Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On Dissent: Fundamental Issues in Understanding Church Teaching


25 You say, “The LORD’S way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?

26 When a virtuous man turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.

27 But if a wicked man, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life;

28 since he has turned away from all the sins which he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

29 And yet the house of Israel says, “The LORD’S way is not fair!” Is it my way that is not fair, house of Israel, or rather, is it not that your ways are not fair?

30 Therefore I will judge you, house of Israel, each one according to his ways, says the Lord GOD. Turn and be converted from all your crimes, that they may be no cause of guilt for you.

31 Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed, and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, O house of Israel?

32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies, says the Lord GOD. Return and live! (Ezekiel 18:25-32)

For one outside the Church, or for one inside the Church who does not understand a certain teaching, it is easy to be led astray by the concept of "If the Church would change its teaching on [X], things would be better."  Other times, the Church stands accused of hating people who live in opposition to their teachings.

Such views demonstrate a fundamental error.  Before we can ask "Why doesn't the Church change the teaching on [X]," we must first act whether the Church believes she even can change the teachings.

With this in mind, we need to address some fundamentals which show the problem with the objections to Church teaching and demands that she change.  Understanding these will help us to see why the Church believes she cannot change and also to see why dissent is unacceptable for one who professes to believe what the Church teaches.

Principle #1: We Believe Christ is the Head of the Catholic Church

While certain anti-Catholics deny we are even Christian, and many non-Catholics believe we mix human error in with Christ's teaching, Catholics do believe Christ is the head of the Church.  Therefore what the Church can make decisions on depends on what Christ has commanded.  If the Church believes Christ has commanded a thing, we cannot forbid it.  If the Church believes Christ has forbidden a thing, we cannot permit it.

This is an important point because regardless of whether a person accepts or rejects the claims of the Catholic Church, we believe that we cannot do otherwise and still remain faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is why the Catholic Church will never permit "Gay Marriage" or Remarriage if a person who is divorced still has a valid marriage.  We believe to sanction things which God has forbidden is to be doing evil.

Principle #2: We Believe Christ Entrusted His Church to the Apostles and their Successors

We reject the notion that any person can determine what is good and evil on their own authority.  We believe that Jesus Christ entrusted His Church to His Apostles and gave them the authority and the responsibility to carry out His Great Commission.  We believe that it was to them who were given the authority to determine what is and is not in keeping with the teachings of Christ – and that He protects His Church from teaching error on what we must do to be saved.

When one recognizes this as a Catholic belief, one can see that the Catholic individual who says "I disagree" has no authority whatsoever impose their vision on the Church in defiance of the Magisterium.  Yes individuals within the Church (including bishops) can fall into error when they deviate from the teaching of the Church.  It does not follow that the Church as a whole errs when one bishop does.

Moreover, one cannot place the vox populi in opposition to the magisterium and say, "The people all agree on [X] and the Bishops disagree.  Therefore the bishops are wrong!"  That's an argumentum ad populum fallacy (Just because 50%+1, 75% or 99% of a people believe [X] does not make [X] true).  Since we believe the authority within the Church comes from Christ, we must realize that the responsibility to determine whether a view is compatible with Christ's teaching falls on the magisterium, not on us.

Principle #3: A Person Running Afoul of Church Teaching is NOT the Fault of the Church

Many people who find themselves at odds with Church teaching often use the argument of, "God wouldn't want me to suffer so the Church is wrong in insisting on [X]."

The woman who wants to be ordained a priest, a person divorced where the marriage was valid, the couple wanting contraception, the woman who thinks she "needs" an abortion, the person with homosexual tendencies who wants "Gay Marriage" often accuse the Church of being bureaucratic, of being heartless, of being "homophobic," of being "anti-woman."  These are actually ad hominem attacks.  They assume that the individual is in the right, and the Church is "horrible" for not giving them what they want.

The fact of the matter is, the person who finds himself or herself in opposition to the Catholic teaching is not there because the Church put that person there.  The individual has chosen a thing in opposition to what the Church believes she is obligated to do to be faithful to Christ.

Msgr. Ronald Knox makes this point impressively clear, when he wrote:

Here is another suggestion, which may not be without its value – if you find yourself thus apparently deserted by the light of faith, do not fluster and baffle your imagination by presenting to it all the most difficult doctrines of the Christian religion, those which unbelievers find it easiest to attack; do not be asking yourself, "Can I really believe marriage is indissoluble?  Can I really believe that it is possible to go to hell as the punishment for one mortal sin?"  Keep your attention fixed to the main point, which is a single point – Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth?  If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.

(In Soft Garments, pages 113-114).

If the Church is the final repository of revealed truth intended by Christ, then to fight against the Church is to fight against Christ (See Acts 9:4-5).  If she is not this final repository, it is irrelevant what she says to begin with.  However, since Catholics do believe that the authority of the Church is given to her by Christ, the person who is at odds with the Church teaching truly needs to consider on what basis they are so certain they are in the right and the teaching authority of the Church is in the wrong.

Principle #4: Either the Church of Christ or A False Church

Thus the dissenting Catholic has to come to terms with this.  If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, then she must be heeded.  If she is not what she claims to be she is either incredibly deluded or a monstrous fraud.  Thus the dissenter stands judged either way:

  1. If the dissenter believes The Catholic Church is Christ's Church, then at the Final Judgment they can be asked, "Why did you not heed her?"
  2. BUT, if they believe the Catholic Church is not Christ's Church, then at the Final Judgment they can be asked, "Why did you remain within her?" 

The anti-Catholic is in error, but at least is acting in according to what he or she believes in rejecting the Church.  Remember, the Catholic Church believes her magisterium is protected from error in teaching on faith and morals – in other words, we believe she will not lead people to damnation by teaching falsely on issues of salvation because God protects her from teaching error.  Now since these issues of morality which some dissent from do pertain to salvation, we must conclude that either this is true and the dissenter is in error or else the Church teaches falsely about her very nature.

Principle #5: The Dissenter Has No Justification For Rebellion.  Their Dissent is Merely A Refusal to Accept They Are Doing Wrong

One day as he was teaching the people in the temple area and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and scribes, together with the elders, approached him and said to him, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Or who is the one who gave you this authority?”

He said to them in reply, “I shall ask you a question. Tell me, was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin?”

They discussed this among themselves, and said, “If we say, ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ then all the people will stone us, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.”

So they answered that they did not know from where it came.

Then Jesus said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.” (Luke 20:1-8)

The contradiction for the dissenter is that they deny that the Church has the authority to teach as they do on an issue they disagree with while giving themselves the authority to go against anything they dislike.   We have the right to question the authority they cite in rejecting the authority of the Church, and not merely accept their conclusion ("The Church is bad!").

A dissenter may say, "God doesn't want me to suffer.  The Church teaching makes me suffer.  Therefore the Church is acting against God"  I say that is a misstating of the issue.  God doesn't desire the destruction of the sinner, but that he or she will repent (See Ezekiel 18:25-32).  If we accept that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ willed and gave authority to (and if one does not accept that, the question immediately comes up, "Then why remain within her?"), then we certainly need to consider the possibility that we are in the wrong, not the Church.

The principle of dissent essentially claims that when a person is at odds with the Church, it is the fault of the Church, that the Magisterium is wrong and the dissenter is right.  But to make such a statement requires something more than mere feelings.  It requires a demonstration why we should accept their claims.

Yet, the dissenter does not offer any justification why we should hold their view to be true.  Rather, we see the appeal to pity fallacy.  An example is shown about how some person is doomed to a life of loneliness if the Church forbids "Gay marriage" or refuses to grant an annulment when the previous marriage is valid.  We can see it when a person claims some poor mother is doomed to have to care for too many children because the Church condemns contraception.  Or that the Church dooms a woman to give birth to a deformed child or a rapist's child because she condemns abortion.

All of these cases are used to appeal to a person's sense of pity, but not one of them answers the question of how it follows that the Church teaching is wrong.  One can make an appeal to pity to act against any obligation ("Your putting my son in prison means he won't be there to support me.  If only murder wasn't outlawed, you wouldn't put him in prison!"), but it doesn't make the prohibition wrong just because someone puts himself at odds with the law and has to suffer the consequences.

Principle #6: Just Because The Dissenter Does Not See the Reason for a Church Teaching Does Not Mean There Is No Reason

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good idea for somebody. And until we know what that reason was, we cannot judge whether that reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.

— G.K. Chesterton “The Drift from Domesticity”. Brave New Family. Ignatius Press. 1990. Page 53

The Argument from Ignorance Fallacy essentially argues that because one is not aware of anything to disprove a position it means the position must be true.  The problem with such a position is that it presumes that because one is not aware of an objection to a view it must mean there is no valid objection to the view.  GK Chesterton points out that the existence of a thing which we do not understand the reason for does not mean there is no reason.  We cannot assume that our ignorance about why a thing is as it is justifies making a change.

We can presumably look into the reasons for a thing and see why a thing is done.  From the knowledge of the reasons, we can judge whether a law is justified or arbitrary for example.  Moreover we can also take the reasons for a thing existing to judge our own reasons for wanting it removed.  Once we know why the Church teaches [X], we can look at our motives for dissenting from [X] and perhaps discover that our motive is not some high minded "principle of the thing," but rather a desire not to be inconvenienced or a fear of the consequences for our actions.

Principle #7: Vincible Ignorance Means We Are Responsible For What We Do Not Know

The Church teaches there are two types of ignorance, Invincible Ignorance or Vincible Ignorance.  Invincible Ignorance means it is impossible to learn something no matter how much we study.  For example, it is impossible right now to learn whether life exists in outer space.  We have found no evidence, but that lack of evidence covers only a small portion of the universe.   The result is, no person can learn the definite truth about life in outer space, no matter how much they study because it is impossible to discover this information at this time.  As a result the person who does not believe in extraterrestrial life is not to be blamed for his belief if he turns out to be wrong.  You can't be held responsible for what is impossible for you to learn.

Vincible Ignorance however is a matter where we could learn the truth if we had bothered to look.  If I am a hunter and I see movement in the bush, I could take the time to determine whether the target is a deer or another hunter.  If I fire on the movement without checking and kill another hunter, I acted out of ignorance, but my ignorance could have been corrected if I had bothered to take the time to learn.

Because Catholics believe that Christ is the head of the Church and that He protects the Magisterium from error when they teach on issues of salvation (again, if one denies this, we can ask "Why remain within the Church?"), and because they do not keep such teachings secret, we cannot claim it is impossible to know what God wills in terms of what we are to do to behave in accordance with God's will.  The internet allows us to access the official teachings of the Church.  The catechism is online.  The Code of canon law is online.  Papal Encyclicals are online (also here).  This isn't the 12th century where many could not read and books were expensive.  Regardless of how well the Vatican may adapt to the Internet, we can't say that the true teachings of the Church can't be found.  We can't say that because we don't know the reason for the Church teaching, we don't have to follow it.  We can learn!

If we refuse to learn, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Conclusion: What Every Catholic Must Recognize To Be Faithfully Catholic

14 “Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve him completely and sincerely. Cast out the gods your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.

15 If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14-15)

Ultimately anyone who finds themselves struggling with a decision of morality needs to recognize that with Original Sin, with our fears and our emotions, we can be led astray if we rely on ourselves.  We need to realize that as Catholics, we have been given the grace to be a part of the Church Christ willed, and that He gave the authority to carry out His mission.  The Church is not merely a human institution inventing all sorts of laws in a mad quest for power.

Always we need to remember what Msgr. Ronald Knox wrote: 

Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth? If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.

If we believe the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, it follows we can accept what she teaches.  If one rejects this principle, it makes no sense to even remain in the Church as she would have no authority.

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