Wednesday, October 18, 2017

14 Thoughts on Properly Understanding Church Teaching

Introduction

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

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

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

Things to keep in mind 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Fatal Flaw: Thoughts on the Anti-Francis Rebellion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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

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

The Radical Traditionalist Error

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

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

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

The Political Slant Error

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

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

The Self Appointed Interpreter Error

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

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

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

The Guilt By Association Error

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

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

Where it Collides

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Same Church, Same Teaching, Same Authority

St. Gregory Nazianzen tells us (Oratio XLIII, #50) where an official of Emperor Valens ordered St. Basil the Great to comply with an unjust government decree, using threats. When St. Basil refused, vehemently, the exchange went like this:

50. Amazed at this language, the prefect said, “No one has ever yet spoken thus, and with such boldness, to Modestus.” “Why, perhaps,” said Basil, “you have not met with a Bishop, or in his defence of such interests he would have used precisely the same language. For we are modest in general, and submissive to every one, according to the precept of our law. We may not treat with haughtiness even any ordinary person, to say nothing of so great a potentate. But where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object. Fire and sword and wild beasts, and rakes which tear the flesh, we revel in, and fear them not. You may further insult and threaten us, and do whatever you will, to the full extent of your power. The Emperor himself may hear this—that neither by violence nor persuasion will you bring us to make common cause with impiety, not even though your threats become still more terrible.”

 

Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 411.

I think of this exchange in these recent times. Between 2009-2016, when the Obama administration instituted policies contrary to the Church, some Catholics accused the bishops (or even the Pope) of partisan politics when they spoke out, while others rightly pointed out they were exercising their office. Today, we’re seeing the same arguments, but some of the parties involved have changed sides. Those who once accused them of partisanship, champion their stance as long as they politically agree with it. Those who once defended the bishops now accuse them, because they politically disagree with them. In both cases, the rallying cry was the Church should “stay out of politics.”

But neither the teaching nor the authority has changed. The Church has the obligation to speak out against things in opposition to God’s commandments and the natural law. This obligation does not end at the doors of the Church. Nor does it end with the baptized. The fact is, long before the Europeans first encountered America, the Church was standing against the evil of the states, both telling the Christians not to cooperate with evil and telling the rulers they needed to repent. When it comes to rendering to Caesar and to God, the bishops have always spoken out when Caesar intrudes on God’s portion.

Those Catholics who sometimes say, “Hear the Church,” and sometimes, “Ignore the Church,” undermine any profession of faith they might make.  If the Church is right when we agree, and wrong when we disagree, the nominal Catholic or non-Catholic will be led to think that Church teaching is just another advocacy platform which can be changed as needed. But the Church is not an advocacy group with a political slant. She is the same Church which our Lord built on the Rock of Peter (Matthew 16:18). She has the same authority and responsibility that the Apostles had, and the same promise of protection. Yes, Catholics in a region—Bishops, Priests, Laity—might be swept away in error. But the Bishop of Rome and those who kept communion with him have never taught error. Some have lived less than saintly lives, but that does not disprove our Lord’s protection.

This is what makes the current hostility to the Pope and bishops so alarming. If what the critics claim is true, then we must face this reality: Either Jesus made a false promise (meaning He is not God) or the Church erred in how she interpreted that promise (meaning she not only can, but does teach error). In either case, we have no guarantee that even our preferred teachings are true.

But, if Jesus’ promise is true, and the Church does correctly interpret His promise, then we can safely give assent to what the Pope and bishops in communion with him teach, when carrying out their office. As Msgr. Ronald Knox pointed out,

Here is another suggestion, which may not be without its value – if you find yourself thus apparently deserted by the light of faith, do not fluster and baffle your imagination by presenting to it all the most difficult doctrines of the Christian religion, those which unbelievers find it easiest to attack; do not be asking yourself, "Can I really believe marriage is indissoluble?  Can I really believe that it is possible to go to hell as the punishment for one mortal sin?"  Keep your attention fixed to the main point, which is a single point – Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth?  If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.

(In Soft Garments, pages 113-114).

It is not the holiness of the man holding the office which makes the teaching true. It is the authority and protection given by Our Lord. But since it is the authority and protection of Our Lord, then to fight the bishops is to fight God (see Acts 9:4-5). So, to appeal to early Church teaching against later, or to appeal to Jesus against the Church rejects God (Luke 10:16). The person who “compares” the words of the Pope to the words of Christ, or the words of the Pope to the writings of past centuries, confuses their interpretation with what the Church understands it to mean. Remember, while we are called to use our reason in being faithful, we are also to give assent to teaching the Church gives (see Code of Canon Law 752-754).

Are there times when the Pope and bishops don’t teach? Of course. A Papal press conference or interview, or privately written book (for example, the Jesus of Nazareth books of Benedict XVI). But when the Pope or bishop intends to teach using the ordinary magisterium, we are required to give assent. So, whether the Pope and bishops speak out on sexual morality, or whether they speak out on social justice, they are not offering an opinion on Obama or Trump. They are reminding us on what our obligations are before God. Whatever our politics, we cannot act in a way that they say is wrong.

With this in mind, when we face a conflict and are tempted to reject what the Pope and bishops say, we must consider the possibility that we have misinterpreted the Church teaching, what the Pope said, or (very often) both.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Partisan Rebellion

can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.


Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247.

The US Bishops (rightly, in my opinion) took a stand against Trump’s decision to end DACA. In response, one faction of Catholics took a stand against the US bishops. They angrily condemned the bishops for “meddling in politics,” for “picking and choosing what laws to follow,” “for only caring about collections and numbers of people in the pews,” and for “being pro-Democrat.” Ironically, a different faction of Catholics (opposed by the first) made the same arguments when the US bishops opposed Obama’s actions on abortion, the contraception mandate, same sex “marriage,” and (though people forget it), immigration.

In both cases, what we have are Catholics who let their political views influence how they view the Catholic faith—which is a perversion of how it should be. When they do not like what the bishops say, they accuse the bishops of being partisan. It never occurs to these critics that the bishops are taking a stand because Catholic teaching requires it.

The fact is, no political faction is identical with Catholic teaching. Each faction gets something wrong, either in intention or in act. So we must hear the Church and let her teaching shape our political views. Unfortunately, regardless of faction, many Catholics seem willing to put the views of their preferred politicians over the teaching of the successors to the apostles. The bishops’ words are rejected as ignorant opinions, while the politician’s words are accepted as truth. 

The problem is, factional politics tend to create endless varieties of cafeteria Catholicism. Both conservative and liberal Catholics face the temptation to focus on issues they already agree with while downplaying or ignoring what they dislike. When the Church emphasizes what they dislike, it is often portrayed as a partisan betrayal of faith for politics. But it seems to me this is a reversal of the truth: The partisan Catholic is being deceived into thinking their partisan views are true Catholicism.

Like it or not, Catholic teaching focusses on both the moral behavior and the care for people in need. Neither is waived because of our own preferences or our fears that the teaching we prefer might be “undermined.” Yes, there can be a legitimate difference of opinion on how to best follow Catholic teaching. But we can never accept an “opinion” that sets aside Church teaching (cf. Mark 7:11). So, for example, Catholics can disagree on the best way to defend the right to life, but never downplay the right to life. Catholics can disagree on how to best handle illegal immigration, but not to undermine the teaching on how human beings are to be treated regardless of status.

I believe we need to evaluate our anger when the Church takes a position contrary to our politics. We may tell ourselves that we think the Pope or bishop is “betraying” the Church for a partisan reason, but we have to ask whether we’re the ones betraying the Church for a partisan reason. I also believe we need to consider whether our rejection of a bishop when he says something we dislike is a scandal that leads others to sin (Matthew 18:6-7). If we choose to reject a bishop on one topic, we have very little to say when another chooses to reject a bishop on something we think is vitally important.

It is important that we study what the Church teaches on a subject to make sure we have not gone wrong. But we also must recognize that the Church, not us, is the final decision maker on how these teachings are properly understood. For example, I know of some Catholics who claim that it is more “pro-life” to vote for a pro-abortion candidate because their policies will reduce the need for abortions. That interpretation was rejected by St. John Paul II, when he wrote:

[38] The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

 

John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

Likewise when it comes to issues we find “hitting too close to home,” we need to make sure that we are not undermining Church teaching by interpreting it in a way that allows us to do as we please when the magisterium says we may not do as we please.

As a final point, it is not for me to judge the conscience of any individual of course—that is a task for the individual’s confessor, and far exceeds the competence of a layman. But I can point out that it is dangerous to use our political views to judge the shepherds of the Church. Before we claim that we can reject their “opinions,” we need to make sure they are in fact opinions, and not a legitimate application of the teaching authority of the Church.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Lack of Reflection

ReturnOfDracula6Like the vampire in a mirror, there is a serious lack of reflection today on what one says…

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen an escalation of attacks on the teachings of the Church by people who think they are defending the Church. I’ve seen a homily accusing the Pope of teaching error and insisting we must be faithful to the Church over the Pope, talking about Matthew 16:18-19, of all things. I’ve seen a Catholic blame the Church for “abandoning” the term “Catholic Christian” in favor of “Catholic.” I’ve seen the ongoing fight between Catholics who claim to be Pro-Life and those who claim to be “really” Pro-life. I’ve seen the usual assortment of attacks on Pope Francis, Vatican II, the Ordinary Form of the Mass, and the ongoing attacks on Church teaching on homosexuality as “needing to change.” These varied arguments seem to have one thing in common: While the attacker seems to have reflected on the fact their action before carrying it out, they do not seem to reflect on the ramifications of what they say. 

First, let me exclude something from the scope of this article. I am not talking about sufficient reflection as one of the requirements of mortal sin. I leave it to the individual’s confessor to decide whether the individual sin mortally or not. The lack of reflection I mean involves a failure to think about the damage one causes, and what truth of the Church they undermine. While such people think they are serving the good, they are actually causing harm.

In all of these cases, there are two major errors: A lack of reflection on what the Church teaching is, and a lack of reflection on the position attacked. While error and injustice exists and must be opposed, some people see error and injustice where there is none. When it comes to the Church, people tend to either dogmatize customs, or they tend to downplay actual teaching authority. When it comes to opposing others, attacks revolve around thinking that disagreement with their own position is endorsement of evil. In both cases, the person does not reflect on whether he is mistaken about his understanding. In fact, regardless of his political views, he assumes he must be right.

If one is mistaken about Church teaching, then they can see an evil where there is none, or they can think something is harmless when it is harmful. On the other hand, if one is mistaken about what another person holds, the individual might falsely accuse the other, when he is innocent of the charge. It is only when one is right about both that one can begin to investigate. So, for example, the Catholic who misuses Pope Francis’ “Who am I to Judge?” comment as supporting homosexuality is wrong regardless of whether he praises or condemns the Pope. The Pope did not support homosexuality. The same applies to the claims that the Pope supports the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried. He does not. He supports having confessors investigate whether all the conditions for mortal sin are present in the individual.

Likewise the bloggers brawling about what it means to be truly pro-life. I find that both sides each think the other side is neglecting Church teaching. But when all is said and done, both sides are confusing their political preferences with Church teaching, and that confusion leads them to think that a rejection of their politics is ignoring Church teaching. The same with the Catholic who thinks Church teachings are founded in bigotry, instead of under the teaching of Our Lord. If Same sex “marriage” goes against God’s will, then the person who opposes the Church is not opposing intolerance, but God Himself.

Don’t confuse this with moral relativism. I’m not saying, “What might be true for you isn’t true for me.” I’m saying, we need to make sure that our conception of what is right and wrong is in line with what the Church teaches—not in the sense of what we think it means, but what she actually means as applied by the Pope and bishops in communion with him. We’re not comparing Pope Francis with Pope Pius X. We’re not comparing Vatican II with Trent. We’re talking about people causing dissension on the basis of their own personal ideas of what Papal utterances or Ecumenical Councils should mean. But individuals don’t have the right to decide for themselves what they should mean. The living magisterium of the Church decides how to apply these teachings.

This is where we have the lack of reflection. People don’t ask if they went wrong somewhere. They assume that if something doesn’t sit well, it must be the other who is at fault. The problem is, every heresy we had in the Church, every schism, they arose from people who thought the Church or person they opposed could err, while they could not. Throughout history, bishops, priests, and laity have fallen away by deciding the Church had gone wrong—but never when they submitted to, and were in communion with, the Holy See. If we’re not careful, we may find that we, like them, have become what we hated and opposed the Church, while thinking we were doing the right thing.