Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Continuity of Magisterium

There are, unfortunately, Catholics who think that defending Pope Francis involves tearing down his predecessors. What Pope Francis does is either portrayed as “finally correcting” bad practices of the past or trying to bury the good his predecessors did under the problems that became public at the time of their pontificates. It’s a problem because they fall into the same error as those who claim that Pope Francis is a “disaster” for the Church. Both factions falsely believe there is a “break” in continuity and merely disagree on whether that “break” is good or bad.

In doing so, both are forgetting about the nature of the Church as God’s chosen means to evangelize the world, protected from error in doing so. The individual needs of an era can require changes in discipline or emphasis, but the central truth remains. When we take both the changeable and unchangeable into account, arguing that a break has occurred is to either deny or be ignorant about God’s role in the Church.

It doesn’t matter which Pope you use as a yardstick. You will always find something that went wrong during his pontificate or at least something you might wish had been done differently. But that is an unavoidable part of God’s choice to make use of weak, finite, and sinful human beings. Without God’s protection, His Church would have collapsed right after Pentecost, if not the Last Supper.

Some things are not protected, of course. We might look at certain acts of governing the Papal States and Vatican City and wince. We might wish that the concordat with Nazi Germany or the agreement with China had been handled differently. We might wish that St. John Paul II had not kissed the Qur’an, that Benedict XVI had not given that interview in Light of the World§, or that Pope Francis didn’t give press conferences. Cringing in those cases is not being rejecting the magisterium*. Regretting how Popes handled the sexual abuse crisis is not magisterium. We can lament how some escaped or took refuge between bad assumptions@. But, if somebody uses these non magisterial events to argue that a Pope is a heretic, and we can reject when a Pope does teach—that is dissent.

Pope Francis is not “a Marxist.” His warnings on the evils of Capitalism are no different from his predecessors. St. John Paul II was not “heartless” with Familiaris Consortio. Nor did Pope Francis contradict him. The two Popes wrote on two different aspects of communion after remarriage. St. John Paul II wrote on the fact that those not seeking to rectify their situation cannot be admitted to communion. Pope Francis wrote about evaluating every person to determine whether the conditions of mortal sin are present#, and helping those earnestly trying to get right with God and the Church. What Pope Francis said would not apply to the unrepentant. St. John Paul II denying communion would not apply to those trying (and occasionally failing) to live as brother and sister.

But if one assumes a break in teaching by a non magisterial act or a change in a discipline, it’s the same error whether one supports or opposes the “break.”

I would ask my fellow defenders of Pope Francis not to tear down his predecessors while defending him. From a worldly perspective, it might seem to be a break or change in teaching. But it’s actually only a change in approach to deal with where our society went wrong today.


(§) This was where Benedict XVI used the infamous example of “the male prostitute with AIDS” that many (wrongly) thought was opening the doors to using condoms.

(*) It might be sinful based on how one responds. We should always remember that the account we hear might not accurate.

(@) Reading the 1917 Code of Canon Law, it appears (to me anyway) that the canons did not consider that victims might be too ashamed to come forward, that abusive priests might not confess their sins, or that the canons seemed to block bishops from acting until the victim came forward.

(#) Unfortunately, some interpretations of FC assumed that mortal sin was present in all cases. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Catholics Out of Control

Benedict XVI’s spokesman, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, issued a statement at the request of the Pope emeritus asking that the book not identify him as a co-author. Cardinal Sarah later announced that he would respect Benedict XVI’s request and that Benedict XVI would not be listed as a co-author, but as a contributor.

Judging by the accounts out there, Benedict XVI had written a small piece on priestly celibacy and okayed it being used in Cardinal Sarah’s book. So there’s no question of the Cardinal “hijacking” the piece. My guess is that Benedict XVI was concerned that some Catholics and the secular media would use this to create a myth of a “counter-magisterium” and asked that his role in the book be clarified. Both he and Cardinal Sarah§ have reiterated their obedience to the Pope. 

You might think that this was simply resolved and whatever confusion existed between the two men was cleared up. You’d be wrong, because the Catholic Internet went berserk. Not just on one side either. Some Catholics—on both sides—are falling into rash judgment.

English language publisher Ignatius Press announced (in something that struck me as problematic reasoning) that they would not change the identification of Benedict XVI as co-author. Apparently their reading of the Chicago Manual of Style overrules Benedict XVI’s express wishes. Some opponents of the Pope also treated criticism of how publishers handled it as if they were accusations of disloyalty (unfortunately, some criticism did sink to this level. See below) and attempting to stir up attacks on those defending the faith. Those hostile to Pope Francis claimed that Archbishop Gänswein was lying about it, delivering a message contrary to what Benedict wanted—some claiming this was ordered by the Pope, implying it was at the orders of the Pope.

At the same time, some supporters of Pope Francis tried to portray Benedict and Cardinal Sarah as disloyal, even part of a cabal. The two stand accused of deliberately trying to preemptively undermine Pope Francis’ final decision on whether married priests would be allowed, trying to “rally support” against the Pope. They are accused of hostility to the Eastern Rites which do have married priests. There is no evidence for this of course. Just some excerpts that sound harsh, though we have no sense of context. Then, once Benedict XVI asked that his name be removed as co-author, some turned and started portraying Cardinal Sarah as dishonest, misrepresenting his book to the Pope emeritus.

Catholics should not be rushing to judgment. We might say that some of the excerpts seem to be harsh, while remembering we have no sense of context to claim certainty. There’s no basis to accuse Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah of disloyalty. There’s no basis to say Archbishop Gänswein issued a false statement or that the Pope was “furious.” While we may later find some of our suspicions may turn out to be true, we have no basis for those claims now.

We need to stop looking for heroes and villains in this story and start doing research unclouded by our personal likes and dislikes. Otherwise, we’re damaging the Church and causing scandal.


(§) Cardinal Sarah’s writings sometimes strike me as blunt to the point of being a bit over the top, but I have never read anything of his that struck me as disloyal to Pope Francis. I think this is simply a matter of his temperament. I don’t say this as a condemnation. All of us have things we need to deal with in our lives. Moreover, we certainly should not make any accusations before the book is published. Cardinal Sarah has stated his obedience and fidelity to the Pope. I will take him at his word unless credible evidence to the contrary emerges (none has yet).

Monday, January 13, 2020

Brief Reflection on the Hype over the New Book by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah

People are making a big to-do about the book coming out by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah. It’s being portrayed as these two men “opposing” the Pope. I have some brief thoughts about that.

This book isn’t even out yet. We have a few excerpts coming from the French version and some claiming access to the galleys of the Ignatius Press translation. We have no sense of context. Secular media and Catholic media hostile to the Pope are portraying it as a rift. Other Catholics, supportive of the Pope, are portraying it as a betrayal. But right now, any speculation is exactly that. Speculation. 

Remember the fuss over the 2011 interview when people thought the excerpt of “a male prostitute with AIDS” using a condom meant a change in Church teaching? As it turned out, he was describing a person moving slowly turning towards thinking about consequences of actions. I suspect in this book, we’ll find out that the conflict was not a conflict at all.

Another thing to remember is that there is no counter-magisterium here. If I’m wrong and it turns out that what the Pope ultimately decides—and remember, he is opposed to ending celibacy—is different from the views presented in this book, what the Pope decides will be binding. 

But now is not the time to look for heroes and villains, nor battle to the death for the teachings we think must or must not be. It’s certainly not time to bewail disasters to the Church. We don’t know the context of the presented snippets, and once we do know, we know who has the authority to shepherd the Church.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Church and Politics

One tendency many American Catholics have is to argue that “The Church should stay out of politics and focus on saving souls.” Invariably, what they label “politics” happens to be whatever rebukes the Church has for their own political party. That doesn’t always mean that these Catholics support those evils. But it shows that they view them as less important than the issues that offend them more. Whatever their political beliefs, they think the Church should focus more on the evils of the other side.

I think these Catholics miss the point. The Church is not replacing the mission to bring people to Christ with political beliefs. Rather, the Church is carrying out their mission by warning people when they are giving support to Caesar in opposition to what God commands. Regardless of what party an individual Catholic favors—and in a universal Church, there are more political parties to worry about than just the Americans’ Democrats and Republicans—if that party tries to implement an agenda contrary to God’s law, they are usurping what belongs to God. Benedict XVI makes a good point here:

To the extent that the Roman emperor safeguards the law, he can demand obedience. Of course, the scope of the duty of obedience is reduced at the same time: there are the things that are Caesar’s and those that are God’s. Whenever Caesar exalts himself as God, he has exceeded his limits, and obedience then would be the denial of God. Essentially along these same lines is Jesus’ reply to Pilate, in which the Lord, in the presence of an unjust judge, still acknowledges that the authority to act as judge, a role of service to the law, can be given only from above (Jn 19:11).

—Benedict XVI, Western Culture, Today and Tomorrow

If a party tries to legalize something contrary to God’s law (for example, try to declare abortion or homosexual actions as “good” or try to redefine the nature of sex and gender) or carries out a potentially neutral act in an evil way (such as turning the right of the state to control who enters the country into forced family separation or to live in disgraceful conditions), they have gone beyond the authority that was given from above.

It’s always easy to see when the “other side” does evil. But it is much harder to see when our own party does evil. I have seen Catholics claim that “the bishops got played” when the bishops stood up to condemn abortion. I’ve seen Catholics claim that “the bishops support open borders” when they condemn mistreatment and callousness directed against migrants. These Catholics should remember something else Benedict XVI said:

Politics is the sphere of reason; more precisely, not a purely technical, calculating reason, but moral reasoning, since the end of the State, and thus the ultimate purpose of all politics, is by its very nature moral, namely, peace and justice. This means that moral reasoning about, or more precisely, rational discernment of what fosters justice and peace (and therefore is moral) must be constantly carried on and defended against all that could obscure and diminish reason’s capacity for discernment. The party mentality that goes along with power will always produce myths in various forms, which are presented as the true path of moral reality in politics but are in fact merely masks and disguises of power.


We should beware of those myths. In America, they tend to be negative: if you don’t vote for us, you will be responsible for whatever evil happens is one of the most common. Another is we can’t focus on that issue right now when this is so much worse. But let’s face it: Obama did many of the things we condemn Trump for. Planned Parenthood remains fully funded despite warnings and promises, and the contraception mandate is still in place. Both sides point out the hypocrisy of their rival. But Matthew 7:3-5 applies to both parties. So these myths are shown to be masks of power.

Does this mean voting is futile? Of course not. We do need to act to promote the good and oppose the evil in accord with Church teaching, and voting is part of that action. Vatican II (Apostolicam actuositatem 5) tells us:

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

But if we make use of myths to promote our own party and excuse our own disobedience to the Church, we are letting Caesar—or at least the person we want as Caesar—attempt to take the place of God. We must be always ready to draw the line when Caesar tries to usurp the power of God—even if that Caesar is of our own party—and tell him or her we will not tolerate their actions*. If our preferred party is at odds with the Church, we have an obligation to change the party to do be closer to what we are morally obligated to do.

It is easy to decry when the fellow Catholic doing this is part of the “other side.” But if we refuse to oppose it—or worse, we even support it—when our “own side” does it, we are also guilty, regardless of the fact that the other side does it too.


(*) While America is effectively a two-party system, we must avoid the either-or fallacy here. The fact that Party X promotes evil does not make Party Y good. We must evaluate both. If we accept one or reject both, it needs to be done through formation of conscience through the teaching of the Church. We might successfully lie to each other, we cannot lie to God.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Pressing Forward, Blindly

Certain Catholics proudly announce their “orthodoxy” by citing certain Scripture and Church documents—the latter usually from the time of St. Pius X—used to argue that later statements they dislike must be heretical. Their behavior is very much like other Christians who claim rely solely on their reading of the Bible.

The reason I say that the two are similar is because they make the same error, even though both would disagree with the other’s theoretical understanding of the Church. That error is confusing their own interpretation with what is actually taught. Because they rely on their own interpretation instead of on the Church established by Christ to bind and loose, they assume that they have not erred in their interpretation and—as a result—will not heed anyone who warns them that their interpretation went wrong. If the Church should warn them, that correction is assumed to be proof of error on the part of the Church.

Ultimately, what they seem to do is (perhaps unwittingly) assume that their conviction over the meaning is a sign that they are right and, as a consequence, the Church must be wrong. But conviction is not proof of error. Numerous heretics were convinced that Arius or Nestorius was right. Many Christians today are convinced that God, being love, didn’t really mean that God condemned certain acts as evil—even though it is literally in the Bible. Many are convinced that despite Our Lord founding a visible Church and giving it His authority to teach, that they can freely ignore the Church or accuse it of error when it teaches contrary to their interpretation. The question that they need to answer is: what gives them the authority to interpret contrary to the Church?

Such questions usually are answered with a begging the question fallacy. The one rejecting the Church authority assumes that the “errors” of the Church—based on their interpretation—mean that Scripture on false teachers and Church teachings on heretics must apply. Social media discussion usually turns into something like this:

Why do you say that the Pope/Church is in error?
Because the Bible/Church teaching contradicts them.
But how do we know that you interpret correctly? 
Because that’s what it says. 
But what about others who interpret it differently and say you’re in error?
They’re in error.
Why are they in error?
Because the Bible/Church teaching contradicts them*.

But it’s precisely their own interpretation that they have to prove is correct, and that is precisely what they don’t answer. The fact is, when someone tries to argue their own interpretation, we have to see if it squares with what the Church teaches—under the leadership of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him—before we accept it.

This has always been the criterion for discerning what is authentic vs. what is counterfeit. When the Church teaches, whether ex cathedra or from the ordinary magisterium, we are bound to accept it. If one will not, they should remember that refusing obedience is a schismatic act (see canon 751).

The mentioning of bad Popes and heretical bishops throughout history are a fallacy of false analogy. Those bishops who fell into heresy or schism acted in opposition to the Popes, not in concert. We have never had a Pope who was a manifest heretic. The history of the Papacy gives us three categories of bad Popes: 
  1. Those who were morally or intellectually bad but did not teach#.
  2. Those who were suspected of privately holding error but did not teach@.
  3. Those who were derelict or incompetent in their administration, but did not teach§.
But, when it comes to the current attacks on Popes and Councils, the accusations are about teaching, not private behavior, private error, or failure to act. Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia are Papal teachings. Vatican II is an Ecumenical Council. They, not individuals (even clergy), make binding interpretation.

This has always been understood: even when there were Saints who challenged the moral or administrative faults of Popes, they were always respectful of the teachings of the Popes, giving obedience when he taught. But now, we see people claiming to be faithful Catholics but refusing obedience out of the belief that the Pope and bishops in communion with him are the ones spreading error or causing confusion. That is the accusation made by every heretical and schismatic group that emerged throughout Church history.

They might sincerely think that their rebellion is faithful. But they are blind in doing so. They are pressing forward blindly, confusing their interpretation for what actually is true. If one would follow them, that person would be the blind being led by the blind.


(*) This is also what reading Luther or Calvin feels like.
(#) We would include Popes like Benedict IX and John XII here.
(@) We might put John XXII here.
(§) We might include Honorius I here. He was not condemned (posthumously) for holding error—scholars disagree on that. He was condemned for failing to take actions against it. It should be noted that the Pope at the time of the Council’s condemnation rejected that canon, so it seems to have no validity.
(€) The criticism by St. Catherine of Sienna was about the Pope not being in Rome and the moral decay in a Rome that came from that fact.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Dear “Karens on Facebook.” Please Stop

I came across a meme (creator unknown) on Facebook and decided to repurpose it for the declining state of Catholic theological understanding. 

In the beginning, Catholics looked to the Pope, the bishops, and the theologians in good standing to understand the teachings of the Church. But there was a problem we didn’t see. So long as we could find magisterial figures who taught what we agreed with, we would follow that part of what they taught, and downplay the rest. But things began changing when the Pope and bishops began reminding us of the teachings we didn’t like. Then Catholics began looking to non-experts with the views we held. 

These non-experts were used to explain why we didn’t always have to obey the Pope and the Church. Theologians Not in good standing with the Church invented a theology of dissent in the “spirit of Vatican II,” or “defense of tradition.” If St. Paul VI taught on contraception; if St. John XXIII taught on social justice, we could find a theologian who told us it was all right to dissent against it.

Once that door was opened, it became easier to pick and choose what we would believe and invoke whoever would support the decision as proof. We skipped past the non-magisterial theologians to the media pundits who did not know the Church teachings but reported on it anyway. People who would not believe the media when it reporting on their favored political figures would uncritically accept everything they said about the Pope or the Church. Eventually, Catholics on the internet would go so far as to accept ipse dixit claims from anybody who said that “everyone knows that.” These baseless statements were repeated so often that it was considered irrational to question it. 

Some go so far as to make themselves “experts.” Where laity once looked to the magisterium to make clear the things they did not understand about Church teaching, they now interpreted them for themselves and sat in judgment on the Pope or bishops who dared to teach differently. 

These people became the “Karen of Facebook,” offering false interpretation as “proof” of magisterial “heterodoxy.” They repeated other people’s statements and others repeated theirs to the point that everyone believed the false interpretation and thought that those who said the interpretations were wrong were either blind or part of the deception.

Now, people just chant slogans and occasionally cite agreeable media personalities or those theologians, lacking (or not using) the magisterial authority to teach, as if they were reporting fact in order to accuse those who do use authentic magisterium. From a Church that was strong in obedience to Our Lord and those tasked to lead the Church, we’ve become an ochlocracy (mob rule) following every demagogue instead.

People complain about confusion in the Church. But the confusion isn’t caused by the Pope. It’s caused by “Karen of Facebook.” Who are these Karens? Those who spread their own views or repeat the views of others across social media as if they were authoritative against the true authority of the Church.

How do we end the confusion? We stop listening to the Karens and stop being the Karens. We need to start listening to the Magisterium under the authority of the Church. We need to trust that Our Lord protects His Church that He built on the Rock of Peter. THAT is the mark of the faithful Catholic. 

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Anti-Catholic and the Anti-Francis Catholic

The non-Catholic who happens to think the Church is wrong is different from the anti-Catholic. The former believes their own denomination is right and has been (wrongly) taught that the Church is in error. Because they believe what they have been taught, they tend to interpret what the Church does in light of what they have been taught.

The latter, on the other hand, believes that the Catholic Church is an evil institution that must be opposed in her “lies” and “manmade doctrines.” Those of us who are members of the Catholic Church are either “blind” to her “errors” and need “rescuing,” or are part of the reprobate because we refuse to leave when faced with their dubious “evidence.” Because they believe the Church is an evil institution, they believe every lie told against us because they think we are capable of it. What the Church actually teaches is misinterpreted or misrepresented and those falsehoods are repeated so widely that the anti-Catholics think they must be true. Often they point to the shameful events in history and treat them as “Catholic” inventions, forgetting they were cultural practices that both predated Christianity and were used in Protestant nations*.

Here, apologetics play a role. By pointing out the falsehoods, we can explain what we really do believe to the non-Catholics of good will and help inoculate them and Catholics unfamiliar with what we do believe from believing the calumny spread against us. Apologetics might not always lead people to accept the Catholic Church. But we can at least make the truth known.

The attitude of anti-Catholics often exists among Catholics who are hostile to the Pope. They believe that Pope Francis is an evil to be opposed. They believe the oft-repeated calumnies against him because they think he is capable of it. Those of us who defend him are either deceived or willfully part of his plans.

Here, apologetics can help the people of good will realize that the anti-Francis calumnies are untrue. They can point out that the oft-repeated quotes are either taken out of context or sheer fabrication, and point out the preconceived biases that lead to the accusations.

It is ridiculous for anti-Catholics to claim that the Spanish Inquisition killed 100 million people when the whole of Europe didn’t have that many people before the Industrial Revolution. It is ridiculous to claim (a la Jack Chick’s “The Death Cookie”) that the IHS on some hosts stands for “Isis Horus Set” when it really is Latinizing the Greek letters ΙΗΣ which stands for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (IESOUS—Jesus#).

In a similar way, it is absurd for anti-Francis Catholics to claim that the Pope is promoting same sex marriage when he explicitly says that the Church cannot do so. It is absurd to say he is promoting idolatry when he consistently preaches about Jesus being the only way to salvation. It is absurd to call him a socialist breaking with the Church when he makes the same criticism of unfettered capitalism that his predecessors.made.

I could go on and on, and the Pope bashers and anti-Catholics undoubtedly will. In both cases, we see groups who are quite convinced of their own self-righteousness but absolutely in the wrong about the truth. In defending the Pope, we are not defending error. We are flatly denying that the accusations are true. 

Now some people I know protest that they are not Pope bashers, but only expressing “concern” about what the Pope said that seems to “prove” he is in error. They say they reject the extremists and only want to be faithful to the truth. It sounds nice, but I have encountered anti-Catholics back in this blog’s Xanga days who claimed that they opposed to the extremism of Jack Chick and merely were concerned about the “errors” taught by the Church.

In both cases, the people assumed that:
  • If I was [anti-Catholic (or anti-Francis)], I would be [an extremist]. 
  • I am not [an extremist]. 
  • Therefore, I am not anti-Catholic (or anti-Francis)].
This is a Denying the Consequent fallacy. Not being part of the specific does not put one outside of the whole. To understand this, let’s restate the form of the argument with different terms:
  • If I was [in California], I would be [in Los Angeles].
  • I am not [in Los Angeles].
  • Therefore I am not [in California].
One can be anti-Catholic without being part of the Thomas Nast, Jack Chick, Tony Alamo extremes. One can be anti-Francis without being a sedevacantist or a member of the SSPX. What makes a person an anti-Catholic or an anti-Francis Catholic is not extremism. It is an opposition that automatically assumes that the target must be wrong and is guilty of whatever charges are leveled, even though the charges have been refuted.

And many people are in these groups, even when they deny it.


(*) Burning witches at the stake happened much less frequently in countries with the Inquisition than Protestant England and Germany (and in Catholic countries without the Inquisition). I don’t say that as a tu quoque. Rather, it this method of execution (like trials by ordeal) was more common in Germanic nations than elsewhere where the law of the Roman Empire existed.

(#) H in Greek is the capitalized letter ETA, a long vowel sound.