Saturday, January 21, 2017

Reflections on how Papal Critics can go Wrong


I had a profitable discussion with one of my followers last week. The concern—probably shared by many Catholics—is, what is one to do when a Catholic one respects is at odds with the Pope. Are we to write them all off as schismatic, ignorant, or acting out of bad will? My answer is, No we can’t make a blanket assumption that a respected Catholic who disagrees with the Pope is to be automatically pigeonholed into the category of dissenter or gross ignorance. 

However, that doesn’t make them right either. Regardless of intention, they have gone wrong in their interpretation. They are (knowingly or not) claiming the Pope is supporting or even teaching error in such a way that their accusations contradict previous Church teaching on the authority of the Pope and his protection from error. The problem is, these categories are based in an either-or fallacy. They assume that Pope Francis is contradicting previous Church teaching (unproven) and that therefore either he or his predecessors must be wrong.

I deny that accusation is true. However, it is helpful to look at some of the mindsets of his foes and see how they fall into error. This is by no means a comprehensive list. But it does describe the attitudes I encounter most often on the internet.

In writing this article, I’d like to make clear that I am not accusing any specific member of the clergy or any specific Catholic writer of belonging to these groups. If you look at these groups and think, “Oh, he’s accusing X of this,” then you miss the point. I hope to point out problematic views and leave the judgment of people to their confessors.

Confusing an Agenda with Church Teaching

One category which usually seems to get it wrong are the agenda driven people who believe that the Church needs to follow an agenda or else she is in the wrong. This group views a Pope or bishop favorably only if he happens to agree with how this person thinks it should be done. Often they assume that refusal to do it this way is either a sign of moral laxity (if they want it more rigid) or of moral rigidity (if they want more laxity). So St. John Paul II was accused of rigidity by those who wanted a change to Church teaching on sexual morality. Pope Francis is accused of laxity by those who think the Pope should “crack down” on sin. In other words, this category of people is not limited to one ideology. Conservative Catholics in this group let “conservative” influence their Catholic faith. Liberal Catholics let “liberal” influence “Catholic.” Both are wrong because their Catholic faith should influence their ideology. It’s not just political agendas. It can also involve being either a modernist (willing to compromise the faith to get along with the world) or a radical traditionalist (assuming a change in discipline is a change in teaching).

Many of these people are sincere and can’t imagine how one can be faithfully Catholic without holding to their views. From this they believe that anyone who doesn’t support their perspective is acting against God and what the Church is supposed to be. The problem is, their views are often colored by a certain political or cultural bent, while the Church recognizes that one can favor different ways to carry out Church teaching without being “unfaithful.” 

Focussing on One Part, Missing Another

A second category involves Catholics who focus on one aspect of Church teaching, but miss another. Perhaps they are truly unaware of the other aspects. Perhaps they think they don’t apply. Or (if any of them do act from bad will) perhaps even suppressing mention of something that weakens their argument.

One example of this is the argument that Our Lord condemned adultery. Therefore any consideration of the Eucharist for the divorced/remarried is considered a contradiction of Church teaching. They have all sorts of arguments as to why the Church teaching about intrinsic evil cannot be violated. The problem is, nobody (except, perhaps, certain Agenda Driven Catholics) argues that it can be. Those who think the Church might be able to find cases where one can legitimately distribute the Eucharist to a divorced/remarried person is not denying Our Lord’s words. They’re asking questions about impediments that might limit culpability, such as knowledge and consent.

Church teaching can be very nuanced. It starts with the basic concept, X is intrinsically evil, and then focusses on the circumstances of the person that does X. In some cases, the person is guilty of freely choosing the evil with full knowledge. In other cases, the person who does X may have started in ignorance of Church teaching and has formed a compulsive habit that is very hard for them to break away from. Obviously, the confessor would need to treat the first case differently from the second case.

The person in this category goes wrong by assuming that a merciful approach to the second case is a denial of the intrinsic evil in general. That doesn’t make him ignorant of Church teaching. Such a person might simply be so accustomed to defending the Church teaching from those who reject it, that they begin to lose sight of the conditions that change culpability.

Pointing to Consequences, Without Considering What Really Causes Them

Some Catholics are (rightly) concerned by those who wrongly think the Church can change her doctrinal or moral teachings from saying, “X is true,” to “X is false.” They see how some seize onto whatever statement is made by the Church and use it to claim that they’re not dissenting against the Church. They are correct in believing this has to be opposed. But they are scandalized when Church does not issue a stinging public rebuke or excommunicate these people. Some even go so far as to say that the Pope or bishops must secretly support such behavior or they would have acted publicly and the behavior would have stopped.

The problem with this category is it assumes things as true that need to be proven. For example, it assumes that any action must be public, and must be in the form of a rebuke. It ignores the possibility of quietly contacting the person. It ignores the possibility of ongoing dialogue where the Church has not written the person off. In other words, the individual assumes he knows the whole story, but does not.

The Scandalized

Church history is ugly because the members are sinners, like everyone else. Of course we’re all called to cooperate with God’s grace and strive to do good and reject evil. But every one of us does fall. The category of people I call the scandalized are those who are shocked and horrified by the sins of the members of the magisterium, believing this to be a sign of error, some going so far as to label it heresy or apostasy.

Such people need to remember our belief that God protects His Church from error does not mean that those who lead the Church will never sin, nor make errors of judgment in non-teaching actions. For example, St. John Paul II appointed some bishops that had many of us wondering “Why?” There’s a difference between teaching (which is protected) and administering (which is not).

John paul ii kisses koranRegrettable, but not heretical (The Obstinate Denial of Truth)

So, when the Pope teaches, we’re bound to give assent to his teachings, trusting God to protect him from leading the Church astray. But when he governs the Vatican City, gives a homily or a press conference, or other actions, he’s not protected. What this means is, just because a Pope may do something regrettable when acting as a man or as a ruler, it does not follow that he teaches error.

The Mythic View of the Church

People in this category tend to have a myth about a time when the faith was practiced perfectly. They believe that the Church needs to go back to that time, rejecting what they see as a deviation. So some Catholics think Vatican II destroyed the Church, and we need to turn back the clock to before if the Church is to be saved. Other Catholics view Our Lord as a “nice guy” teacher who taught love, and rules of sexual morality “contradict” Jesus’ teachings. Both are a denial of the belief that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Church.

What the first group has to realize is that there was never a time when the Church was perfect. There were always problems. The problems after Vatican II had origins before Vatican II. The second group has to realize that Our Lord did teach on keeping the commandments and warned us about Hell.  Both need to remember He did give the Church authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and promised to protect His Church (Matthew 16:18, 28:20). The Church has never changed teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin,” but she has changed how to approach sinners and has taken a deeper look into what makes an action a sin. These are not betrayals of past teaching.

The Wrathful Catholics 

Some Catholics have just bought into the idea that the Pope intends to change or destroy the Church. With this assumption, everything that sounds different to them is assumed to be “proof” of the accusation. So they read the Pope’s words with this viewpoint and find malice. At best, this is Rash Judgment. At worst, it is Calumny. The difference is whether they make a false assumption about his intentions or intend to discredit him.

I find these Catholics to be perpetually angry. It may be because they lament the wrongdoing in the Church and are frustrated with the lack of progress in eliminating it. It may be they belong to one of the groups above, and it leads them to think the Pope must support what they oppose. Or they may be influenced by other wrathful Catholics who repeat their accusations over and over. But to assume that the Pope intends evil for the Church is something that corrupts one’s faith in God and the authority He gave the Catholic Church.

Conclusion: The First Two Steps to a Remedy

All of these categories have something in common—a belief that the Pope is in the wrong.  That belief is dangerous because it assumes that while the Pope can err, the individual judging him is not mistaken in his interpretation of the Pope. But each of these categories shows they do make an error in interpreting the Pope, past Church teaching, or both.

The first step is recognizing one can misinterpret Scripture, the current Pope, and past Church teaching—seeing conflict where there is none. Once one realizes they can make a mistake, he or she can begin considering whether they have made a mistake. The next step is realizing that God protects His Church. History shows there have been morally bad popes. There have been Popes who personally held to an error. But no Pope has ever taught error. 

Once we recognize these things, we have to realize that if we think the current Pope is teaching error, we have to consider it more probable that we have misinterpreted him—not because of our being “ultramontane” (a common slur against the Pope’s defenders), or putting too much trust in his personal talents, but because God established the Church on the rock of Peter and promised the gates of hell would not prevail against it. So, if there is a difference between what we think the Pope says and what we think the Church teaches, we need to consider the possibility that we have gone wrong, whether by misreading, or focussing on the wrong issue, or assuming Church teaching limits more than it does.

If we can start by asking “Have I gotten the issue wrong?” then perhaps we can learn. But if we refuse to ask that question, we will not learn, and we will needlessly be in opposition to Our Lord and His Church while thinking of ourselves as defenders.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

God is Not Mocked: Thoughts on the Use and Misuse of Conscience

Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. (Galatians 6:7–8).


A common theme among combox warriors, when it comes to bishops’ conferences issuing guidelines for the divorced and remarried receiving the Eucharist is, “The Floodgates are opened.” The assumption is the Church intends a loophole for Catholics in a state of mortal sin to receive the Eucharist. Now, it’s not my intention to analyze these different guidelines and judge them in terms of fidelity to the Church. Rather, I want to talk about conscience in general.

Some Catholics seem to make the same mistake over the term “conscience,” as they did by equating the term “mercy” with laxity. Now it is true that some Catholics abuse the term “conscience,” treating it as if it meant “do what you will.” But inserting that meaning, where the Church speaks on “conscience,” would be a gross misrepresentation of the term. As Gaudium et Spes #19 points out:

Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame

 Catholic Church, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium Et Spes,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

In other words, the person who thinks of the Eucharist as a “right” without considering where they stand before God will have to answer for an unworthy reception.

Basics of Conscience

Conscience is not a case of “feeling good about something.” Conscience tells us I must do X, or I must not do Y. Nor is conscience an infallible guide. If a person receives false information on right or wrong, their conscience can lead them to doing something objectively wrong while thinking it right, or scrupulously thinking something harmless is wrong. That is why the Church says we must form our consciences in accord with her teaching. If we have doubts on whether something would be morally right, we have the obligation not to act against our doubts until we resolve the issue.

What’s less known however is when conscience tells us we must act in a certain way, to refuse to follow conscience means we are choosing to do what we believe is morally wrong. So a person with a malformed conscience who believes it is morally wrong to do something, he must not do it. This scandalizes some Catholics who see this and thinks it means “justifying” a moral evil. It does not. What it does is reduce the culpability for a person who has no way of knowing better if they should reach a false conclusion in good faith. 

However, people cannot refuse to seek out the truth. Nor can they say their conscience “permits” something if they have merely formed bad habits that deafen them to the truth. Again, Gaudium et Spes points out:

16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.


 Catholic Church, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium Et Spes,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

In other words, if a person is ignorant of the truth through no fault of their own, they are not held accountable for their ignorance. But if they could have learned if they tried or if they deafened themselves to their conscience, they will be judged. 

God is Not Mocked

If the Pope, bishop, or priest insists on dialogue with the sinner so they can learn to do what is right, but the person whom subsidiarity makes responsible fails to do so, it is they who are to blame for the laxity or rigidity which leads the person of good faith astray. Or if this person does meet his responsibility but the sinner refuses to listen, then the sinner is to blame.

This is not some modernist error. This is the teaching of Scripture:

The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, speak to your people and tell them: When I bring the sword against a land, if the people of that land select one of their number as a sentinel for them, and the sentinel sees the sword coming against the land, he should blow the trumpet to warn the people. If they hear the trumpet but do not take the warning and a sword attacks and kills them, their blood will be on their own heads. They heard the trumpet blast but ignored the warning; their blood is on them. If they had heeded the warning, they could have escaped with their lives. If, however, the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the sword attacks and takes someone’s life, his life will be taken for his own sin, but I will hold the sentinel responsible for his blood (Ezekiel 33:1–6).

Since the Pope has routinely called for people to turn back to Our Lord, told bishops and pastors that they are to talk with sinners to help them understand the teaching of the Church and to investigate the individual situations of the person, we cannot say he is silent as a watchman. People may misrepresent him by falsely trying to insist that his conditions, which apply to a limited amount of people, are a universal change in teaching, but these are falsehoods on the part of the person, not the Pope.


And that’s why I have problems with combox warriors treating talk about conscience as if it meant discarding Church teaching. Yes, people can lie to their confessors in order to receive the Eucharist unworthily, but God will not be deceived. Yes, some confessors may fail in their duty to form consciences, but that does not make the duty to obey conscience any less. Those in error through no fault of their own will be treated more mercifully for doing wrong while thinking it right, than those who know they do wrong and do it anyway.

So let’s not assume that when the Pope speaks of mercy and conscience, he means them to justify evasion of doing right. Nor should we assume he approves those who misuse his writings for their own purposes. His teaching is about reconciling sinners with God, not giving people a “Get out of Hell Free” card.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Remembering Forgotten Teaching: Obedience and Docility

Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me. (Luke 10:16)

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


If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 k Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:17–18)

Attempts to cast oneself as a faithful Catholic by challenging the shepherds of the Church ultimately turn out to be chasing shadows. Chasing them can lead to our ruin as we follow them over treacherous ground. Our Lord created a visible Church where we can turn to know God’s teaching and how it is applied from generation to generation.

It is not the Pope and bishops endangering the Church, but those who forget this promise, who think the Church—especially her shepherds—must have erred and must be opposed, that deceive and scatter the faithful. Some of these people are clergy, some are laity. But the fact is, they do not have the authority to change what the Church teaches, nor to cite one favored teaching against a despised teaching. They cannot change what we are obligated to be and do. Yet in each age, such false teachers arise. Today, they come from the modern political divide of conservative/liberal, or the modern theological divide of modernist/traditionalist. Of course, these are not the only divides. Church history tells us of many divisions where people scrambled to challenge Church teaching. It would be meaningless to apply our current dichotomies to those factions. But one constant remains despite the divisions of history: these false teachers cannot demand we follow them over the shepherds of the Church.

The problem is, these false teachers try to invoke their personal interpretation on how a teaching should be applied as if it were Church teaching. They tell us that a Pope or bishop is in error if they do not meet the accusers’ ideals.

Of course we can have bad Popes (I deny the current Pope is one) and bishops throughout history. They hinder the mission of the Church by bad personal example. But no Pope has ever taught error (a couple have debatably held to error privately), and while some bishops throughout history have fallen into error, and sometimes heresy, they have not done so when following the teaching of the Pope. I think that’s something we forget. We’re so busy splitting hairs over the limits of an ex cathedra teaching, that we forget that protecting the Church is largely a negative function (preventing error from being taught) and that a formally defined dogma is rare.

Forgetting this creates a bizarre claim—that a disliked Pope is not protected from teaching error as Pope. But if this is true, then we can never know when a Pope taught error. If Blessed Paul VI brought error and spiritual harm to the Church with the Missal of 1970, how can we know St. Pius V didn’t bring error and spiritual harm into the Church with the Missal of 1570? If we will not trust God to protect His Church from error then we become “Cafeteria Catholics,” who pick and choose what we like and deny authority of the rest.

Recognizing both this protection and the fact that the Pope is the successor of Peter, we see the folly of trying to line up people against the Pope as if their opinions outweighed his teaching. A bishop has authority when in communion with the Pope, not in opposition. Otherwise the Old Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops would have authority over faithful Catholics.

If the bishops have no authority when not in communion with the Pope, the laity have even less. The armchair theologian, the blogger (including me), the canon lawyer, the combox warrior, the religion reporter have no authority to bind and loose at all. Their credibility depends on accurately representing the Catholic faith. The layman can do great things for the Church, but he has no right to demand acceptance for his opinion over the magisterium.

Think of it this way. In the legal system, a lawyer can be knowledgable about the law and can make compelling arguments on why it should be applied as he thinks. But neither his knowledge nor his arguments are authority. He argues the case, but the judge decides whether his application is right or wrong. The Church works in a similar way. Yes, each of us can read Church documents, and each of us can form an opinion on what they mean and how they should be applied. But our reading and interpretation are not Church teaching. It is the current magisterium who rules on how we must apply Church teaching for today.

That being said, we need to clear up misconceptions. This isn’t an assertion that the Pope and bishops can do whatever they want The magisterium is the servant, not superior to Scripture and Sacred Tradition. We do not hold some sort of “ultramontanism” (a popular slur against Papal defenders). We are stating the reality of who decides where to draw the line.

This is important when we address concerns and desires. Yes, Canon Law 212 tells us the faithful have the right and sometimes the duty to make their needs known. But the Pope and bishops have the authority to determine what practices should be maintained and which can be changed for the good of the faithful. In past centuries, people used to know this. St. Francis de Sales (made clear that we do not err in obedience to those in rightful authority acting for our spiritual benefit:

If this refers to those who have from God the power and duty to guide your soul and to command you in spiritual things, you are certainly right. In obeying them you cannot err, although they may err and advise you badly, if they look principally to any thing else than your salvation and spiritual progress.


Francis de Sales, Letters to Persons in the World, trans. Henry Benedict Mackey and John Cuthbert Hedley, Second Edition, Library of Francis de Sales (London; New York; Cincinnatti; Chicago: Burns and Oates; Benziger Brothers, 1894), 33.

So, some may want ad orientum, return to the use of Latin, or even a return to the Missal of 1962 for the whole Church. It’s not wrong to prefer these things, but some do wrong by rejecting the decision if the magisterium when it goes against what they want. Charity and docility to legitimate authority means we recognize they receive the power and responsibility to lead the Church from God. Accusing the Pope and bishops of bad will is not being a good Catholic “defending the faith.” It is dissent.

Once we realize this, we see the rebels have no authority to act against the Pope. They can’t treat his teaching as error. Nor can they treat it as opinion. Once the Pope teaches, even if it is not ex cathedra (see Canon Law 751-754), we must give assent. Those who will not may be clamorous and disturb us, but they have no authority to remake the Church to what they want it to be. Their clamor must be dismissed like shadows (Psalm 73:20), not given credibility, while we reach out to the world to bring them to Our Lord (Matthew 28:20).

I’d like to conclude by stressing one point. We’re not expected to be mindless sheep here with a blind obedience. As human beings, we all have our preferences and our dislikes, and we certainly have the right to make a respectful appeal to have these things addressed. However, we also need to remember what the Church knew in past centuries—that the Pope and bishops are given authority to determine what is best for the Church. We cannot rebel against this authority in the name of being “faithful Catholics.” That is simply a contradiction.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Properly Understanding Mercy in a New Year

13 Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:13)


I remember, during my earlier childhood, reading a book on the Second World War. In it, there was a picture of an elderly Jewish man arguing with members of the SS. I recall the caption saying something to the effect of, “An elderly Jewish man argues in vain against being deported.” I also remember being confused because I thought that they should take the opportunity to escape Nazi Germany. It wasn’t until I grew older that I understood what “deported” really meant, and why this man was so desperate to avoid deportation. I can understand why a book in the children’s section of a library would not get so deep into the Holocaust. But, if I had never gone beyond what I thought was meant from these books, I would not be excused as an adult for thinking that the experience of the Jews in the Third Reich was merely “unpleasant,” instead of the horror it really was.

The point of this anecdote is showing how something can originally presented to us in a way which isn’t false, but also overlooks crucial information. This doesn’t have to be a deliberate attempt to mislead. Rather, it can come about if people assume they have the whole story and interpret what they read through that assumption. In doing so, they overlook the possibility that their knowledge may have been a mere summary, or that they missed some pieces that would put things in context and should lead them to a different conclusion.


One of the major examples of “missing pieces” in 2016 was the concept of mercy. The Pope declared a Jubilee Year dedicated to mercy. He gave many addresses encouraging the faithful to seek out confession, and encouraged the clergy to be receptive and merciful in reaching out to the faithful. The Pope desired that the faithful might come and be converted, and that stumbling blocks that might discourage them from conversion should be removed.

Yet, two groups got that Year of Mercy wrong. They equated mercy with saying it was all right to sin. One group thought this was a great idea. The other thought it was a horrible idea. These two groups fed off of each other.  Those who wrongly believed, “Mercy = laxity,” and thought it was a horrible idea pointed to the group who thought it was a great idea as if it were “proof” of  the Holy Father wanting to change Church teaching. Those who wrongly believed, “Mercy = laxity,” and thought it was a good idea pointed to the critics as trying to “block the Pope’s reforms.”

What nobody asked was whether the “Mercy = laxity” claim was even accurate. The debate between these factions was only relevant if their premise was true. If the Pope was not in favor of moral laxity, then their fight was meaningless.

The fact is, the Pope’s call for mercy could be described as reminding the Church that their role is this…

Lost Sheep

And not this…


In other words, the Pope was reminding us that we need to look at sinners as people we’re called to go out to find, not as foes we need to defend the Church against. They’re our patients, not our enemies. No doubt some will despise the Church for what she believes and seek to undermine it. Such people might need to be opposed. But even then, we can’t be harsh about it. That being said, many others simply don’t understand why we believe what we do. Some actually think we’re the enemies of mercy and compassion, and we need to teach them why our teaching is what God wills.

How We Reach Out to Others Matters

That’s not a matter of just throwing a Catechism to them, telling them to read the relevant sections and keeping them away until they get their lives together. It’s a matter of patient charity, working with their desire to do what is right and loving, so they can realize, “Because I love God, I need to change my outlook and ways.” If we drive the sinner away, and that sinner decides “This can’t be God’s Church,” we have failed in our task.

The Pope, in his calls for mercy, calls us to look at every case individually, and not assume all sinners know Church teaching and reject it out of bad will. Some are alienated because they have a wrong idea of what we believe. For example, I’ve encountered some Catholics who were deeply embittered because they (wrongly) believed they could not receive the Eucharist simply because they were divorced, even though they never remarried outside the Church and were living chastely.

The Church is not to blame for this misunderstanding, though it is possible that people within the Church are responsible for this misunderstanding. We should consider this point. Does our behavior drive people away from the Church because we lack mercy or because we have given a distorted view of the Church to others? Perhaps we should think about the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in these terms. If God has entrusted to us the task of bringing people to Him, and we drive these people away, will Our Lord respond to us like the master did to the servant who buried his talent? 

God’s Gift and Our Task

19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)

God gives graces so we might respond to His call, and He makes use of human agents to make His call known, and how we are to respond to the call. Playing “goalie,” trying to keep people out who are less holy than we think we are is not cooperating with His mission. Yes, one of the spiritual works of mercy is to “Admonish the sinner.” But admonish does not mean, “Act like a jerk.” Many people look at the word with a modern meaning of “strongly rebuking.” But actually, the sense of “Warn (someone) of something to be avoided” is what we need to do.

So, yes, we do need to admonish (warn) people about the sins popular with the world. If they reject the Church because of their obstinacy, we will not be held accountable. But if they reject the Church because they think our misbehavior represents what the Church is, we will be held accountable for driving them away.

So when we reach out to the divorced and remarried, when we reach out to those committing homosexual acts, when we reach out to those considering or having committed abortion, or any other sins, we need to make sure that we are not the cause of a hostile reaction. As St. Peter put it:

19 For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering because of consciousness of God, that is a grace. 20 But what credit is there if you are patient when beaten for doing wrong? But if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20)

That’s harder than it might seem. Think about your own interactions on social media (I know I do). How many times have we sought to put the smackdown on someone we’re arguing with instead of patiently putting up with their hostility? What sort of witness have we left? That doesn’t mean we should be a doormat for the abuse of others. Sometimes, when facing an abusive person, we have no choice but to walk away.

But it does mean we can’t write people off as a lost cause. Our Lord told us about forgiving “seventy times seven” when we are wronged. We can’t harbor resentments or think of them as not worth saving. All of us are sinners, and all of us need God’s grace. That doesn’t mean that we decide that since all are sinners, no sin matters. It does mean that our task is a constant reaching out to get them back to a right relationship with Our Lord and the Church.


Some people hate the term, “Accompanying” because they (again, wrongly) interpret it as a Church just letting people do what they want. But that is to miss the point. The Pope has never called for that. He has called for the Church to be present for each member as they are guided back to God, looking at the situation of each person. If they’re not at the level of understanding that they can have proper contrition and firm purpose of amendment, the Church seeks to help them understand. 

But the Church also recognizes that to have a mortal sin, there has to be a gravely sinful act, full knowledge and full consent. Where one of the three is lacking, mortal sin does not exist. Of course things like abortion, divorce/remarriage, and homosexual acts fall under the category of “gravely sinful.” Nobody denies that. But when the person is ignorant of the evil, we help them to understand. When the person has a lack of sufficient consent (for example, a person who is sexually compulsive), it is often a long, difficult task getting the person to a point where he or she is able to control their acts to the point to give sufficient consent before acting.

The person who stops with the fact of grave matter, assuming the rest is not accompanying the sinner on the path back to Our Lord and His Church. If he or she acts like a bouncer trying to “keep out the riffraff,” such a person is like the Pharisee our Lord warns against when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.” (Matthew 23:13).

We don’t ultimately know who will refuse God’s grace and merit hell. That’s the sort of judgment Jesus condemns in Matthew 7:1. We simply can’t give up on anyone, nor assume the worst motives.

That, in a nutshell, is Pope Francis’ call for us in being merciful.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Thoughts on the Errors of Combox Warriors


There seems to be a slew of errors going around on social media which feed on a misrepresenting of the interviews with Cardinal Burke over the dubia. Like always, I’m not accusing him of supporting those actions done invoking his name [†]. I’m opposing errors from those I call “Combox Warriors” (Catholic battling in social media over Church matters, viciously attacking those who disagree). These errors stem from the refusal to consider they might have gotten something wrong in comparing what they think follows from what they think the Pope says with what they think previous Church teaching means. In other words, the attacks on the Pope depend on the ipse dixit claims of his critics who need to prove what they assume is true.

So let’s look at some of the problems with their claims.

How is it that X Isn’t a Teaching, but Y is, When Both are Taught at the Same Level?

One of the claims used to deny the teaching authority of Amoris Lætitia is to say it isn’t a teaching because it is only an Apostolic Exhortation. The problem is, these critics also insist that this Exhortation is wrong because it “contradicts” (a point to be proven, not assumed) Familiaris Consortio. But there is the problem. Familiaris Consortio is also an Apostolic Exhortation. So, if Amoris Lætitia is not a teaching because it is “only” an Apostolic Exhortation, then logically one must concede that Familiaris Consortio is not a teaching either.

In other words, you can either accept the authority of both or reject the authority of both. But to accept one and reject the other on these grounds is irrational.

There’s No Facility for Removing a Pope from Office

Another problem comes from Combox warriors quoting St. Robert Bellarmine out of context (we’ll talk more about that below).  The argument is that when a Pope is a manifest heretic, he is no longer the Pope. It is claimed that the Pope’s teachings “prove” he is a heretic (or will be soon). Therefore, it is argued that he’s not the Pope. So, who determines whether the Pope has crossed that line? Cardinal Burke thinks it can be done but “It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.” The problem is, there is no competent tribunal to judge him. No valid council has ever deposed a sitting Pope. In fact, the Code of Canon Law (#1404) tells us, “The First See is judged by no one.”

Indeed, the cause of the Great Western Schism came about because a majority of cardinals deserted Pope Urban VI and elected an antipope (Robert of Geneva, aka Clement VII) in his place. Later, to try to correct the confusion, cardinals called a council at Pisa [*] and tried to depose both the Pope and the antipope and “declared” a new person Pope (antipope Alexander V). In all of this, the Church regards the true Pope to have been Urban VI and his successors.

The Council of Constance declared that a Council had the authority to depose a Pope (the Haec Sancta Synodus decree), but this decree was never approved by Gregory XII (the legitimate Pope of the time) nor his successor Martin V, so it is not considered a magisterial teaching. Therefore, it cannot be invoked against Pope Francis. The point is, despite whether one, four, or even all 121 of the cardinals under the age of 80 want to depose the Pope, there is no valid means they can use to do so.

Before a Pope could be removed from office because he was a “manifest heretic,” we would need one of two things to happen:

  1. The Pope would have to issue a decree defining how a Pope could be removed.
  2. A Council called by a Pope would have to decree on how a Pope could be removed—and the Pope at the time of the Council would have to approve that declaration. 
In other words, the Church has no ability to force a Pope from his office, and will not get one unless a Pope enacts such an ability through his authority. So long as there is no such authority granted, we can trust in God to remove such a Pope—and I deny any Pope past or present fits the condition of manifest heretic.

Let’s Talk About St. Robert Bellarmine’s Opinion [§]

Earlier, I mentioned the passage of St. Robert Bellarmine that critics of the Pope cite to say a Pope can be removed. The arguments I have seen run along the lines of pointing out that he is a Doctor of the Church and therefore his writings are official teachings of the Church. This is not true. The text in question actually discusses 5 opinions. What’s not normally quoted is the fact that the first view rejects that the Pope can be a heretic in the first place:

The first is of Albert Pighius, who contends that the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case: 806 [Hierarchiae Ecclesiasticae, bk 4, ch. 8.] such an opinion is probable, and can easily be defended, as we will show in its proper place.

However, he says that because “the common opinion is to the contrary, it will be worthwhile to see what the response should be if the Pope could be a heretic.” Note that phrase, “if the Pope could.” He’s not assuming it happens. He’s making a speculative, “What if that’s wrong?” Of those four opinions He rejects three of them:

  1. That the Pope can be deposed the instant he falls into even personal heresy.
  2. That the Pope can’t even be deposed for manifest heresy.
  3. [St. Cajetan’s opinion] That if the Pope falls into manifest heresy, he can and should be deposed by the Church.

After analyzing and rejecting these, he supports the following:

Now the fifth true opinion, is that a Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction, and namely St. Cyprian who speaks on Novation, who was a Pope in schism with Cornelius: “He cannot hold the Episcopacy, although he was a bishop first, he fell from the body of his fellow bishops and from the unity of the Church.” 819 [Bk 4, epist. 2]. There he means that Novation, even if he was a true and legitimate Pope; still would have fallen from the pontificate by himself, if he separated himself from the Church.

Bellarmine, Robert (2015-05-22). On the Roman Pontiff. (De Controversiis Book 1) (pp. 309-310). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition. 

Unfortunately, the term “true opinion” is misunderstood today. It’s a philosophical term which refers to an opinion which is held for reasons that are true, as opposed to arbitrary preference, but many wrongly think it means “fact.” So, this isn’t Church doctrine, and St. Robert Bellarmine doesn’t think it is either.

I would sum up this chapter as follows: While not defined, it is probable to believe that the Pope can’t be a manifest heretic, and therefore can’t be deposed. But, if he could be a manifest heretic (which is debated), members of the Church don’t depose him—he’d merely stop being Pope because he’d stop being Christian. (Many of Pope Francis’ critics who cite the Saint’s opinion actually seem to misinterpret it as #1 and #3 which he actually rejects.)

That being said, St. Robert Bellarmine’s treatise was never turned into the official teaching of the Church. As pointed out above, the Church has no defined way to remove a Pope, so this cannot be used by cardinals or councils to depose a Pope.

Popes Honorius I and John XXII

Two Popes who have been mentioned as “proof” of Popes being heretics are Honorius I and John XXII. The problem is, neither Pope proves anything in the case at hand, and it is unjust to claim Pope Francis is in the same situation.

Honorius I was condemned at the Third Council of Constantinople, 42 years after his death, because, in a letter to Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, he seemed to privately hold the heresy of monothelitism. But there is a dispute as to whether he disagreed with Our Lord having two wills (heterodox) or disagreed with the idea of Our Lord having two wills in conflict. Regardless of which was true, he is considered as having failed to carry out his duty by evading the issue instead of confronting it.

If it was true he privately held heresy, his case does not show a Pope can be deposed for heresy. He died in office and a later Pope confirmed the sentence of the Council. Nor can his evasion be equated with Pope Francis refusing to answer the dubia. Honorius I sought to evade an answer. Pope Francis insists the teaching is clear, but some people want excessive clarification. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Pope, there is no evidence that he is seeking to evade a debate.

Pope John XXII is (wrongly) portrayed as a Pope who taught heresy. That is not an accurate accusation. The issue was whether those who die see the Beatific vision immediately or not until the Final Judgment. At this time, the issue was not decided. What John XXII did was give homilies (which are not an occasion for infallibility) holding the former position. The controversy is over whether he was defining doctrine. He was not formally corrected, but was persuaded to change his opinion on the subject.

The accusations of heresy came from a group called the Spiritual Franciscans whom the Pope ruled against. The issue was over whether his condemnation of the idea that, “Christ and his apostles had no possessions whatever.” Seeking to discredit the Pope, they accused him of teaching heresy. However, this was not a defined doctrine and the Pope was not teaching. It was not until his successor, Benedict XII, that the issue was defined. Since heresy is “ the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” and John XXII did not deny anything, let alone obstinately, we don’t consider him a heretic. 


It’s not my place to judge the intentions of the cardinals who are troubled by the Pope, and I won’t accuse them of bad will.  Cardinal Burke did explicitly say Pope Francis was not a heretic, so it would be unjust to put those words in his mouth.

Unfortunately, some Catholics on social media are using his words to justify their attacks on the Pope. These attacks have long been based on their own readings of what they think the Pope says, contrasted to what they think the Church said previously. In doing so, they have two prove two things:

  1. That they have interpreted the Pope according to his intention.
  2. That they have interpreted previous Church teaching according to the understanding of the magisterium today.
In fact, these “combox warriors" show they understand neither correctly. Quotes from both are lifted out of context to show they are “contradictory.” These are the same tactics used by the critics of Vatican II and every Pope from St. John XXIII forward. I won’t lump all these critics together (there are variations), but we have to realize that some of the most abusive attacks come from people who have long seated grudges against the Church and refuse to consider the possibility that they could have gotten it wrong.
It’s my hope that by discussing some of the more common claims, this article might show that the arguments of such “combox warriors” are flawed and leading people astray by deceiving them into thinking the Church is in a state of error. It is only by recognizing the possibility of our own error when disagreeing with the magisterium that we can avoid spreading dissent while thinking we are in the right.



[†] One wishes the combox warriors would give the Pope the same consideration.

[*] This gathering was condemned in the Lateran V Council.

[§] Permissions to quote sections of the recent translation of this work was given by Mediatrix Press. The volume in question can be found HERE. (To get to the relevant chapter, go to Book II, Chapter XXX) I’ve copied the footnotes to the text in brackets after the number for readers who want to make sure nothing is overlooked. 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Thoughts on Authority and Disobedience

The Church has rules. That’s not open for debate. Some of these rules come from doctrine: God has taught us, and we cannot disobey these rules without disobeying Him. Others come from the Church applying her beliefs to face situations that arise in a given time, We cannot disobey these rules (Luke 10:16), but the Church can decide to change them when conditions change. Dangers arise when people confuse these things. If one assumes that Our Lord’s teaching is a “man made rule,” or that a discipline is Our Lord’s teaching, they wind up rebelling against Our Lord and the Church He established.

There’s more to it than that, however. Some confuse their assumptions about Scripture or about Church teaching are the teaching of Our Lord or His Church, when they actually apply restrictions or laxity which are not present. As Catholics, we’re blessed to have a Magisterium which has the right and responsibility to determine how these teachings are to be understood and applied in each age. They have the authority to decide when a change of discipline is needed and how Our Lord’s teachings, as passed on to us by the Apostles, faces the new challenges from the world.

Our Lord gave the Church the authority to bind and loose in His name, and this authority did not end with the death of the Apostles, but continues on with their successors until the end of the world. There will occasionally be Judases among them, but we believe the Lord will keep His promises and protect the Church from teaching error. These promises are important. If we did not know who was protected from teaching error, we could never know who we could trust to properly bind and loose. If the Bishop of Rome could sometimes truth and sometimes err—as happened with the patriarchates of ancient Christendom—how could we know who to turn to?

The history of the ancient Church tells us of sincere men who believed that the words of Scripture taught something contrary to the Church. These men persuaded emperors and patriarchs to embrace errors about the faith. It was only the Bishop of Rome that consistently resisted these errors. Sometimes that was tenuous—that a Pope might only be silent instead of teaching error—but the evidence shows that Popes did not teach error when using their authority to teach [†]. If a Pope were to teach that it was permissible to do evil, this would be a matter of the Church binding error, permitting a Catholic to do something which endangered their souls. The next Pope to do this would be the first.

Understanding this, we can see how reckless it is to accuse the Pope of teaching error, against the true faith of the Church. Such an accusation goes far beyond the accusation of the man holding the office. It must assert that God does not protect His Church and we must decide for ourselves when the Church teaches rightly or wrongly. That’s a recipe for spiritual anarchy, and contrary to what the Church teaches about herself. 

Accordingly, some who disagree with the direction a Pope takes try to downplay the authority of a teaching. Since the Church teaches that the faithful must obey her teachings, some try to claim that a teaching is not binding unless it is infallible. Others try to draw a dividing line over what level of Papal document is binding [*] and claim that an unpopular document is neither binding nor protected from error. That is to legalistically split hairs. Even before Vatican II, the Church had a clear idea as to when the Pope was not protected from error:

The Pope is therefore not infallible when he gives a decision as man, bishop, scholar, preacher, or confessor, nor when he expresses an opinion on questions of art, politics, or secular science. Infallibility is quite distinct from personal impeccability.


F. J. Koch, A Manual of Apologetics, ed. Charles Bruehl, trans. A. M. Buchanan (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1915), 177–178.

One can exclude a press conference, an interview, decisions governing the diocese of Rome, writing a book [§], giving a homily and the like. But when the Pope, or those authorized by him, gives instruction, we are obliged to obey:

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.


Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 248.

Yes, we can have (charitable) differences of opinion on how to best carry out these decrees, but we can’t refuse obedience in the name of appealing to an earlier teaching of the Church or by trying to contrast the Bible with the Church. Unfortunately, people do make these appeals. Critics of St. John Paul II appealed to the Bible with selective quotes on love and mercy. Critics of Pope Francis try to argue that he contradicts his predecessors.

The problem is, if we accept their claims, we’re back to the problem of never being able to know when the magisterium taught truly and when they did not. Some liberal Catholics reject Popes they dislike. Some conservative Catholics do the same. Without a final authority, who can determine who is right? We’d be reduced to making the appeal the Mormons make about the Book of Mormon: Feeling a “burning of the breast.” But heretics feel just as strongly about their errors as orthodox Catholics feel about the truth. So we can’t rely on what feels right, or how we interpret Scripture or Church teaching. We must use the magisterium as the guide. If we proclaim that we can’t trust the authority of the Church today, then we have no guide at all. We merely have a Church with a billion Popes.

We can trust God to protect the Pope from teaching error as Pope. That can either be through extraordinary tools, like ex cathedra teachings, or it can be from preventing a morally bad Pope from teaching, or somewhere in between. But we can’t declare a teaching we dislike as somehow being an exception to our obligation to obey the Pope when he teaches. We can’t invent excuses not to obey. So, having faith in God to protect His Church, we should pray for the Pope and bishops to be effective teachers.



[†] Pope John XXII held a private opinion on the Beatific Vision which his successor later defined to the contrary. But at the time, it was not defined, and he did not teach as Pope on the subject. Pope Honorius may or may not have personally believed in Monothelitism (Scholars are divided). However, he did not formally teach it as Pope. The documents under contention were private letters.

[*] Ironically, some of these critics will simultaneously say that a Papal statement is not binding but somehow prove the Pope is “teaching error.” If it is a teaching, it is binding (See Code of Canon Law, #751-754). If it is not teaching, the Pope is not “teaching” error.

[§] For example, Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy was very insightful, but not protected under infallibility.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Just Who is Causing Confusion Here?

The growing mantra among Catholics dissatisfied with the Pope is that he “causes confusion” in the Church when he speaks or writes. What I notice, however, is that the confusion usually stems from how people read the news reports about the Pope and interpret quotes about what he says. For example, despite the existence of the Vatican website providing transcripts that prove otherwise, some Catholics still believe the Pope said, “Who am I to judge?” regarding the morality of homosexual acts. This interpretation is false, and whether one approved or disapproved of the misinterpreted “teaching,” it was those who spread the misinterpretation who caused confusion, not the Pope.

Throughout the pontificate of Pope Francis, this story has been repeated. People presume that the Pope intends to change Church teaching and either praise or condemn him, depending on what they think about this “change.” Never mind the fact that the Pope said his position was that of the Church. Never mind that none of his writings from before he became Pope showed any sign of wanting to change Church teaching. People who assumed that he wanted to change Church teaching—for whatever motive—interpreted anything they were unfamiliar with as “proof” of changing Church teaching. Seeing this, I have to ask: Who is really causing confusion in the Church? The Pope who speaks on complex subjects? Or people who break these complex subjects down into soundbites?

At this point, people will probably think about the dubia controversy and claim the Pope could “easily” clear up any confusion by answering the questions. Some of these people are no doubt sincere. But others have a history of hostility to the Pope or to the long held teaching of the Church, and seize on whatever can be twisted to suit an agenda. I will not put any specific Catholic in that category, but we need to be aware that this category exists. If Catholics in this category misrepresent the intentions of the Pope and give his words an interpretation that suits their agenda, the Pope is in a no-win situation. No matter what he says, it will continue to be interpreted by those who have an agenda, and they will continue to twist his words to support their agenda.

I think the problem we need to face is this: In a culture of smart phones we have instant notifications of oversimplified reports from people who do not understand the theological nuances. People give these notifications far more weight than they should. Isolated quotes are not given context. The result is, people fill in these blanks with their own interpretations, even though they have neither the information, nor the knowledge to do so. Then, when a full transcript is released, people who misinterpreted the Pope blame him for their own misinterpretation. When an explanation is given on how people misinterpreted the Pope, people claim “the Vatican” is walking it back.

So I have to ask, how can the Pope hope to answer the dubia satisfactorily when it is a no win situation? If he answers the dubia in their Yes/No format (which I think was a mistake on the part of the cardinals, but I don’t accuse them of malice), people will assume he’s either “walking back” or denying Church teaching. If he answers in depth, people will again take quotes out of context and interpret them according to their own views.

The Smart Phone problem will not be easily resolved. Not every theological issue can be explained in 140 characters or a Facebook comment. Study of texts is needed to prevent error from false interpretation. But there is one thing we can do to avoid confusion.

We must stop assuming that the Pope is heterodox or incompetent and intends to change Church teaching. If we assume these things, we will misinterpret what he says and writes through that lens. But if we assume he is orthodox, we will see what he says in light of Church teaching and carry it out in that light. That won’t end confusion. Church history is full of dissenters questioning a teaching and using that dissent as “proof” that the teaching is contested. There will always be people in the Church who seek to twist the meaning of what the Church teaches to justify what they want to do anyway—look at how pro-abortion Catholics abuse the concept of Double Effect to “justify” abortion. But if we assume the Pope is orthodox, then the interpretations that try to turn “X is a sin” into “X is not a sin” will be revealed as the counterfeits they are.

So let’s stop accusing the Pope of “causing confusion” when it is clearly those who misinterpret or, in some cases, misrepresent that cause the confusion.