Friday, July 21, 2017

The Hudge and Gudge Report

G.K. Chesterton, in his book What’s Wrong With the World (Chapter IX), offers an account of two men—Hudge and Gudge—who desire to help the poverty stricken. Hudge sets out to build massive housing blocks that meet the physical shelter needs but are deeply oppressive. Gudge objects to the oppressive nature of these apartments and says they lack the character of the former homes. As time progresses, Hudge begins to defend the worst parts of the apartments as good, while Gudge begins to proclaim that people were better off living in the slums. Finally they reach the extremes where Hudge thinks all people should be living in these apartments and Gudge believes that poverty is good for people.

I find the account to be useful in examining the growing divisions and rigidity of factions. But, there is always the danger of thinking that “the other guy” behaves like Hudge and Gudge while we are defenders of truth and right. The problem is, Hudge and Gudge also think the problem is with “the other guy,” while they have the real solution. If we’re blind to our own rigidity, refusing to consider where we go wrong, we are in danger of corrupting our ideals.

This is especially true when Christianity intersects with determining moral state policies. Because the major political factions tend to be right on some issues and wrong on others, we tend to gravitate towards those factions that agree with what we think are the most important issues. But as factions get more extreme, it is easier to downplay the issues where the other party is right.

For example, I know some Catholics who are appalled with life issues besides abortion and euthanasia. They insist that all Catholics recognize these issues as important. But growing more rigid, they begin to downplay the actual issues of abortion and euthanasia. Some have gotten to the point of being more outraged at Catholics who are “anti-abortion but not pro-life” than by Catholics who are literally pro-abortion. But, on the other side of that fight, Catholics who recognize the evil of abortion and euthanasia fall into the trap of going from recognizing that those two issues are the worst evils to thinking other life issues are “not important.” Both of them are wrong when they go from promoting some issues they feel are neglected to neglecting the issues they think are less important. It becomes dangerous for the soul if it leads these people to think that others who oppose a moral evil are partisan.

It doesn’t have to be about morality vs. politics either. It can also be, for example, the cause of liturgical wars. The Ordinary vs. Extraordinary form of Mass is a common battleground where some Catholics have become so involved in defending their own position that they refuse to consider the good from the other position. The defender of the Extraordinary Form is tempted to treat the Ordinary Form of the Mass as “clown masses” and other liturgical abuses. The defender of the Ordinary Form is tempted to view the Extraordinary Form as the haven for schismatics.

We need to realize that both of our major political factions are a mixture of some good and some evil. We need to realize that both forms of the Mass have good to offer the Church, and some weaknesses that need to be overcome. If we solidify to the point where we think that good is only found in our faction, but not the other, we risk embracing the evil of our own faction and rejecting the good in the other:  once we reach that stage, we’re giving assent to—or at least tolerating—evil in our faction, and rejecting good when it comes from another faction. That is incompatible with God’s teaching, but we will have blinded ourselves to our disobedience. It saddens me, for example, when I see some Catholics say, “We’ll never eliminate abortion so we should focus on other issues,” or that “pro-abortion politicians support policies that reduce the need for abortion.” This is Hudge and Gudge thinking. But so is thinking that says that “so long as abortion is legal, we can’t worry about other issues.”

The only way to escape this is to get rid of our Hudge and Gudge thinking. We need to recognize that our factions must be judged by Church teaching, and not that Church teaching is judged by our factions. If we believe that the Church stance on abortion and “same sex marriage” is proof the bishops are “Republican,” we’ve fallen into the Hudge and Gudge trap. If we think the Church opposition to the government position on immigrants is “liberal,” we have fallen into the Hudge and Gudge trap. 

If we profess to be faithful Catholics, the Church must be our guide into right and wrong, because we believe that God gave the Church His authority and protects her from error. If we consider the Church teaching as the way to form our political judgments, we might be able to support the good in our preferred political factions while opposing the evil. We might also seek to reform the system rather than to just tolerate the least possible evil as the best we can hope for.

This means we must reject our partisan rigidity and be always open to the Church calling us to a firm standard of good and evil, while also being open to different ideas of carrying them out. We never compromise on doing what is right or being faithful to the Church. But we can consider whether our factional preferences are in the wrong. If they are, we must choose the Church over our preferences or factional beliefs. And if our factional opponents are not wrong, we must stop treating them as if they were.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thoughts on Interpretation: How We Go Wrong if we Confuse True and Perceived Meaning

HumptyThe Internet in a nutshell…

Introduction

One of the more disruptive things between Catholics on the internet is the argument over meaning. When a member of the Church speaks, people argue over meaning. Sometimes it is over whether a teaching really justifies sin. At other times, it is over whether the Pope emeritus really intended to condemn the Pope. Catholics who seek a desired meaning, regardless of faction, are likely to latch onto an interpretation that justifies what they have been fighting for. The problem is, unless they understand the words as intended by the speaker, such misinterpretations have no value. Consider the words of Dr. Peter Kreeft:

Socrates: I think you are confusing belief with interpretation.

Flatland: No, I'm just saying we have to interpret a book in light of our beliefs.

Socrates: And I'm saying we must not do that.

Flatland: Why not?

Socrates: If you wrote a book to tell other people what your beliefs were, and I read it and interpreted it in light of my beliefs, which were different from yours, would you be happy?

Flatland: If you disagreed with me? Why not? You're free to make up your own mind.

Socrates: No, I said interpreted the book in light of my beliefs. For instance, if you wrote a book against miracles and I believed in miracles, and I interpreted your book as a defense of miracles, would you be happy?

Flatland: Of course not. That's misinterpretation.

Socrates: Even if it were my honest belief?

Flatland: Oh, I see. We have to interpret a book in light of the author's beliefs, and criticize it in light of our own.

Socrates: Precisely. Otherwise we are imposing our views on another. other. And that is certainly not charitable, but arrogant.

Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 749-755). Kindle Edition.

If we try to interpret the teachings of the Church through what we think they should be, we are doing it wrong. What we must do is interpret the words of Church teaching and the words of members of the Church as they are intended. Otherwise, we are only imposing our views on the Church, the Pope, the bishops, the saints, and so on. These misinterpretations appear in the form of several logical fallacies. These fallacies tend to be interlocked, so a critic of the Church might use several without realizing it.

1) Begging the Question [†]

The problem is, too many (wrongly) assume that they properly understand the meaning of a statement, and base their argument on that wrong assumption. What they don’t realize is that their assertion needs to be proven. By assuming their assumption is true, the “evidence” they gather for their position is not evidence at all. It’s merely part of the challenged assertion. As Aristotle points out,

[W]henever a man tries to prove what is not self-evident by means of itself, then he begs the original question. This may be done by assuming what is in question at once; it is also possible to make a transition to [40] other things which would naturally be proved through the [65a] thesis proposed, and demonstrate it through them, e.g. if A should be proved through B, and B through C, though it was natural that C should be proved through A: for it turns out that those who reason thus are proving A by means of itself. This is what those persons do who suppose [5] that they are constructing parallel straight lines: for they fail to see that they are assuming facts which it is impossible to demonstrate unless the parallels exist. So it turns out that those who reason thus merely say a particular thing is, if it is: in this way everything will be self-evident. But that is impossible. [Aristot., Pr. and Post. Anal. 64.2.35–65.1.9]

Aristotle, “ANALYTICA PRIORA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. A. J. Jenkinson, vol. 1 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1928).

It’s a good point. If I assume my belief is self-evident when it is not, then the things I claim are “proofs” will depend on others accepting my claim as self-evident. But when the claim is based on a misinterpretation, then these things are not proofs at all—merely further misinterpretation.
 
2) Ipse Dixit [§]
 
Ipse Dixit is another fallacy that goes around. It essentially is a bare assertion that something is so, but gives no evidence that it is so. The Catholic who alleges that a Church teaching is “opposed to Christ,” or the Catholic who claims that a statement by the current Pope contradicts the past statements of the Church is committing the ipse dixit fallacy. There is no proof to the statement. The person may be bluffing, or may be sincere. But merely asserting a thing is so is no proof. So, whether a dissenter argues that the Church is wrong in condemning homosexual acts, or whether the dissenter argues that the Pope is wrong in emphasizing mercy, there is no authority to their claims. They are merely asserting that whatever text they cite means what they say it means.
 
The fact of the matter is, the Church possesses the authority, given by Christ, to determine how to best interpret God’s teaching. A claim that the Church got teaching X wrong is based on an individual’s assertion. But the individual assertion has neither the authority nor the protection promised by Christ. Our task is to study what the Church teaches and understand it, so we might follow it and teach others to do the same. But we must do so in docility, recognizing that the Church can change disciplines for the good of souls. We must not become so attached to our personal reading that we assert it is doctrine in opposition to the Church.
 
3) Either-Or

We have a tendency to divide everything into two factions: Conservative vs. Liberal, Democrat vs. Republican, Capitalism vs. Socialism, Modernist vs. Traditionalist, and so on. Moreover, we view those factions in terms of Right vs. Wrong. Whoever is not in our faction is assumed to belong to the other faction and supporting all the evils belonging to the opposing faction. The problem is, in many cases, we have more than two sides. Moreover, while these factions are in opposition to each other, the fact that one is wrong does not make the other right. 
 
People are confusing contraries with contradictories. Positions that are contrary are positions where both cannot be right, but both can be wrong. For example, atheism and polytheism are contrary to each other on the existence of some form of divinity. But, if monotheism is true, both atheism and polytheism are wrong. Positions that are contradictory cannot both be right, but one is right and one is wrong. For example, it is either raining or not raining. It’s impossible for it to be both in the same place and the same time. One contradicts the other.
 
I think of this when I see critics of the Pope accuse his defenders of supporting divorce and remarriage or other positions contrary to what the Church teaches. Such accusers assume their position on what the Church teaching should be is true, and any disagreement shows that the other side supports error. But what they overlook is the possibility that the Pope’s defenders do not champion error at all, but instead reject the accusations as false (See how this ties in with Begging the Question and Ipse Dixit).
 
If the situation is different than the accuser claims, then the division into two factions is false. A person can say, “I reject both A and B.” A person can say, “I support some elements of both A and B.” A person can say, “I support C.” In all of these cases the either-or claim is false. So, before we can divide up people into preconceived notions of A vs. B, we have to make sure that only those two factions exist and that one of them must be true.
 
4) The Strawman

The Strawman fallacy misrepresents an argument and then treats the refutation of the misrepresentation as a refutation of the argument. But if the individual does not hold the position of the strawman, then he has not been refuted. This may happen, for example, if a person truly misunderstands the point, or it may happen if a person wants to discredit a position without going through the trouble of refuting it. (These are not the only two of course, as our discussion of either-or above pointed out).
 
There are a lot of crass misrepresentations out there. One popular one is to allege that Pope Francis endorses Cardinal Kasper’s claims on divorce and remarriage. But comparing Amoris Lætitia [¶] with Cardinal Kasper’s position shows that while the Pope approves of the concept of reaching out to the divorced/remarried to reconcile them with God and the Church, he did not accept the Cardinal’s position on emulating the Eastern Orthodox churches on the matter. So, to refute Cardinal Kasper’s opinion as not being compatible with Catholic teaching (I too reject the cardinal’s position) is not to refute Pope Francis on reaching out to these people.
 
Conclusion
 
These are not the only fallacies committed. But they are common and interlocked. They have a common flaw in assuming one has properly understood Church teaching and the position of those one disagrees with. But their interpretation is disputed, and if they have gotten one or both wrong, then their arguments are without value. We are required to make sure we understand both, in the light of the Church teaching (which the current Pope and bishops in communion with him have the authority to determine) and in what the person intended by his words. We cannot assume that what we think is meant is correct, and if that differs from what the Church says, that the Church is in error.
 
I’d recommend keeping the logical fallacies, listed above, in mind. Once you recognize them, the perceived legitimacy of the claims used to undermine the authority of the Church, the Pope, and the bishops in communion with him vanishes like smoke.
 
 
______________________
 
[†] Contemporary English misuses the term. Often people use the term “That begs the question of…” where they really mean “that brings up another question.” But the proper use of the term is assuming as true what needs to be proven true.
 
[§] Ipse Dixit (Latin for He himself said it) is simply an assertion with no proof given. 
 
[¶] I’ve read Amoris Lætitia five times to investigate all the accusations against it. I suspect that is five times more than the average anti-Francis critic on Facebook has read it.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

It's Time to Take Back the Faithful Catholic Label (and the means are different than one might think)

Introduction

On the internet, a battle rages over what image the Catholic Church should take. Some are all about changing Church teaching. Others are about preferring the older way to do things. But whether these factions are politically conservative or liberal; whether they are modernist or radical traditionalist, or some other faction, they assume they are the ones really being faithful to the Church, and that those who think the preferred faction are wrong are accused of not being faithful. The problem is, this decree is not a decision of the Pope and bishops issuing a teaching. This is the claim of factions that are in opposition to the Pope and bishops. In other words, the Catholics who claim they are really being faithful are the ones who are refusing to assent to the teachings they dislike, and claim that their disobedience is really some sort of higher obedience.

The problem with this claim is: Church history has never recognized the actions of such dissenters as being “truly faithful.” The saints who reformed the Church gave obedience to the successors of the apostles, even when the men who held the office did not personally behave in a manner worthy of it. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story of St. Francis of Assisi meeting Pope Innocent III. Disgusted with the saint’s appearance, he reportedly said to go and roll with the pigs. St. Francis obeyed, impressing the Pope with his obedience and humility. Our 21st century sensibilities rebel against this, but St. Francis, recognized as one of the saints that reformed a Church in danger of becoming worldly showed that one cannot claim to be a faithful Catholic while refusing obedience to the Pope.

There is a vast difference between the saints who showed obedience to the Church out of love of God and the dissenters who declare themselves superior to the shepherds in the Church, and we need to take back the label of “faithful Catholic” from these counterfeits.

The First Steps

You might think the first step is to denounce the dissenters. But that would actually be following into their error—putting confidence in their own holiness. We should consider well the words of St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on the Gospel of Matthew:

Nay, if thou wilt accuse, accuse thyself. If thou wilt whet and sharpen thy tongue, let it be against thine own sins. And tell not what evil another hath done to thee, but what thou hast done to thyself; for this is most truly an evil; since no other will really be able to injure thee, unless thou injure thyself. Wherefore, if thou desire to be against them that wrong thee, approach as against thyself first; there is no one to hinder; since by coming into court against another, thou hast but the greater injury to go away with. (Homily LI, #5)

 

John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 320.

Our first thought should not be on the injuries others have inflicted on us, nor on “getting our own back.” Our first thought should be on where we ourselves stand before God. Because we are sinners, we cannot think of ourselves to be righteous before God. But because of God’s love for us, we cannot of others as being less deserving of His forgiveness. If we forget this, we become like those who misuse the term “faithful Catholic.”

We must also seek to learn as much as we can about the faith. Now the writings of the Saints, the Popes, the Councils and the Bishops  are vast. No one person could read them all—and that’s something we need to learn: That we do not know everything. We can always learn, and our teachers must be those who have the authority to bind and loose—not bloggers or academics who disagree with them. 

Knowing that we do not know everything does not mean that it is possible that Church teaching can justify something we thought was a sin. What it means is we need to recognize we can be led astray by laxity or rigorism if we do not understand that the Pope and bishops teach with the same authority that Our Lord gave the apostles.  They have the authority to teach and govern the Church. When they do, we must assent to their teachings. Refusal to do so is schism:

can. 751† 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; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

 

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

If we would be faithful Catholics, we must realize our own sinfulness and our own limits to knowledge. Knowing this, we can turn to God for His grace and forgiveness. Knowing this, we can turn to His Church to learn what we must do to be faithful.”

But What About the Internet Brawls?

Speaking personally, I’d be happy if I never had to take part in another one. But we will encounter some who are either mistaken about the faith or are misrepresenting it. When these situations arise, we should remember 1 Peter 3:15-16:

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. 

If someone’s going to act like a jerk, strive to make sure it isn’t us. If we want to put a verbal smackdown on our opponents, we risk leaving the audience thinking we’re both jerks.

When we encounter those dissenters who claim to be the “true” faithful, the temptation exists to “put those jerks in their place.” But we must not take that attitude. This is partially because we risk being overcome by pride, thinking we are fine as long as we are not like “them.” But also because we risk alienating the people we hope to help. Now, being sinners, we’ll always have problems. I can describe these dangers because I have fallen into them myself. 

So, when someone decides to attack the Church, or the Pope, we must not allow ourselves to flail wildly, or speak viciously. We may have to tell a critic, “We do not believe what you accuse us of believing.” We may have to explain the truth. This may not be effective with the person we are arguing with. But that person is not the only person involved. On the internet, there are more lurkers than commenters. Even if our adversary is not willing to listen to us, the lurkers might—if we give them a reason to. But if we’re rude and abusive, we might win some points with people who already agree with us for doing a stylish smackdown, but we won’t convince others.

Conclusion

How do we take back the label of “faithful Catholic” from those dissenters who claim to be in the right while the Church is in the wrong? As I see it, we have to act like faithful Catholics. That means following the example of the saints in their obedience and humility. If we want to convince people to be faithful Catholics, we have to give them a living example.

That means, turning to the Lord with the desire to repent and follow Him anew, seeking to know and do His will as taught by the Church. Not by what we think the Church taught at a time we think most pleasing to follow.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Assumptions: Winding Up in the Ditch (Luke 6:39)

When it comes to hostility or suspicion towards the Church, regardless of what side it comes from, it is rooted in assumptions, not fact. People assume they understand what the Catholic Church holds, or assume they understand the words of a member of the Church that they oppose. Such people assume that not seeing other possible meanings means there are none. They assume that the Church/Pope/Council must be in error if they don’t match what the critics think should be. But, what they fail to consider is whether their own understanding about what should be is correct. For example, if Martin Luther was wrong (and I believe he was) about what God intended the Church to be, then the way he went around attempting reforms was fatally flawed, even if he meant well.

I believe the same is the case with the modernist Catholic who believes Church teaching on things that are intrinsically evil can be changed and the radical traditionalist who believes that the Pope is a heretic. They start with the assumption that what they think about God and what His Church should be is true, and assume that, if the Church is not what they think it should be, the Church has “fallen into error.” But, as with my above example with Luther, if the critic’s conception of what the Church should be is false, then their ideas are also fatally flawed.

These critics do not have to be malicious. They can be quite sincere. But if they are mistaken, unwilling to consider the possibility of being in error, they will be like the blind guides Our Lord warned against. They will lead the other blind man into a pit (Luke 6:39). Not because they wish to do harm, but because they wrongly think they know the way when they need help themselves.

I find that when it comes to disputes of this kind, we don’t have two errors. We have one: but the people in error simply disagree over whether that mistaken view they think true is a good thing or a bad thing. If the view is mistaken, then these people are worked up over nothing. I believe that the case of Vatican II and Pope Francis illustrate this point. Some Catholics wrongly believe that the Council intended to change everything, but Popes Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI “betrayed” the Council. Others believe that the Council not only intended but did change everything, and blame Popes Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI for helping aid the “destruction” of the Church [†].

Needless to say, they can’t both be right. But they overlook the possibility that neither can be right. Since both believe that Vatican II was a radical break, both are in error if Vatican II was not a radical break. Since both believe Pope Francis intends to change Church teaching, both are in error if he does not intend to change Church teaching. The assumption is that these things are so, but that assumption is the point that has to be proven. We cannot conclude that the conclusions drawn from those assumptions are true when they are unproven.

But instead of proof, we get fallacious arguments. For example, “Well, if the Council didn’t mean that, why did this rebellion happen?” That’s the point to be investigated, to see why and how it happened. Invoking Vatican II as the cause of rebellion is meaningless if it never intended what people claim. The point is, it is not what people think the meaning is. It is what the intended meaning is. If people are wrong about the intended meaning, their conclusion is wrong too.

The point of all this is, if we place ourselves in opposition to the Church, and assume we are in the right, we will go wrong. The Church is given the task of preaching the kingdom to the world, and is given the promise of Our Lord’s protection. To accuse the Church of teaching error is to deny Our Lord’s power to keep the promise, and I find that blasphemous. That’s the case if the accuser is saying the Church is wrong on sexual morality, or if the accuser is saying the Church is wrong on Vatican II.

The only way we can avoid winding up falling into the ditch is to stop assuming we are a better guide to salvation than the Church. This means we stop assuming we know better than those chosen to shepherd on how to interpret what the Church has always taught and how to apply it in our own age. The Church has been given this task, and the Church has been given the protection to carry it out. Following any source in opposition to the Church is to follow a blind guide.

It really is that straightforward.

 

_____________________________

[†] Oh yes, people forget it, but these critics savaged Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI just as much as they savaged Pope Francis.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Do You Really Believe in the Power of God?

Pietro Perugino 034The Promise and the Authority was from Christ, Our Lord

On social media, one of the more vocal opinions is the one claiming the Church either has or is in danger of falling into error. It’s not tied to one faction. The liberal who believes the Church is in error on matters of sexual morality and the conservative who believes that Pope Francis/Vatican II is an error are both of the same position—they merely dispute what the Church is in error about

If the Church were merely a human organization, their fears would be warranted. History is full of groups and nations that have been corrupted, becoming something the founders would have hated. But one of the beliefs of the Catholic faith is that the Church is not merely a human institution. We believe that Our Lord intended to establish a Church, built on the rock of the Apostle Peter (Matthew 16:18-19), teaching with His authority (Matthew 18:17-18, Luke 10:16) with the promise that He would be with the Church always until the end of the world (Matthew 28:18-20). This promise did not depend on the worthiness of His ministers. Peter denied. Judas betrayed. All of the disciples ran away. If the personal behavior of the apostles or their successors implied that the Church could teach error, claiming it to be truth, then the promise of Our Lord would have been proven false as soon as the Church began. If this is true, then we can stop fighting over the different topics we like to attack each other over, because it means the Church we are fighting over is a lie.

I personally will not stand for that blasphemy. If Jesus is God (true), and God does not lie (true, see Numbers 23:19), then when He says something, we can rely on His word. That doesn’t mean that there will be no knaves or cowards in the Church. What it means is the actions of sinful man will not prevail over the power of God. We have indeed had some knaves as popes. Benedict IX and John XII come to mind. We’ve had Popes who may have privately held error, like Liberius and Honorius I. John XXII is sometimes put in this list, but I think this is not accurate. He held a private opinion on a disputed subject which the Church had not defined an answer. He was later convinced that this private opinion was not right and changed his mind. But it wasn’t until after his death that his successor formally defined the teaching. But in all of these cases, the problematic popes did wrong in their behavior and personal views. But they never actually taught that error was binding on the faithful. 

But the critics of the Church allege that certain popes or councils they dislike are teaching error as if it was truth. That is something different from our bad popes who were merely in personal error. While I suspect many of the critics did not think it through, they are effectively denying that Our Lord is protecting His Church when they allege the popes and councils they dislike were in error. So, in the name of defending what they think the Church is supposed to be, they undermine the rock on which Our Lord built His Church. They deny that an authoritative teaching is authoritative. Through distortions of Church teaching, they claim that when a Church teaching is not made ex cathedra it can be in error and ignored.

Unfortunately, such a view overlooks the fact that each infallible definition had its roots in the ordinary magisterium. The Church did not define Transubstantiation until AD 1215. But it was true nonetheless. It was not invented. It is what happens to the bread and wine at the moment of consecration. The person who argued before 1215 that, because it was not defined ex cathedra it was not binding, was still a heretic. The difference between Berengarius of Tours and John XXII is this: Berengarius denied what the Church had always taught, even though it was not defined. John XXII held something there was disputed views over and the Church had not settled the matter.

When the Church teaches, even when it is not a formal ex cathedra statement, we are obliged to give assent. When we try to make a teaching into an “opinion” [†], we are being disobedient to the Church, and Our Lord made clear that rejecting the Church is rejecting Him, as cited above.

This brings us to our problem. Why is it that people who invoke being faithful to the words of Christ ignore the words in which he makes known who teaches with His authority? If we profess to believe in God, we must believe in His promises. So, if God promises to protect His Church under the headship of Peter always, we cannot pretend we are being faithful to God by being disobedient to the successor of Peter, even with his human frailties.

When we start undermining the shepherds of the Church when they do not go the way we like, we are rebels. No matter how hard we try, we cannot pretend rebellion is being faithful to God. Scripture and Church teaching do not allow us to get away with it. If we insist, we are only deceiving ourselves about our obedience to God…and, if we are honest with ourselves, we might find that we don’t really believe in our belief in His power either.

____________________________

[†] For example, Pope Francis clearly identifies Laudato Si as “now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching” (#15) but some of his critics try to portray it as an opinion, and not binding.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

It is Easy to Be Faithful When You Happen to Agree With the Church

One of the comments I often see in social media is the claim that confusion in the Church is unprecedented, and the fault of the Pope. I don’t believe either statement is true. I think the chaos is caused by the fact that Catholics under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, thinking it was easy to be faithful to Church teaching they never had any intention of violating, suddenly found Pope Francis reminding them that it was not enough to say they opposed wrongdoing. Pope Francis reminded them that the true interpretation of his predecessors required going out and bringing those wrongdoers back. What this reaction did was show us that some Catholics were not so much faithful to the Church, as they were in agreement over some issues—but once that agreement ended, so did the obedience. 

The Church exists as the means Our Lord established to bring the Good News to the world, teaching them to live according to His teaching (Matthew 28:19-20). That teaching will always obligate us to choose between God and our own desires. If we reject Church teaching because we think it too liberal or too conservative, we are placing our political beliefs above the Church. If we reject Church teaching because it prohibits us from doing something we want to do, we are placing our desires above the Church. But since God made obedience to the Church necessary (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17), rejecting the Church is necessarily rejecting Him.

The pontificate of Pope Francis seems to bring out what was less visible under his predecessors. With St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it was easy to focus on their teachings on sexual morality. Catholics who were enthusiastic about the sanctity of marriage and either intended to live according to Church teaching once they did marry, or intended to continue living according to Church teaching if they were already married. But when they spoke about other issues—social justice, the environment, etc., things were different.  Often these views went against the preferred political platforms. In such cases, Catholics tended to downplay what they taught as “opinion” or worried that perhaps these Popes were softening. 

Of course things cut both ways, and the Catholic who is enthusiastic about social justice and the environment while downplaying the Right to Life and sexual morality is behaving in the same way. While the conservative Catholic might misapply “prudential judgment” to downplay a teaching as optional, the liberal might misapply “who am I to judge?” to claim Church teaching was being changed. Indeed, when the Pope affirmed traditional teaching on morality, these Catholics complained he was “moving to the right.”

In both cases, the obedience or disobedience to a Pope exists only as long as the Pope appears in relationship to what they like. Once he steps outside of their view of what the Pope and the Church should be, the obedience vanishes, and undermining begins. People previously supporting a Pope begin to complain that he’s moving to the left/right, while those who were disobedient before think he is finally moving in the right direction.

It is not my intent to say all Catholics behave this way, and do so out of bad will. Rather I hope to warn people that this is a temptation all Catholics will face. We all have preferences on the way things should be. But being a Catholic requires that we listen to the Church and amend out behavior when we run afoul of her teachings. If we think that the Pope’s reminder is moving from/towards error, that’s a sign that we let our preferences interfere with hearing the Church.

If we accept that, when the Church teaches, we must give our assent, and if we trust God will protect His Church from falling into error, then we can trust that a Pope who reminds us that our moral obligation goes beyond our preferred topics of morality is not pushing from error.

This means giving up the left/right political spectrum of judging the Church, and turning to a right/wrong system of judging the world. We tend to view the Life issues as conservative and the social justice and environmental issues as liberal. Viewed that way, the Church appears to veer off in random directions. But when we think of it as having obligations in both issues, we can see that the Church does not change. Her positions are consistent. Rather it is our political theories which are not consistent with our Christian calling.

Usually, at this point, someone wonders if this is a call for a “seamless garment” where all issues are given equal weight. No, I don’t hold to that. What I hold is we cannot sacrifice one Church teaching, as if it were of no consequence, in the hopes that another might be promoted. If we say the Church should stop “obsessing” over immigrants while abortion is legal, that is sacrificing our moral obligation on how to treat the sojourner in our midst. If we are the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16), we are supposed to influence the people of the world to turn to Christ, and change society so it points in the way we must go.

If we would do this, we must be pointing in that direction ourselves. Otherwise we are blind guides (Matthew 15:14), leading others into a pit. So, we must accept the authority of the Church to bind and loose, and stop judging the Church by what we think best, being faithful when we agree and unfaithful when we disagree. Otherwise, we fail in our task and calling as Christians.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Knowing, Not Knowing, and Knowing You Do Not Know

Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. (Apologia 21)

 

Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, Third Edition, vol. 2 (New York; London: Oxford University Press, 1892), 113–114.

Introduction

When it comes to the ongoing faction wars in the Church, I suspect many of the participants who attack the Church today as being in error never intend to reject the Church. Instead, they act as they do because they think it is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, what one thinks is the right thing, and what the right thing actually is are often two different things. I think this is an example of the situation described by Socrates’ Apology above—that the person does not know the truth, but does not know about this lack. That is a problem because, if a person does not know that they do not know the truth, they will remain in error while thinking themselves defenders of the faith. 

Unfortunately, one of the problems with social media discussions today is nobody wants to admit that they don’t know something. In fact, implying someone doesn’t know something usually results in an angry response. Bring up the Argument from Ignorance fallacy [†] and people think you’re calling them an idiot. This defensive attitude is unfortunate because every person has a lack of knowledge in some part of their life. The question is, do we recognize this lack and try to learn? Or do we think that what we think we know is all that needs to be known? 

Being Faithfully Catholic Means Constantly Growing

If we are in the latter state, this is harmful for our spiritual health. The Catholic faith requires us to know, love and serve God. That goes back at least to the Baltimore Catechism, and it’s a good summation. We need to know what God revealed, the natural law with which He created the universe, and make use of our natural reason to apply that revelation and knowledge to our personal lives. Being finite beings, afflicted with concupiscence, we do make mistakes in judgment. We do choose the wrong thing. We do miss crucial facts that would change our outlook. And, finally, we do fail to comprehend complex ideas that go beyond our knowledge. There’s no shame in that limitation. But we cannot live that way. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes puts it:

[16] 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).

If we refuse to learn, refuse to form our conscience, we have no excuse when we do wrong. And, since Our Lord gave us the Church to guide us, we have no excuse for going astray if we should ignore the Church. As Lumen Gentium puts it:

[14] They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

 

Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

In short, we can’t stop with what we think we know on how to live the Christian life. Growing closer to God means learning how to live as He calls us to live. Can you imagine a marriage where one of the spouses couldn’t be bothered to learn about his partner? Not caring what the other thought or felt about things? The successful marriage requires a constant change for the better. Our relationship with God requires the same.

Knowing and Learning

Of course the Church goes back to Our Lord Himself, and the writings of the members of the Church, the Councils and so on is massive. One person cannot hope to learn and master it all, even if they had no demands on their time but this study. So one average Catholic may view the encouragement to learn as an impossible demand and give up hope of understanding. Meanwhile another average Catholic might just decide that what he knows is good enough to pass judgment on Popes.

Both views should be avoided. In the first case, the equivalent of a Ph.D is not necessary for salvation. People with the ability and time to study theology can indeed lend their talents to the Church, but this is not the only way a Catholic can be holy and serve the Church. Each one of us has a calling regardless of education and status in life (1 Corinthians 12:15-26). In the second case, assuming one knows enough is to give up learning about Our Lord and growing in relationship with Him. When such a person encounters something within the Church, new to them, they might assume the idea is heretical without considering the possibility of their lack of knowledge making them misinterpret the issue.

To avoid this state, we need to start with the step of realizing the possibility of our not knowing something, considering the possibility that there is more to the situation than we are aware of. We need to realize that, just because we might think, “I can’t think of any reason why the Pope does/doesn’t do X,” does not mean there is no reason that justifies his actions.

Example—The Pope, Divorce, and Remarriage.

One of the problems I see in the social media debates is confusing the intrinsic evil with the actual responsibility of the person. Intrinsic evil means that some act is always wrong regardless of intention or circumstances. One can never have a just abortion or a just rape for example. But one can have a just war if proper conditions are met.

What some Catholics seem to forget (or perhaps did not know), and what the Pope wants us to remember, is that it is not enough to speak against intrinsic evil. Determining the culpability (responsibility) of the person who acts is part of the confessor’s task.  Certain circumstances can reduce the level of individual guilt (but not the fact that an intrinsic evil is done). Confessors have to assess the knowledge and circumstances that led to the action in determining how serious the sin is. For example, masturbation is an intrinsic evil. One must never do it. But some people have formed compulsive habits that are hard to break. In some circumstances, this compulsion reduces the personal responsibility so the person lacks the consent necessary for a mortal sin. The act is still intrinsically evil, and the person is obliged to work at overcoming this compulsion in cooperation with God’s grace. But this reduced culpability does not mean the Church is calling evil “permissible.”

Some critics of the Pope (including a few I ordinarily respect) say they can’t envision a circumstance where culpability can be reduced. But that is an argument from ignorance fallacy. We need to consider the possibility of things being different from what we think, based on our own experience. 

I believe that some Catholics forget this when it comes to the fight over Chapter 8 of Amoris Lætitia involving the divorced and remarried. Contrary to his critics’ claims, the Pope has not denied that divorce and remarriage is never permissible as long as the legitimate spouse lives. What he calls for is that confessors assess the knowledge and circumstances of each person, in this situation. Contrary to the claims of anti-Francis Catholics, the Pope is not seeking to legitimize divorce/remarriage. He is seeking to restore each person to a right relationship with God and His Church. If [§] it turns out that a Catholic in this situation lacks the conditions that make a mortal sin [∞], then the confessor can encourage the reception of the Eucharist while also guiding the sinner to turn away from sin and return to God. He is not a “liberal” or a “modernist” when he properly applies this.

Is it possible that a confessor can act wrongly, or err in their assessment? Yes, because we are all sinners. But the wrongful action of some confessors or some bishops does not mean that the Pope promotes or supports those things. 

Example—Knowing that differences exist in other nations.

Another thing that people may not know that the situation in Western Europe and the United States is not universal. For example, during the Year of Mercy, the Pope declared that all priests would be granted the facility to absolve abortion [¶]. This did not affect the United States, where the bishops already gave their priests the facility to act in their name, but it did affect other parts of the world. In interviews and press conferences, the Pope has discussed all sorts of different abuses and obstacles to marriage that we in the West have never experienced, but people in other countries have to deal with.

Likewise, things we take for granted, like tribunals, do not exist in some Catholic countries. An open and shut annulment case might take 90 days in the US, but might take years in another country. Other countries might have vicious customs that discourage seeking annulment. In such cases, people might feel trapped into doing things that the Church teaches is wrong. As I pointed out above, this does not change the fact that what they do is wrong. But it might (and might ≠ must) mean that some (and some ≠ all) cases involve reduced culpability. If we do not know these things, we run into the danger of thinking the entire world is like the US, and that his actions are nothing more than laxity. But this is false.

Blind Guides who do not know that they do not know.

4. The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".(5)

 

But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.(6)

 

 John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei 

So far, I have talked about people who are unaware of differences, or what the Pope actually said, and simply assume conditions are the same everywhere in the Church. But there is another group of Catholics who are truly dangerous to souls. These are the Catholics who, out of ignorance, assume that differences between their own misunderstanding and what the Pope says to be “proof” that the Pope is in error. They stir up confusion, and then argue that the existence of that confusion is the fault of the Pope they attack. 

This group of Catholics seem intimidating because they pull quotes from obscure Church documents the average Catholic has never heard of. But they sound knowledgable, and the average Catholic, insecure in their own knowledge, thinks their inability to think of a response means it must be true. It is important to remember that their behavior is like the anti-Catholic who distorts a Catholic teaching, and then cites a Bible verse they claim “contradicts” it. But the issue is not the Bible verse, but whether they use it properly. Likewise, the anti-Francis Catholic who cites a quote from Church teaching and contrasts it with something the Pope says has always either misquoted or taken the quote out of context. Often they have never actually read these documents, though they may try to feign otherwise. They often get isolated quotes from websites that argue the Church today is in error. Once countered, they ignore that argument and move on to the next [∑] or ignore that refutation.

For example, when they cite St. Robert Bellarmine on a “heretic Pope,” they make it sound like this is an official Church document. It is not. It is one opinion he lists in a work defending the authority of the Pope (I discuss this HERE). They often misrepresent history of the Church, making it sound like we have had openly heretical Popes in the past, and Pope Francis is merely one more of them. But this too is false. We have three Popes who may have privately held error [£], but never taught it. Since Pope Francis is teaching, if he taught error, it would mean that what the Church believes about being protected from teaching error in faith and morals was false. And once we see that, we realize we can never know if the Church was not in error.

What the average Catholic needs to know about not knowing in this case is, the issue in question is not the Bible or Church documents. It is their interpretation of the documents that are being judged. The authority to interpret how the timeless truths of the Church are applied in each time period fall to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. One judges the dissenter’s claims by how they line up with what the Pope and bishops in communion with him say. When the Pope teaches, even when that teaching is not ex cathedra, it must be obeyed:

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

 

Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 236.

So, even if you are an average Catholic who has not had the opportunity or time to study all the tomes the Church has produced, here is something important to know—you cannot have authentic Catholic faith in opposition to the Pope and bishops of this generation. Once you know that, you know that despite all the quotes they may produce, these dissenters have no authority to defy the Church today in the name of being faithful to what they think the Church meant in the past. 

Conclusion

To tie all this together, we need to avoid being like the politician who neither knew the truth nor knew he did not know it. We need to know our limitations and if we do not know something, we must recognize this lack and try to learn the truth. You wouldn’t trust a person who claimed to read a medical textbook and rejecting the findings of the AMA to do surgery on you. You shouldn’t trust a person who claimed to read Church documents and rejected the Pope and bishops guide you spiritually either.

We do have a Church, established by God. God promises to protect this Church. In this Church we have a guide to show us how to live. But the dissenter—whether he says the Church is too strict or too lax—is no guide. He is simply someone who does not know of his own ignorance. If you know you do not know, but know the dissenter does not know either and does not know they are ignorant, you are not as bad off as he is.

But knowing is better than not knowing. So it is always good for Catholics, regardless of their state in life and education, to learn more of their faith—always with the Church, and never apart from it.

_______________________

[†] Briefly explained: Just because a person doesn’t know of a reason disproving their position, it doesn’t prove there isn’t one.

[§] What critics forget is the possibility of a diocese investigating and finding zero cases that meet the Pope’s criteria. That’s why I, unlike some Catholics, don’t see Archbishop Chaput’s statement that he’s not changing diocesan policies to be a rejection of the Pope. If a diocese already does these things the Pope calls for, there’s no need to change.

[∞] Intrinsic evil, full knowledge, deliberate consent

[¶] Normally only the bishop, and those priests he permits, can absolve in this case.

[∑] My favorite “war story” of this type was the anti-Francis Catholic who cited one of the sessions of the Council of Trent to try claiming that after Vatican II, the Church was in error. Unfortunately for him, I had read the sessions of Trent (it’s amazing how much of a Catholic library one can acquire electronically) and cited another portion of that same session that contradicted his interpretation. His response was he didn’t have time to “reread” that document. But if he had read it at all, it was quite clear.

[£] Liberius, Honorius I, John XXII. Of these: Liberius’ error is widely debated; Honorius I probably held error but never said anything public; John XXII offered an opinion on a subject not yet defined—and was only defined by his successor.