking of the “other side” being guilty while never thinking that we might be guilty of the same fault. I’m not talking about moral relativism here. If something is objectively wrong, we have to reject that wrong even if it means incrementally taking it down when outright overturning is impossible. No, I’m talking about our tendency to sneer at the wrongdoing of others but ignoring our own failures and refusing to amend them. When we do this, we are no longer defending what is morally right. Instead, we are fighting a proxy war over ideology while pretending to be morally virtuous. And then we wonder why Christian belief is rejected.

So let’s stop using the moral teaching of the Church as a camouflage for our political battles. Let’s make sure our faith shapes our ideology and not the reverse. 


[†] Of course we must make sure that our “different idea” is not an attempt to evade Church teaching. God is not deceived.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Isn’t it Time to Go Beyond the Usual Arguments?

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

With yet another mass shooting and the inevitable arguments over whether laws should be passed, I think there’s one thing that never gets discussed: whether the 2nd Amendment itself needs to be amended. By this I mean it seems like proponents of gun control want to pass laws as if it did not exist and opponents of gun control want to use it to block any meaningful restrictions.

I think proponents of gun control need to offer ideas on how it should be reasonably be amended. I think opponents of gun control need to propose solutions on how to prevent mass shootings. But instead, people on both sides offer their same arguments that bring up the same counter-arguments and nothing gets done.

From a Catholic perspective, I think we need to move beyond partisan divisions and start *talking* to each other if we are to find a just solution that serves the public good. I would urge all sides to look at the situation without partisan lenses so we can find that just solution. But if we just point fingers and refuse to question ourselves, will that ever happen? Or will we just continue the circle of Shootings—Outrage—Forgetting?

As a Catholic, I think we need to break that circle and try to find just solutions, even at the cost of our political views.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Danger in Being Unable to See We Might Be the Ones in Error

Putting the common “Church is in error” claim into a syllogism [†], it would look something like this:

1. [My interpretation] is [True] (A = B) [§]
2. [Church Teaching X] does not hold [My Interpretation] (C is not A)
3. Therefore, [Church Teaching X] is not [True] (Therefore C is not B)

The syllogism is logically valid [*]. But that does not make the argument true. We must also investigate whether the premises are true. In this case, the problem is in the first premise (antecedent). The history of heresy shows that no matter how sincere a person is in their belief being true, that does not make the belief true. The antecedent is a begging the question fallacy. The person accusing the Church of error has to prove that his interpretation is true. 

The problem is, the Church has a magisterium which has the authority and responsibility on how to interpret and apply Church teaching (doctrine or discipline) [∞]. Whatever goes against the magisterium is error. If obstinately held, that error is heresy. If one refuses to assent to the magisterium, that error becomes schism (See canon 751). So, the antecedent being true requires (A = C). But the consequent (second premise) denies that. Therefore the conclusion is false.

What we have to remember is, when a member of the Church—even if he be a priest, bishop, or cardinal—teaches in opposition to the Pope, his words lack authority. Canon 752 reminds us that even if the Pope does not teach in an ex cathedra manner, if he teaches, we must give “a religious submission of the intellect and will.”

Some may bring up the cases of Popes Liberius, Honorius I, and John XXII to argue that Popes can teach error. But the problem is these cases did not involve Popes teaching, but Popes privately held opinions [•]. But the teachings of Amoris Lætitia are not opinions. They are teachings, taught with the same level of authority as St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (both are Apostolic Exhortations). They are disciplinary teachings—which means a later Pope can legitimately change Pope Francis’ disciplines if he sees it as necessary without that “proving” that Pope Francis was in error [º].

So, the fact that the person opposing the Pope is a priest blogger, concerned bishop, or dubia cardinal, that rank does not give his opposition authority. It’s not for me to judge the state of their souls or their intentions. So I won’t accuse them of malice, heresy, or schism. Rather their words must be judged by whether they match up with the authoritative teaching of the Pope (See canon 750). If they don’t match, it is the critics’ words that must be found wanting—not the Pope’s words.

But if we insist on our own interpretation over the magisterium, then we’re no better than previous members of the Church who rejected authority. Church opposed the error of Hippolytus, Arius, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Matthew Fox, or Hans Küng—all of whom believed themselves to be right in rejecting a Church teaching.

All of us should strive to be faithful to the magisterium under the current Pope and bishops… lest, in the future, the Church should talk about our errors.


[†] Ethically, we’re required to put an opponent’s argument into a valid logical form if possible—we can’t create an illogical straw man to make it look bad.
[§] This premise is usually assumed, but not stated. The technical term is enthymeme
[*] In classical logic, this is an AOO syllogism. But if the person was not making a universal claim, the argument would be IOO, and logically invalid.
[∞] This is not an ipse dixit fallacy here. The Pope and bishops in communion with him IS the valid authority and not an opinion.
[•] Scholars disagree over whether Liberius and Honorius I actually held error privately. In the case of John XXII, the issue was not yet defined. So while Church teaching later declared his opinion to be error, he did not reject established Church teaching.
[º] I fully expect that clarifications will come either during this pontificate or from his successor.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Catholics and Partisan Excuses

There is a dangerous attitude today which is willing to assume that a person belonging to an ideology we oppose can do no right, while one we approve of can do no wrong—even if both people happen to do the same act. Take for example, the case of the news story about Trump paying off a porn star. The Washington Post wrote an article about Evangelical leaders giving him a pass when they were outraged with Clinton. Now the point is valid. But what the article doesn’t mention, however, is that those criticizing Trump were the ones wanting to give Clinton a free pass.

I don’t bring this up to say “we should ignore both” or say “there is wrongdoing on both sides” in a sense that negates wrongdoing. Nor am I trying to make a tu quoque argument. Rather, I think we need to practice consistency. If an action is morally wrong and needs to be publicly denounced, then we need to speak out consistently, and not give the person we agree with a “free pass.”

By the same token, when a public person does something right, we should not praise only when it when done by someone we approve of while committing the “moving the goalposts” fallacy when it comes to someone we dislike. If we complain that politician X doesn’t do “enough” on a subject, and we constantly redefine what “enough” is so that the disliked person never quite reaches it, we’re not making a stand for the Church teaching. We’re making our moral stand seem like a partisan bias.

If a politician is wrong on an issue in light of the Catholic teaching we hold, we cannot downplay that issue. I’ve seen Trump supporters downplay Church teaching on social justice. I’ve seen Trump opponents downplay Church teaching on the right to life. In such cases (and it is not just something that happens with Trump), whatever Catholic Moral Teaching does not square with the supported politician is denigrated as a “lesser issue.” The politician is given a free pass on that issue so long as he does other things the partisan Catholic already agrees with.

We can’t bear proper witness to what we believe if we show the world that our morals flex when it suits us, and only hold firm when we want to denounce someone. The non-Catholic will then see social justice as proof of “liberal bias” and the moral issues as proof of “conservative bias.” They won’t see our stands as testifying on how all of us are called to live. They’ll see it as just one more political squabble.

Nor can we take this and point to the “other” side while refusing to examine our own behavior. This is an example of Our Lord’s warning about the splinter in a brother’s eye and a log in our own. If we loudly denounce others while doing the same thing, we make Our Lord’s Church look like nothing more than partisan hypocrisy. Such behavior would be a scandal, turning away people who need to hear the teaching of the Church.