Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fallacious Thinking and Attacks Against the Pope


Regardless of whether one thinks the cardinals who sent dubia to the Pope acted rightly or wrongly, one of the fruits of their action is a bad one: It’s become a rallying point for those Catholics who oppose the Pope and seek to undermine him by accusing him of error. That’s a dangerous position, one that encourages dissent and possibly de facto schism. It may even lead to the damnation of souls.

I want to make clear that I am not accusing the cardinals of bad will or seeking to promote schism. These are serious charges that must not be made without evidence. Their intentions and the state of their souls are for their confessors to assess, not a layman like myself. However, the Pope’s opponents on social media are making those serious charges against him, either directly or indirectly.

The Problem

The point of contention, as I understand it, is these cardinals do not see how Amoris Lætitia can be reconciled with the teachings of St. John Paul II. The dubia asked if those teachings still hold true. The Pope declined to answer and the cardinals went public. The result of this is a number of Catholics made assumptions (none of them good) about that silence and what it might mean. The problem is, logically, we cannot draw a conclusion from silence. We can only point to it as a lack of evidence one way or another

Let’s look at it this way. If silence from Pope Francis implies a rejection of St. John Paul II, as his social media critics imply, then we could ask whether if Cardinal Burke and his compatriots are in favor of schism because they do not speak against those combox warriors who misuse their statements. There could be any number of reasons, for example, “Not wanting to draw attention to it by publicizing it.” A person could argue that not speaking about these rebels is encouraging them, but they can’t use the silence to “prove” the cardinals want to encourage them.

Fallacies of Ignorance and Silence

But once we recognize this, we have to apply it to Pope Francis as well. People might want him to offer clarifications to the dubia, and might be disappointed when he doesn’t, but we can’t claim his silence is in support of error. That brings us to the two fallacies that critics of the Pope—and even some of the faithful—have been using: The Argument from Ignorance and the Argument from Silence.

The Argument from Ignorance is a fallacy which confuses what a person knows with what is reality. For example, if someone says, “I can’t think of any reason why Pope Francis would not answer,” that does not mean there is no good reason not to answer. Not knowing an answer is not the same as there being no answer. So to argue that he does intend to change Church teaching on the basis of his not answering is fallacious. 

The Argument from Silence fallacy happens where one assumes that silence is proof of a position. “He didn’t defend himself, he must be guilty,” or “He didn’t admit it, he must be innocent.” Silence is simply “no testimony.” In American law, no person can be compelled to give evidence against himself, and a prosecutor cannot use this refusal as “proof” of guilt. What the silent person intends and the motives for the silence are unknown. So to argue from the Pope’s declining to answer that he cannot defend his position without contradicting St. John Paul II is an argument from silence.

The point of this article is to encourage people to recognize there is a difference between wanting the Pope to respond and drawing a negative conclusion from his declining to do so. Because we Catholics are forbidden to make rash judgment, we certainly cannot rashly judge the Pope as being a heretic or incompetent on the grounds he did not answer.

The Real Problem That Fuels the So-Called “Scandals”

Let’s be frank. The most a papal critic can allege from this case is that the Pope used poor judgment (though I would probably challenge that). But that fact is not anything new in Church history. . .

John paul ii kisses koranEven St. John Paul the Great had his “not so great” days.

No matter how much one likes a Pope, there will always be something cringeworthy in their actions. That’s because we’re all humans in need of salvation. No matter how much one dislikes a Pope, cringeworthy actions do not detract from their office and our obligation to give assent when they teach as Pope. You can go all the way back to Pope Peter, and you’ll still have to deal with the “Denying three times” scandal and the “not eating with gentiles” scandal.

We have to realize that Pope Francis is not a Pope John XII or Alexander VI. Nor is he an Honorius or John XXII. The Church will not collapse because of Pope Francis any more than it collapsed under those members of the Papal “Hall of Shame.” God promised to protect His Church. If we don’t believe that, then our problem is much greater than a Pope.

We need to realize the Pope has been constantly attacked for almost four years by critics and every one of those attacks is based on a misinterpretation of what he said. There’s a third logical fallacy here—Begging the Question. People who assume the Pope is a heretic interpret everything he does under the suspicion of heresy. People who assume the Pope is incompetent interpret everything under the assumption he handled it incompetently. The problem is, these accusations have to be proven, but his accusers act as if they were true—and they have begun to instill doubt into weary Catholics who begin to think: “There must be something to these accusations, or people wouldn’t make them.”

There’s a real danger here. Certain Catholics hate the Pope and what they think is “corruption” of the Church since the Pontificate of St. John XXIII. They lead some members of the faithful astray, causing them to think they’re the only faithful Catholics left when, for almost 2000 years, the Church has been led by the successor of Peter without teaching heresy.


The point of this is, this latest attack on the Pope has its roots in an anti-Francis mindset and has no rational basis. A person is not wrong to wish a Pope might handle a situation differently at times. But we have to realize that what we wish and what the Pope determines as the best way to handle the situation can be two different things. To accuse him of bad will or incompetence because his decision is not what they want is not the obedience of the saints. It’s the same behavior that dissenters used to attack previous Popes.

We should reflect on this, and consider who benefits from this behavior: Not the Church, but the devil. We should think long and hard about divisive behavior before committing it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Seemingly Harmless Path to Schism


The Path to Schism

I watch the challenges to Pope Francis grow, and see the hypocrisy. Apparently it is all right to question his orthodoxy and his judgment. But if someone challenges his challengers, it is suddenly “abusive.” People believe they are fighting to defend the Church, but overlook the fact that they attack the foundation on which Our Lord built His Church. The end result of such a tactic would be destroying the faith of many, leaving them to think they were the authority of the Church who sit in judgment on the shepherds.

Please spare me the angry retorts in the combox, pointing out the handful of sinful Popes throughout Church history. The fact that such Popes existed does not prove Pope Francis is one of them. The issue in question is whether this Pope has done wrong. Also, spare me refutations against claims that Papal press conferences are infallible. I know of no serious Catholic who believes they are. I believe the attacks against the Holy Father are made up of two fallacies: a Begging the Question fallacy and a Guilt by Association fallacy. The attacks against him assume as true (that he intends a heterodox interpretation of Church teaching) what they actually need to prove, and they assume that people with heterodox views liking what they think the Pope means is proof that the Pope is guilty of heterodoxy or ignorance of doctrine.

I’m not talking about people who merely wish the Pope handled things differently. That happens in every pontificate (I wish St. John Paul didn’t kiss that Qur’an, or that Benedict XVI didn’t use the example of “a gay prostitute with AIDS” for example). I’m talking about people who spread accusations on social media claiming to be faithful Catholics out to defend the faith, but behaving like dissenting groups [*] throughout history—they insist their reading of Scripture and prior Church teaching must be correct, and any difference between them and the Pope and bishops in communion with him means the Pope must be wrong. I’m talking about people who focus on minutiae and miss the big point—like treating Footnote 351 as a Papal document and treating the entirety of Amoris Lætitia as a footnote.

The potential for schism starts small. People post comments of “I miss Pope Benedict,” in response to (often inaccurate) news reports of what the Pope says and does. The unspoken element of the statement is “Pope Benedict XVI never would have done this.” This grows to become “The next Pope will have to address X,” as if Pope Francis is doing things that need to be overturned. With this small seed sown, people have opened themselves up to thinking the Pope must be endured until a “real” Pope emerges. If people continue to focus on this, they can start thinking, “I wish Bishop/Cardinal X was Pope instead,” and even start viewing this person as more authoritative than the Pope.

The more one entertains these views, the more likely that person is to assume the Pope is in error and his critics are correct. Even if a bishop or cardinal has no intention of undermining the Pope [†], those critics who think of everything dualistically turn them into a counter-magisterium whose opinions they treat as teaching while treating the Pope’s teaching as opinion.

When one begins thinking the Pope is heretical, they are tempted into looking on how to remove him from office. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine’s preferred opinion on a heretical Pope is treated as doctrine, ignoring the fact that he considered the opinion that, “the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case” [§] as “probable” and “easily defended.” He looks into other opinions simply because that is the issue disputed by those who attacked the papacy in general.

At this point, the person is denying the authority of the Pope, based on a begging the question assumption that he is a heretic whenever the Pope says something different from their own view of what the Church should be, substituting the opinions of someone he happens to agree with over the teaching of the Pope, refusing to accept the judgments of the Pope when they disagree with personally held opinions. The problem is, we run into what Canon Law says about schism [751], “schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” Whether it’s formal schism like the time of the the Protestant Revolt, or by action rejecting the authority of the Pope without formally rejecting the papacy, one at this point has fallen into error.

I’m not going to accuse any specific individual, private or public, of being guilty. It’s not my task to assess conscience and judge souls. I merely wish to warn of the attitudes that deceptively lead one to damnation.

Angel leading a soul to hell11

The Path Back (Before It Is Too Late)

If the path to schism is placing one’s own views above that of the Church and assuming the Pope is in error, the path back starts with realizing the possibility that we might be the one in error. We have to realize the possibility that we have misinterpreted what the current Pope has said, or what previous Church documents have taught. We have to realize that we might be guilty of rash judgment, assuming that the Pope is either maliciously or foolishly “changing” Church teaching.

We have to realize that God protects His Church. We have indeed had a few bad Popes in the history of the Church. But they did not destroy the Church, and they did not teach any error as Pope. The accusations against Pope Francis are something unique. If his critics are right, then for the first time in Church history we have a Pope who used his office to teach error. If that is true, then God did not protect His Church. We have no way of knowing who was right in any conflict in the Church. If Pope Francis could teach error, why not St. Pius V? If Vatican II could teach error, why not Trent? It’s only by trusting in God to guide the Pope that we can reject these logical questions. 

We also have to realize that when the Pope teaches, even when he does not teach ex cathedra, we are obliged to give assent. That’s not an opinion, it's canon law.

can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, 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; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

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.

can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.

That doesn’t mean we have to all agree on how to best apply the teachings and instructions of the magisterium, but if we refuse to give assent, we’re no better than those critics of St. John Paul II or Benedict XVI who sought to weasel out of Church teaching. We’re behaving like the Pharisees who sought to evade obligations in the name of piety.

In short, the path back from schism is based on faith in God and offering submission to His Church. Submission is not an easy thing to embrace. We’re all afraid of being trapped into doing the wrong thing. But we need to remember that the saints had faith in God and in His Church, offering submission when there was a conflict. The Holy Spirit did not go on a coffee break beginning in 1958 (when St. John XXIII became Pope). We are still protected, despite what the critics say. 

That doesn’t mean we can be mindless drones going through the motions. Each of us will have to struggle with doubts and fears. There will always be those who misuse the teaching of the Church. What we have to remember is, even with these things, God is still in charge and still with the successor of Peter—even now.

I have no authority to teach of course. I can’t compel anyone to obey what I write here. All I can do is appeal to anyone reading who is tempted to reject the Pope to rethink their attitudes and consider whether they are being misled. 


[*] For example, the people who tried to make Pope John XXII out to be a heretic were the Spiritual Franciscans who resented the Pope’s lawful intervention on how the Rule of St. Francis was to be applied and sought to discredit his authority.

[†] My view of Cardinal Burke and company, and Bishop Schneider is to assume they do not intend to undermine the Pope until evidence is presented showing otherwise. That doesn’t mean I have to approve of their actions or opinions, however.

[§] [Bellarmine, Robert (2015-05-22). On the Roman Pontiff (De Controversiis Book 1) (p. 304). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition]. I found this book to be invaluable in putting the saint’s widely quoted words on a “heretical Pope” into context.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

I'm With Him Because I Believe He Faithfully Serves God

I m With Him

As the pontificate of Pope Francis goes on, opposition to him solidifies. Certain groups within the Church accept as proven the claim that the Holy Father is either ignorant of theology or heretical, even though these charges depend solely on how these groups interpret his words and the teachings of the Church. Now, it’s not for me to judge the intention or the state of the souls of those people who oppose him, but I do believe that at a minimum their opposition is a case of begging the question and reflects a misunderstanding of what the Pope taught in relation to what the Church has taught prior to Pope Francis.

To state it bluntly, I believe those who think the Pope is trying to “change” Church teaching on moral issues have grossly missed the point of what he said and taught. He is not looking for ways to turn “X is a sin” into “X is not a sin.” He is looking to remove obstacles that keep people from reconciling with God and His Church. Some of those obstacles involve sinners being intimidated and discouraged in getting to the confessional. Other obstacles involve others assuming that a sinner must be shunned and kept away from the Church until they become as holy as we are.

The latter is a real problem. When the Pope reaches out to the divorced and remarried, people assume that bringing them back to the Church must mean the Sacraments, even though the Pope has rejected that view. During his February 18, 2016 Press conference, the Pope said:

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

In other words, the Pope wants to integrate all Catholics back to the life of the Church and right relationship with God. Obviously people who are determined to sin and refuse to repent are not integrated into the Church, and cannot hope to be saved. If the Pope wanted to treat such people as if they did no wrong, that would indeed be troubling. But that is not what he refers to. Back when he was head of the archdiocese of Buenos Aries, he said:

Nevertheless, today Catholic Doctrine reminds its divorced members who have remarried that they are not excommunicated— even though they live in a situation on the margin of what indissolubility of marriage and the sacrament of marriage require of them— and they are asked to integrate into the parish life.

Bergoglio, Jorge Mario; Skorka, Abraham (2013-04-19). On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century (p. 110). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Notice the theme here. Integrating into the parish in order to encourage them to seek repentance. He opposes things that hinder this repentance. He has made this clear:

Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance. When a person begins to recognize the sickness in their soul, when the Holy Spirit— the Grace of God— acts within them and moves their heart toward an initial recognition of their own sins, he needs to find an open door, not a closed one. He needs to find acceptance, not judgment, prejudice, or condemnation. He needs to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes, when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner when he stands at the threshold, when he starts to feel nostalgia for God.

I would like to mention another conduct typical of the scholars of the law, and I will say that there is often a kind of hypocrisy in them, a formal adherence to the law that hides very deep wounds. Jesus uses tough words; he defines them as “whited sepulchers” who appear devout from the outside, but inside, on the inside… hypocrites. These are men who live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries. Chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew is very clear on this; we need to return there to understand what the Church is and what it should never be. He describes the attitudes of those who tie up heavy burdens and lay them on other men’s shoulders, but who are unwilling to move so much as a finger; they are those who love the place of honor and want to be called master. This conduct comes when a person loses the sense of awe for salvation that has been granted to him.

Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 605-617). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In other words, Catholics who think of their role as keeping sinners out of the Church in the name of purity have missed the point. We’re not supposed to think of 1 lost sheep out of 100 as “acceptable losses.” We’re supposed to save that last sheep. We were saved by God’s grace, and we should desire others be given that same grace. Such a person may refuse God’s grace and that is beyond our control. But we can’t stop trying to bring them Christ, and we can’t stop praying for them.

This is what the Pope wants us to do. He wants us to find the lost sheep and work on bringing them back to the full life of the Church. To assume that he wants to throw the consistent teaching of the Church out of the window is a rash judgment and a reading into his words something he never intended. It’s only when one approaches his words with the assumption he must reject Church teaching that one can make the accusation of error.

Perhaps it is time for his critics to ask themselves, “What if I misunderstood the Holy Father and the mission of the Church? What if he’s really telling us not to drive people away from seeking salvation?” I believe that if we ponder those questions, we’ll find these are his motives, not error or moral laxity.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Dubious on the Dubia

For even judges in secular causes, if they see the first orator pouring forth a mighty torrent of words and overwhelming everything with his speech do not venture to record their decision without having patiently listened to the other speaker who is opposed to him; and even if the remarks of the first speaker seem to be just to an unlimited extent, they reserve an unprejudiced hearing for the second. In fact the special merit of judges consists in ascertaining with all possible accuracy what each side has to allege and then bringing forward their own judgment.


John Chrysostom, “A Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself,” §1 in Saint Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Ascetic Treatises, Select Homilies and Letters, Homilies on the Statues, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. W. R. W. Stephens, vol. 9, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 271.


Some Catholics, seeing the election resolved, have turned their attention back to the affairs of the Church and attacks on the Pope. This time the contention is over a small group of cardinals, led by Cardinal Raymond Burke, and their letter on the interpretation of Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Lætitia. Doubling down on the letter, Cardinal Burke gave an interview with the National Catholic Register, saying that if the Pope did not respond:

Then we would have to address that situation. There is, in the Tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error.

The usual suspects on the internet, who automatically assume Pope Francis must be in the wrong when what he says goes against what they think the Church should be, applaud this. I’ve seen go so far as speculating whether the cardinals could “repeal the election” of Pope Francis (no, they can’t). Even those not willing to go so far speak about all the turmoil as if it was Pope Francis’ fault—forgetting that many of these critics also attacked St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. These people seem willing to seize on this letter as ammunition to either imply or outright accuse the Pope of holding heresy.


If you’ve read this far, you can probably detect in my tone that I’m less than sympathetic to the usual suspects on social media. That’s because I see cohesion, not conflict, between the Pope and his predecessors. I’m not alone in that. Benedict XVI, in his interview book, Last Testament answered that question as follows:

So you do not see any kind of break with your pontificate?

No. I mean, one can of course misinterpret in places, with the intention of saying that everything has been turned on its head now. If one isolates things, takes them out of context, one can construct opposites, but not if one looks at the whole. There may be a different emphasis, of course, but no opposition.

Now, after the present time in office of Pope Francis – are you content?

Yes. There is a new freshness in the Church, a new joyfulness, a new charisma which speaks to people, and that is certainly something beautiful.

Benedict XVI, Pope (2016-11-14). Last Testament: In His Own Words (Kindle Locations 782-787). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

Reading the pre-Papal works of Pope Francis and comparing them to his Papal writings, statements, and press conferences, I see the consistency of a man striving to be “a son of the Church,” consistently defending the things accusers say he is attacking. At the same time, I see the attacks from his critics on social media to be a textbook example of the Begging the Question fallacy—assuming as true what needs to be proven.

Avoiding Rash Judgment—On Both Sides

The Cardinals’ explanatory letter states:

We hope that no one will judge us, unjustly, as adversaries of the Holy Father and people devoid of mercy. What we have done and are doing derives from the deep collegial affection that unites us to the Pope, and from an impassioned concern for the good of the faithful.

So, in justice, we should avoid rash judgment about their hearts and minds. We should not assume bad will on their parts. But neither should anyone treat the Pope in this way. If it is wrong to accuse the cardinals of fomenting schism or other rebellion, it’s also wrong to assume the Pope is supporting error or trying to undermine the teachings of the Church.

Also, the history of the Church tells us there will always be someone who is willing to twist a Church teaching to their benefit and claim a sin is not really a sin or that dissent is really being faithful to the Church or to Our Lord Himself. So we cannot commit the post hoc fallacy and assume that because dissent followed a teaching that it is the fault of the teaching. People appeal to Scripture or Church documents to benefit their own views and deny the authority of the Church when she says, No, this is not a valid interpretation. That authority continues today, and those who reject that authority today are just as guilty.

Dubious about the Dubia

I think if I was to describe what troubles me the most about the cardinals’ letter, I would say it feels like they are forgetting two legs of the “tripod” which determines culpability. The three legs are:

  1. The act itself
  2. The intentions behind the act
  3. The circumstances of the act

If even one of these is wrong, you can’t have a good act—so in divorce and remarriage, the act itself is wrong. But in determining culpability one has to look at the intentions and circumstances. The cardinals believe the five dubia (questions) can be answered “Yes or no” to resolve the understanding. The problem is, the Pope is not speaking about the issues of intrinsic evil. He assumes that. What he wants to do is have the bishops and priests evaluate every couple in order to reach out to them appropriately in hopes of getting them to respond to God’s mercy. He speaks about the issues of assessing each individual case. In Amoris Lætitia §300, he writes:

What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,” the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same. Priests have the duty to “accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop. Useful in this process is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance.  

This is not an assertion that Church teaching on divorce and remarriage can change. He’s saying that we can’t assume that the intention and circumstances are the same for each invalidly married couple. In this he echoes St. John Paul II:

[34] For all those who are not at the present moment in the objective conditions required by the sacrament of penance, the church’s manifestations of maternal kindness, the support of acts of piety apart from sacramental ones, a sincere effort to maintain contact with the Lord, attendance at Mass and the frequent repetition of acts of faith, hope, charity and sorrow made as perfectly as possible can prepare the way for full reconciliation at the hour that providence alone knows.

John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1984).

Most of the critics I encounter look at divorce and remarriage in Europe and the United States and assume that the same conditions are worldwide. Because divorce is so easy, critics see no reason why people feel like they must remain in an invalid marriage. What we forget is the Pope is not from Europe or the United States, but from South America and he has seen vicious customs we do not experience. There are places in the world where a Catholic was (wrongly) told their first marriage “didn’t count” and so they were free to marry again—but no annulment was granted [*].


I don’t assume the cardinals responsible for the dubia are acting with bad will. Rebellion against Church teaching on sexual morality is a serious matter. We want to make sure people understand some behaviors are in conflict with having a relationship with God. But we also don’t want to drive people away, thinking there is no hope for salvation or reconciliation. It may be a long process for some couples. It may be easier for others. But I think the error comes when people assume the intent is to “change Church teaching.” For example, take the document from the Argentine bishops which shocked some Catholics when the Pope praised it.  People treated it as if it explicitly endorsed admitting the divorced/remarried to the Sacraments unconditionally. But it actually rejected that view:

7) However, it should not be understood that this possibility implies unlimited access to sacraments, or that all situations warrant such unlimited access. The proposal is to properly discern each case. For example, special care should be taken of “a new union arising from a recent divorce” or “the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family” (298). Also, when there is a sort of apology or ostentation of the person’s situation “as if it were part of the Christian ideal” (297). In these difficult cases, we should be patient companions, and seek a path of reinstatement (cf. 297, 299).

What the Pope is calling for (and the Argentine bishops echo) is that the Church does not take a “one size fits all” approach to each couple. Each couple has a different story, and each couple has different obstacles to overcome to restore them to a state of grace. That’s what the Pope is after. He’s not about changing Church teaching. He’s about getting each person in a right relationship with God. Seeking a path to reconciliation is not giving free rein to sin.

So, perhaps when we find something we find difficult to understand, or when people are contradicting each other, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the Pope is not the one responsible for the confusion. Perhaps we’re the ones who missed the point.



[†] At the time of this writing, the interview was not translated into English. As always, I urge waiting to see quotes in context.

[*] This came up in a recent diocesan meeting I attended for RCIA coordinators. Since the diocesan guidelines state irregular marriages have to be resolved before one formally becomes a catechumen or candidate, we were told to be aware of the possibility of people from other countries being given this misinformation.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reflections on a New President

Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2) 

Since Election Day, I knew I would need to comment on what had happened. The problem I faced was deciding what to say that emphasized a Catholic perspective and neither seemed to whitewash nor exaggerate the problems we’ll face over the next four to eight years. Perhaps I have an advantage here. I tried to keep my blog non-partisan during this tiring election season, and I can honestly say I didn’t vote for either major party. I voted for a minor party which formed its platform on Catholic social teaching. [†] So hopefully what I say can be seen as non-partisan.

I don’t believe Trump will be a “political messiah” that many of his supporters think he’ll be. He strikes me as a pragmatist who will be flexible on his positions. He holds many positions I believe are incompatible with our Catholic faith. The question in my mind is, how flexible will he be? Will he keep his promises to oppose abortion and to appoint Supreme Court Justices who will defend Christians from unjust laws? Or will he compromise on these issues, betraying the Christians he promised to protect? By the same token, will he keep his promises on enacting what I see as unjust immigration policies? Or will he compromise and do less harm than I fear?

At this point, I don’t think any of us can say what he will do for certain. We’ll have to watch and see. We may gain some clues during the transition period, with who he appoints to positions. Others we’ll probably have to wait and see how he acts once he is sworn in to office. Some are filled with hope and assume he will do good. Others are filled with dread and assume he will do evil.

As Catholics, I think our position should neither be one of elation, nor of dread. It should be one where we take each of his actions and support moral laws and oppose immoral laws. During the last eight years, it was easy for informed Catholics to recognize attacks and government harassment over our beliefs. Because there was a concerted effort to push religion out of the public square and to falsely label our moral obligations as “bigotry” and a “war on women,” Catholics could stand together against an overt attack.

Now that this attack is ending, it will be easy for us to think we can rest from our labors. But we can’t do that. We must witness to our faith and moral values even if people tell us, “Shut up! Don’t rock the boat!” Where his values are compatible with our Catholic faith we should encourage him, and where they are incompatible, we should urge a change and even oppose him when necessary.

What we cannot do is let our partisan values supersede our Catholic faith. We have to bear witness in Democratic administrations and in Republican administrations, regardless of whether it seems to be convenient or not (see 2 Timothy 4:2).

So my recommendation over the next four to eight years of this administration is to remember our Catholic faith and let it shape our response, neither giving our next President a free pass nor unremitting hostility based on our personal politics. Let us pray for our country, and that those who govern us may govern justly.



[†] No, I didn’t think they would win. In fact, they received less than 1,500 votes nationwide. The purpose of this vote was to say, “Because I can’t vote for either candidate without violating my conscience, I will vote for a party which professes Catholic teaching to symbolize my standing with the Church.”

Saturday, November 5, 2016

What's the Point?

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!”  (Luke 12:4-5 RSV2CE)  

Whenever times are difficult, especially when one has doubts about the morality of the choices involved, we need to ask ourselves, “What is so important that we would rather die than compromise over it?” The martyrs knew the answer to that. When it came to a choice between compromising on their faith or accepting suffering and death, they put their faith over saving their lives. That should make us think. If the saints preferred martyrdom over betraying their faith, how much more should we be willing to prefer lesser suffering rather than compromise our own faith?

I think this is where Catholics in affluent nations are being most tempted. We’re so focussed on our comforts and rights—so afraid of losing them—that we’re tempted to compromise on the faith to protect them. We might not literally commit idolatry, but it often happens that situations tempt Catholics to say about Church teaching, “Well that’s not as important,” when we’re offered the choice to compromise to escape hardship. We try to find excuses that justify compromise to avoid what we fear.

What this means is we’re often choosing silence in the face of real evils, downplaying them in favor of our political or cultural values in order to escape discomfort. That’s exactly the choice we’re forbidden to make if we profess to be Christians, and there are consequences in making that choice.

Now, it is natural to want to avoid unnecessary suffering, and Christians have never been obliged to seek out martyrdom. But if the time comes where we have to make that choice, then we have to ask ourselves what is most important. We need to ask whether our love of comfort is interfering with seeking our greatest good—salvation. If we know God wants us to behave one way, but that way is at odds with our desires, we have to sacrifice our desires to do His will.

God loves all of us—even those we are tempted to despise—but we have to respond to that love. That response is not just saying we love God. It means we have to do what He wills (John 14:15, Matthew 7:21-23). If we decide that God will save us in spite of ourselves so we can do as we will, that’s the sin of presumption. Yes, God does forgive sins. He provided a Sacrament with that express purpose after all. But if we’re not sorry for our action and if we’re willing to do it again if the situation arises, then we are refusing this forgiveness—we’re demanding that God legitimize our sin. If we refuse His forgiveness, we will not be forgiven.

Going a step further, if we refuse to ask if we might have gone wrong, we won’t repent, we won’t seek forgiveness, and we will not receive forgiveness. That isn’t injustice on God’s part. That is facing justice after refusing mercy.

None of us can save ourselves. We need God’s grace, which is a gift. None of us can claim it as a right. He is always willing to give it, but all too often we don’t want to give up our wrong desires in exchange. We want cheap grace and resent having to give up anything in exchange. In fact, we think it is unreasonable. But if we don’t give these things up, if we think they “don’t really matter,” then we’re not turning to God. We’re demanding He turn to us and accept us on our own terms. We’re not pleading for grace, we’re demanding a handout. I think here, we should consider the words of St. Alphonsus Liguori:

We, in a word, are merely beggars, who have nothing but what God bestows on us as alms: But I am a beggar and poor. The Lord, says St. Augustine, desires and wills to pour forth his graces upon us, but will not give them except to him who prays. “God wishes to give, but only gives to him who asks.”5 This is declared in the words, Seek, and it shall be given to you. Whence it follows, says St. Teresa, that he who seeks not, does not receive.


 Alphonsus Liguori, The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection, ed. Eugene Grimm, The Complete Works of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori (New York; London; Dublin: Benziger Brothers; R. Washbourne; M. H. Gill & Son, 1886), 27.

We need to ask for, not demand, the graces God willingly gives.

Keeping this in mind, we need to examine every situation we face in life and ask what a Christian in need of salvation must do to remain in God’s graces and to bear witness to others through our words and actions. Bearing witness is vitally important. Modern society accepts evils as if they were good, or tolerates them in the name of expedience. To people in this society, Christian teaching seems like a hardship. When they find something difficult, they’ll want loopholes and they’ll seize on Scripture quotes or fragments from Church documents that seem to permit their behavior.

Knowing this is the world we’re called to evangelize, we need to realize how we respond to similar situations is a witness to how seriously we take the faith we proclaim. For example, if we won’t obey the Church when it comes to a minor inconvenience, do we really think we’ll have credibility when we ask people to do what seems difficult—like reject contraception which they see as a “safety net”? If we would have others be faithful in potentially life changing events, we should show we are willing to do the same when things seem difficult for us.

So, if we’re tempted to misuse Scripture and Church teaching to deny the importance of a Christian obligation, we have no right to be shocked when others misuse them to justify a different evil. It’s only when we completely open ourselves to God and say, “I want to follow You no matter how afraid I am of the consequences, please help me to do Your will,” that we effectively witness to our faith and let others know Him.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Conscience, Persecution, and Sins of Omission

It is common sense that nobody wants to suffer if they can avoid it. It’s also true that the Church does not demand we seek out persecution. But, if conscience does put us at odds with a government, we have to accept suffering or even death rather than do what is morally wrong. This has always been our obligation. We cannot appeal to what a feared government might do in our time if we don’t compromise on what we believe to avoid that evil. That means we can’t try to appease this immoral government might do if elected, and it means we can’t violate our conscience to block the immoral government from taking power.

That doesn’t mean we have to be passive sheep, taking no action against evil. It does mean we can’t do evil so good may come of it. That’s hard because sinful nature leads us to justify wrongdoing by excusing the evil done by saying either it’s not evil or it’s not important. So, some Catholics try justifying a vote for a pro-abortion candidate by downplaying the evil of abortion compared to issues they just happen to agree with. Other Catholics try to downplay the evils the other candidate does or supports by arguing it’s not important compared to the evils they’re trying to stop.

Catholics have used both tactics, fearing what the more loathed candidate will do. That doesn’t mean they’re acting out of bad will. Some Catholics might be sincere and are unaware they have reasoned badly, putting them in opposition to the Church without realizing it. That’s a reminder we should always be evaluating our views in comparison to what the Church teaches. One thing I’ve learned over decades of studying Catholic teaching is just because we don’t know the answer to something doesn’t mean there is no answer.

Don t panic

I believe we must start by not panicking. 2017 will not be the first year the Catholic Church was ever persecuted. Nor is it likely to be the worst persecution ever experienced. To be honest, I suspect Christians living in ISIS held territory wish they had our problems instead of theirs. I don’t want to commit the fallacy of relative privation here. It’s false to say because we’re not suffering as badly as another group of people, it means we’re not suffering. No, what I mean is we need to realize that the world has persecuted the Church in different ways and to different degrees throughout history. So it may wind up being our turn to take a stand even if it means ostracism, lawsuits, fines, or imprisonment.

What makes this frightening is that we have been unjustly harassed by the government, but we haven’t physically suffered for our beliefs. Now we might, and we want to avoid this at all costs. That can be dangerous. During Diocletian’s persecution in the early fourth century, Christians who had been undergoing a period of relative respite and safety were suddenly targeted all across the Roman Empire. Caught by surprise, many yielded to the state rather than suffer. That’s the danger of being so afraid of suffering that we betray Our Lord.

Like I said above, It’s natural that Catholics are trying to make the best of a bad situation and limit the evil suffered. But, again, we can’t do evil so good may come of it (see CCC #1756, 1789). That means we can’t violate our conscience (which we have an obligation to form by the teaching of the Church) and we can’t call evil “not important” to justify embracing a bad means to seek protection. That means we need to be aware of what the Church teaches and why it’s important so we don’t treat evil as unimportant. We need to seriously consider the proposed solution to see if it requires us to violate our conscience by choosing to do evil or to tolerate an evil which outweighs the good sought.

What people are getting wrong is this: It’s not a case of saying, “I will tolerate the lesser evil from candidate X to stop abortion or World War III.” It’s about saying, “I will be silent about these evils so candidate X will win and stop abortion or World War III.” It’s choosing to commit a sin of omission so good might come from it—and the Church condemns doing evil so good may come of it. Even if someone thinks Candidate X is more likely to limit evil, we can’t be silent about his or her own evils. So, even if we want to vote for Candidate X, we have to make clear we will oppose that evil if he or she is elected and insist that the candidate repent of that position—and that is what American Catholics are not doing. Instead, Catholics who support one of the major parties are telling others to be silent on these evils lest they get the wrong person elected.

God tells us to be holy and keep His commandments. The Penitential Rite at Mass requires us to say,

I confess to almighty God

and to you, my brothers and sisters,

that I have greatly sinned,

in my thoughts and in my words,

in what I have done and in what I have failed to do

There’s no secret that we sin if we do wrong, if we fail to do right, and if we fail to speak against sin. If we are sorry for our sins, we must make a firm purpose of amendment, to go and sin no more. Yes, we may fall into the same sins again. But that is different from having the intention to continue in the same sin, refusing to change.

Where does that leave us? It forces each one of us to consider what the Church teaches and where a preferred candidate stands. If the candidate promotes evil, we cannot be silent about it, and we certainly can’t accept a candidate who openly says they will do intrinsic evil (which includes abortion). So, if we must vote for a candidate whose evil seems less than the other candidate, we cannot be silent about the other candidate’s evil out of fear this candidate will lose if we speak out. Is it possible this will lead to persecution? It is. But in this case, it would be a persecution we would have to accept because to be silent when we must speak is to do evil, and to do evil so good might come of it is forbidden to us.

So, let us do what our properly formed conscience tells us to do and recognize that we must do what is right before God—even if persecution comes as a result.