Friday, May 17, 2019

Church Teaching vs. Political Views

One potential problem—as I have mentioned before—Catholics face is the temptation to think of certain concerns as political opinions while elevating their political opinions to Catholic teaching. The result of this is when the Church speaks out against things an individual Catholic thinks is political, the individual believes that the Church is “losing sight” of her mission, getting involved in politics. But, when the Church speaks against a political stance at odds with Church teaching and the individual Catholic thinks the stance is Catholic teaching, that individual accuses the Church of falling into “error.”

So, when the Church speaks about environmental responsibility and the individual Catholic thinks “environmentalism” is a political issue, he or she says the Church should focus on “more important” issues instead. This doesn’t go only one direction though. Catholics with different slants might think that abortion and transgenderism are “political” issues the Church should stay away from. Regardless of political slant, these individuals say the Church is “obsessed” with “minor” things and should focus on “more important” issues... which they happen to support.

The other side of the problem is the elevating of political views to doctrine. The individual usually draws a political stance based on their interpretation of a Church teaching. From there they conclude that rejecting the stance is a rejection of Church teaching. For example, the Church has condemned socialism [§]. From that, some have concluded that laissez-faire capitalism is compatible with Catholic teaching so the Pope warning against its excesses and injustices is seen as “changing Church teachings.” Alternately, some Catholics draw on the Church teaching on caring for the poor and reason that opposing government programs and taxes to fund them must be a rejection of Church teaching.

Both of these assumptions are “doctrinizing” political views. Yes, the Church requires us to do or avoid certain things. But she doesn’t require us to endorse specific political positions in doing so—provided they don’t use that argument to evade Catholic teaching. Yes, Catholics can disagree on the best means to oppose abortion or make society more just. But they cannot use that as an excuse to downplay or ignore the injustice [#]. The Catholic who uses this to avoid their moral obligation altogether does wrong. Remember what Our Lord had to say on the subject (quoting Isaiah):

Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said: 
“This people honors me with their lips, 
but their hearts are far from me; 
in vain do they worship me, 
teaching as doctrines human precepts.’ ” (Matthew 15:7–9)

We need to remember that where the Church binds, we have no authority to loose. Where the Church looses, we have no authority to bind. When the Church teaches, we have an obligation to obey. If we let our political opinions interfere with listening to the Church, the rebuke of Our Lord and Isaiah falls on us.


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[§] To avoid the fallacy of false analogy, we do need to be aware of the forms of socialism condemned and not automatically assume that the similarities an individual Catholic thinks he sees are the same thing.

[#] For example, the person who ignores or supports abortion and claims that they’re more pro-life because of their support on other issues. See Christfideles Laici #38.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Limiting the Voice of the Church

I was reading a back issue of First Things the other day and came across a curious claim by the author of the essay. This claim was that the Church ought not to speak on every issue that comes along, but should instead limit herself to speaking about crucial issues (such as sexual morality and abortion).

The reason I found this curious was the issues the author thought the Church should hold back on were also issues that the Church has always spoken about: the obligation to aid the poor. It made me reflect though. Catholics have fallen far when they reduce part of the Church teaching (the part at odds with their politics) to “political opinions.”

The teaching of Pope Francis and the bishops today on care for the homeless, the migrant is no different from his predecessors. Rather we overlook the fact that his predecessors spoke on these topics just like we forget that Pope Francis speaks on the moral issues. For example, St. John Paul II said in a June 2, 2000 homily:

Unfortunately, we still encounter in the world a closed-minded attitude and even one of rejection, due to unjustified fears and concern for one’s own interests alone. These forms of discrimination are incompatible with belonging to Christ and to the Church. Indeed, the Christian community is called to spread in the world the leaven of brotherhood, of that fellowship of differences which we can also experience at our meeting today.

If the Pope said this today, we’d have people accusing him of speaking out against today”s American policy in the Middle East or Mexico with people cheering or denouncing him. But he was speaking at a jubilee of migrant and immigrant peoples almost 20 years ago, when our political landscape was different. But with almost 20 years separating the two Popes, the concern of the Church is the same: self-interest and fear is leading Christians to avoid the Christian need to care for those in need. When we say “the Pope should stay out of politics,” we are effectively trying to silence the Church from speaking out on our moral obligation.

It goes the other way too. When the Church speaks out on sexual morality and the right to life, we hear others saying they’re political (or, my personal eyeroll favorite, “getting played” by politicians) even though the Church has always spoken on these things. Just like certain Catholics ignored or accused St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI of being political when they spoke out on social justice, other Catholics ignore Pope Francis when he condemns abortion, same sex “marriage,” and “gender theory.” Thus, the Popes we like are earnest and the ones we dislike are “political.”

But none of these Popes are “being political.” They’re speaking on issues that can affect our souls. Trying to silence the Popes from “being political” is actually trying to silence the Popes from saying what we need—but don’t want—to hear.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Myths and Lies

The term “myth” in the dictionary (Oxford) has two definitions. 
  1. a traditional story concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
  2. a widely held but false belief.
I’m inclined to think that when it comes to anti-Catholicism, we can combine the two and describe it as “a widely held but false belief explaining a natural or social phenomenon.” By this, I mean that in defending a movement opposed to the Church, proponents of the movement must retroactively justify the opposition. Because actual history does not provide such a justification, these proponents must invent one that explains it. Thus we wind up with a bizarre claim that the original form of Christianity was “corrupted” or “driven underground” by the Catholic Church early on through “error” and “innovation.”

Under this tactic, the teachings of the Church are turned into a huge straw man that Catholics have never believed while the actual corruption is transformed into something that was openly supported and blessed by the Church instead of the abberation it was actually seen as. The absence of technology before a certain point is transformed into a conspiracy. Cause and effect is assumed when it needs to be proven (post hoc fallacy).

Thus abuse in the matter of indulgences (for example Tetzel or how the use of charitable donations could be misunderstood as buying and selling) was transformed into an invention of the Church interfering with the relation between God and man. The fact of widespread illiteracy (those who were literate in that time did know Latin) and no printing press before the 15th century became the Church “withholding” the Bible from the laity.

Under this myth, aberration is portrayed as “normal.” There’s the case of how monks and priests were supposed to be stupid and uneducated. Yet the former clergy who began Protestantism were highly educated as monks and priests and they were not self-taught. Who taught the Reformers about Scripture in the first place? Luther didn’t find the Bible hidden in a storeroom. He was assigned to teach it by his superior in the Augustinian order!

I could go on and on, and the anti-Catholics undoubtedly will. But the point is that the Church corrected her corruption, while holding firm to her teachings. The Church made them clearer against misunderstanding, yes. Reduced opportunity for abuse, yes. Made uniform standards, yes. But the teachings were never repudiated. In fact, men like Luther, Zwingli, Knox, etc., misrepresented what the Church taught, whether knowingly or out of their own misunderstanding. (I leave it for God to judge).

As I’ve said in similar articles, this is not a “Protestant bashing” article. Rather I take this historical issue of misunderstanding or misrepresentating the Church (which continues among anti-Catholics), and apply it to the “widely held but false belief explaining a natural or social phenomenon” that Catholics use to attack changes in discipline which they dislike. 

Take the case of First Things, issue 249 (January, 2015). In an article arguing that the Church was compromising with the sexual revolution, the author wrote:

By renouncing the discipline of the Friday fast after Vatican II, the Church abandoned the stomach—after which collapsed an entire social system of Friday-focused marketplace and restaurant businesses that was organized around the Church’s claim upon the body. The same goes for the Church’s provision of Saturday-evening Masses. This decision relaxed Christianity’s claim to “own” our bodies on Sunday. 

I find his comments to be the Catholic equivalent of the anti-Catholic propaganda. St. Paul VI did not renounce the Friday fast. Rather, he recognized that penance needed to be... penitential. In the Apostolic Constitution, Paenitimini, he wrote:

The Church, however, invites all Christians without distinction to respond to the divine precept of penitence by some voluntary act, apart from the renunciation imposed by the burdens of everyday life.

To recall and urge all the faithful to the observance of the divine precept of penitence, the Apostolic See intends to reorganize penitential discipline with practices more suited to our times. It is up to the bishops—gathered in their episcopal conferences—to establish the norms which, in their pastoral solicitude and prudence, and with the direct knowledge they have of local conditions, they consider the most opportune and efficacious.

It’s the person having lobster on Friday, not the Church, abandoning the stomach. The diabetic who can’t abstain from meat isn’t abandoning the stomach by replacing it with another penance. Likewise, with the vigil Mass, Ven. Pius XII established the Vigil to benefit the person who has to work or travel on Sunday. One can abuse the intent, but the Church “relaxed” nothing.

We can point to other myths. Consider the claim that the Ordinary Form of the Mass was designed by Protestants (explicitly denied by those involved)... a myth aimed at justifying disobedience to the Church and rejecting the legitimate exercise of the magisterium. Consider the “Pope Francis allowing divorced/remarried to receive the Eucharist” when his point was determining whether all elements of a mortal sin was present instead of assuming they were. For that matter, consider all the (continuing) claims that the Pope is changing Church teaching on homosexuality, even though he consistently teaches against it. Or that he intends to force through female deacons even though he has said, “I can’t do a decree of a sacramental nature without having the theological, historical foundation for it.”

I can go on, and like the anti-Catholics, these people will.

When it comes to the anti-Catholic, the anti-Vatican II, or the anti-Francis myths, we have to ask ourselves this: Do those who spread them know they are false? If they do, they commit calumny. If they don’t, they commit rash judgment. Both are sins. The former is deliberate. In that case, the person spreading the myth knowingly participates in a lie. The latter is a failure to investigate the justness of a claim before assuming guilt and spreading unjust gossip. Their culpability, I leave for God to judge. But He has forbade false witness.

Whether the reader is hostile to the Catholic Church or a member, we have an obligation to speak honestly and make sure what we hear is true before spreading it. If we refuse to meet that obligation, we will have to answer for it.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Reactions From the Outside, Inside

In my daily theological studies (there’s not much to do in a hospital, so better to be productive than watching TV all day), I have the displeasure to be reading the work Reformation For Armchair Theologians. It’s a book written from a Protestant perspective and naturally gets a lot about the nature and beliefs of the Catholic Church wrong. I don’t think the author has any malicious intent. I think it’s because he writes from outside the Church, assuming the allegations leveled against her must be true, and that the reasons for the Reformation are true. 

[EDIT: He has a Ph.D in Reformation history, so he has far fewer excuses for his errors than the average non-Catholic repeating what he was told, which was the focus of my point]

Of course it’s rash judgment and gossip to simply pass on the negative stories one has been told without verifying them. But one who is outside the Catholic Church [§] may be less culpable because many sincerely think they are repeating the “truth,” and it never occurred to them that they might be false (cf. Luke 12:47-48).

I mention this as a frame of reference for my main point: the fact that some Catholics emulate this outsider view, saying false things about the nature and beliefs of the Catholic Church in the present (usually negative) or past (usually positive). Their interpretation of Church history and the present events assume as true things that they have have to prove (begging the question fallacy). Such judgments can’t claim the reduced culpability that the non-Catholic might have because we profess to be in a Church established by Christ that teaches with His authority and has His protection from error. As Vatican II teaches (Lumen Gentium #14):

All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

If we profess to believe what the Church teaches about her own nature, we have no excuses if we try to interpret events in a way that denies that teaching. Yet many do exactly that. They assume that they have properly and (probably subconsciously) inerrantly understood the nature and teaching of the Church. If anyone—even the magisterium—should teach at odds with this assumption, then that person or magisterium is presumed to be in error. Thus we see all sorts of fabricated theology that tries to limit when the teaching of the magisterium must be obeyed. These fabrications are based on the times when real bishops historically fell into error (separated from communion with the Pope), trying to apply those consequences to the rare occasions a Pope (Honorius I, John XXII) made private statements of dubious orthodoxy.

The problem is, those were private statements with no teaching authority. In contrast, these teachings they deny are public acts when actually “a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act” (canon 752). 

In other words, these critics are inside the Church [#], but giving an interpretation of the Church that one would associate with a non-Catholic view of one who doesn’t know what the Church really teaches. But, since we profess memberships in a Church that teaches that the Pope and bishops teach as the successors of Peter and the Apostles respectively, we do not have the ability to plead sincere ignorance. We know God protects His Church and we know that the Church teaches with binding authority. We know that to reject the Church is to reject Him (Luke 10:16). So, if we profess to be faithful members of this Church, we cannot justify our disobedience. Or, as Our Lord put it:

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains. (John 9:40–41)

If we profess to be faithful Catholics, we are saying “we see.” So if we reject the Church, assuming error on the part of the magisterium, when we disagree, we are acting against what we have no excuses for not knowing, and our sin remains.

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[§] To avoid confusion, I am using the term “outside the Catholic Church” in the sense of “not formally being a member of the Catholic Church.” I am not using it in the sense of “not a Christian” or any other Feeneyite sense.

[#] Although some of them might be sede vacantists who claim we have no valid Pope in office.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Is It Really So?

Awhile back, I was reading about St. Paul VI. The account pointed out that there was a ten year gap between his last encyclical (Humanae Vitae) and his death in 1978. The conclusion drawn was that he was so shaken by the response to Humanae Vitae, that he withdrew for ten years into a sort of isolation while the Church fell into chaos.

There was a major problem with this conclusion though: it wasn’t true. Yes, Humanae Vitae was his last encyclical. But it wasn’t his last teaching. The 1970s were filled with Apostolic Constitutions and Motu Proprio on different topics, implementing Vatican II and dealing with the rebellion that arose in the late 1960s. Not to mention his unprecedented travels [§].

This example of Church history should remind us that if you only look at part of the data instead of the whole picture, you’re going to reach a false conclusion. The Church has 2000 years of history which need to be understood when assessing what is going on. If we look at only parts of it, we won’t correctly interpret it.

I bring up this example to make a point about how people portray the Church. If someone only tells part of the story with part of the data, it could turn out that the story they tell about the Church is false. If someone tells part of the story about the Church prior to Vatican II, focusing on the strongest elements alone, it will appear as if that period was a “golden age.” It wasn’t. Or if someone takes the words of Pope Francis out of context, omitting the things he says and does that defend the moral teaching of the Church, it will sound like he’s a heretic.

But you can use this tactic with any age of the Church to make it sound good or bad. You can make a saint sound demonic or a heresiarch sound faithful. Ultimately, that’s how you can detect the bias. If someone consistently takes quotes out of context to fit the narrative, it’s most plausible to suspect that the person is devoted to a narrative about the Church instead of the Church as she is.

The Church as she is will, of course, have sin and sinners in every age. Every Pope will have his flaws. But there will also be saints in every age, and the Popes will have their strong points as well. The accurate evaluations will recognize both. The biased version will omit whatever goes against their preferred interpretation. We should keep this in mind when we read accounts trying to set one era of the Church against another.
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[§] We tend to think of St. John Paul II as the first to make these trips, and indeed he definitely traveled the furthest so far. But St. Paul VI was the first modern Pope to travel.

Monday, May 6, 2019

We Know Who Our Teachers Are

One comment I frequently encounter in these times of confusion is the one that states. “I don’t know who to follow.” This comment certainly does show confusion in the Church because it shows that some Catholics have lost sight of who teaches,

The Church teaching consistently points out that the Pope is the successor of St. Peter and the bishops are successors to the Apostles. They have the same authority to bind and loose as St. Peter (Matthew 16:19) and the Apostles (Matthew 18:18). Rejecting their teaching is a serious matter (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16).

There is no denying there have been faithless bishops. There is no denying there have been morally bad Popes. But that doesn’t change the fact that God has entrusted His authority with the Apostles and their successors, making no exceptions for our obedience. In fact, The Lord made clear that there was a difference between obeying the authority of the teacher and the hypocritical personal practices of the teacher:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. (Matthew 23:1-3).

Yes, we may have bishops who act wrongly, and we must not follow that. But when they teach in communion with the Pope, they teach with authority. As Lumen Gentium #23 tells us:

This collegial union is apparent also in the mutual relations of the individual bishops with particular churches and with the universal Church. The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful. The individual bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church. For this reason the individual bishops represent each his own church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity.

Since the Pope and bishops are the legitimate authority of the Church, we trust that The Lord, the invisible head of the Church, will protect that authority from teaching error. They have the authority to bind and loose, and even the ordinary magisterium requires religious submission of intellect and will (see canons 752-753) [§].

In contrast to this, we have individuals and groups who presume to speak against this authority. A cardinal, a bishop, a priest, or a member of the laity dislikes what the magisterium says and issues a statement implying or accusing the magisterium of error. But, acting apart from the Pope, they act without authority. It’s like the members of the early Church who tried to argue that to be Christian, one must be Jewish first. In issuing their response, the Apostles rebuked their acting without authority:

Then the apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The ones chosen were Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers. This is the letter delivered by them: “The apostles and the presbyters, your brothers, to the brothers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of Gentile origin: greetings. Since we have heard that some of our number [who went out] without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind, we have with one accord decided to choose representatives and to send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we are sending Judas and Silas who will also convey this same message by word of mouth: ‘It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’ ” (Acts:15:22-29)

No doubt those members of the Church thought they were defending what the Church should be, but what they thought right was deemed wrong by St. Peter and the apostles. Those self-appointed defenders of the Church were deemed without mandate and disturbing the peace because they acted without the authority of the Church.

Now some might cite Galatians, where St. Paul opposed St. Peter, but that is a misapplication. The text reads:

And when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. For, until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised. And the rest of the Jews [also] acted hypocritically along with him, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all, “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11–14)

St. Peter’s action was not a false teaching. It was avoiding drama over the controversy about Jews and Gentiles. It caused scandal in the local Church and needed to be corrected. But this is an example of Matthew 23:1-3. Not following the bad example of one who teaches with authority.

We do know who teaches with authority. The Pope and bishops in communion with him. We know that those who presume to act outside of this communion are without a mandate and disturbing the peace. If we are concerned about the magisterium going “the wrong way,” let us remember that The Lord promised to protect His Church and He is entirely reliable.

Yes, a morally or intellectually bad Pope is not impossible—though I deny Pope Francis is one—but this has never falsified Christ’s promise to protect His Church and never will. And this is why I continue to have faith in the Church, regardless of what disturbers of the peace might claim.

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[§] the text of the canons, for quick reference:




Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Unasked For, But Needed, Reprimand

One of the curious things to watch in the Church are the Catholics who say that the Pope needs to stay out of politics and spend more time focusing on Church teaching. Of course, what the critics define as “politics” are the issues where the Pope speaks against the position that the critic holds. Popes speaking on public issues that they agree with are no problem.

The troubling thing about this attitude is it tries to force Church teaching into comfortable partisan positions that don’t threaten the critic. The problem is, the Church is given her mission to bring The Lord’s salvation to the world. When an individual, a group, or a nation acts in a way contrary to what we must do to be saved, the Church must speak out. As God told Ezekiel (Ezekiel 33:7–9):

You, son of man—I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel; when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them for me. When I say to the wicked, “You wicked, you must die,” and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life. 

The Church has the same task as Ezekiel. When we as individuals, groups, or nationalities do evil, the Church must speak out. 

One of the temptations in this case is to point to another existing evil (one which we oppose) and argue that the Church should focus on it instead because it is “more serious.” That’s a dangerous way to think, however. There’s no doubt that some sins are intrinsically evil and worse than others. But the deadliest sin is the one that sends you (or me) to hell. We rightly oppose abortion and same sex “marriage,” but our opposition to these evils will not excuse us from a mortal sin that we do commit. In fact, we might be putting ourself in the position of the Pharisee who praised himself compared to the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). Let’s face it. The Pharisee wasn’t guilty of the sins that the Tax Collector was guilty of. But that doesn’t mean that the Pharisee was free of sin.

We should remember that the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) has a lot to say about how we responded to those in need. If the Church warns us that our favorite policies neglect those whom Christ commanded us to help, responding with “stay out of politics” is a wildly inappropriate response and suggests either gross ignorance of or opposition to what the Church teaches. As the Vatican II document, Apostolicam actuositatem, teaches:

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.

This is true regardless of whether the Church is seeking to convert the people of a nation to stop slaughtering the unborn or whether the Church is trying to convert the people of a nation from treating migrants as less than human—or any other sin that endangers our souls by wronging others.

When the Church speaks out on an issue that seems to strike close to home, perhaps we should consider it a merciful opportunity to ask ourselves if we have gotten complacent and drifted from where we need to be.