Catholics on Facebook and the Blogs seem to be at sixes and sevens over the state of the Church. On one hand, the Pope and the bishops are the successors to the Apostles and, as such, possess an office worthy of our love and respect when they teach. On the other hand, we have to deal with scandalous statements by some of these successors to the Apostles that seem to be appalling. The question we have to ask is: Where the line is to be drawn? How do we express our concerns without sinning against truth and charity? What makes things harder is the fact that some people, in expressing their concerns, seem to think scandalous behaviors by some justify an indictment against the whole Church.
So, we have an issue of discernment here. We want to reject the noxious weeds—whether scandalous statements by Cardinals Kasper and Daneels or scandalous statements by Catholic bloggers who reject the legitimate authority of the Church when they dislike it—without stifling legitimate petitions for redress. This discernment is one of recognizing where truth and charity intersect with our concerns.
The issue of truth requires us to make sure that we say of what is, that it is and of what is not, that it is not (to borrow from Aristotle). But, before we can say “X is true” or “Y is false,” we have to actually know that “X is true” or “Y is false.” That’s where the problem arises. Often we tend to think that we know something, but that something is actually based on a false assumption. For example, we assume meanings to words that the speaker does not assume—because the meaning of the word has a broader meaning than the interpreter assumes. In such a case, we impute a negative meaning to the speaker and accuse him of holding that position. For example, the accusation that the Pope is a Marxist or a Liberation Theologian based on his critique of laissez faire capitalism is based on the assumption that his rhetoric has Marxist meanings. Likewise, the person who hears the Pope say “Who am I to judge” and creates out of thin air a claim that the Pope is “changing” the teaching on homosexuality. Quick research could have revealed the source of the quote—which makes that interpretation impossible.
In both cases, people assumed they knew what the Pope meant, solely based on the individual assumption on what the words mean. But truth requires us to go beyond our assumptions and find out if [What we think we know] = [The Truth]. If we do not search out the truth, we are most likely either skirting the edge of Rash Judgment or have already fallen over into outright calumny:
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity. (1753)
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 594–595.
That brings us to scrutinizing our concerns with charity. Are we prepared to consider the possibility that a bishop isn’t acting out of bad will jut because his way of handling things isn’t the same as ours, and that we might think differently if we had his information? Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes there is no alternative interpretation possible. But when we reach that level (and remember our obligation to seek the truth requires us to ask whether our assumptions are true) then we have to correct with love. That is often neglected. How many people who rightly recognize that the Church is not a democracy, become quite “democratic” in dishing out abuse to the clergy they dislike? How many people actually consider St. Thomas Aquinas’ words:
I answer that, A subject is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment: but the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction.
Now an act which proceeds from a habit or power extends to whatever is contained under the object of that power or habit: thus vision extends to all things comprised in the object of sight. Since, however, a virtuous act needs to be moderated by due circumstances, it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect. Hence the Apostle says (1 Tim. 5:1): An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father. Wherefore Dionysius finds fault with the monk Demophilus (Ep. viii.), for rebuking a priest with insolence, by striking and turning him out of the church.
Reply Obj. 1. It would seem that a subject touches his prelate inordinately when he upbraids him with insolence, as also when he speaks ill of him: and this is signified by God’s condemnation of those who touched the mount and the ark. (Summa Theologica STh., II-II q.33 a.4 resp.–ad 1)
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne).
With all seriousness, where is this gentleness and respect? People are willing to insult a bishop or even the Pope with what St. Thomas Aquinas calls “Impudence and harshness,” never seeking to discover whether there might be misinterpretation by one’s personal reading or by the source one gets their information from.
That’s ultimately the problem. Whether it is a conservative Catholic who disagrees with the Pope, a liberal who disagrees with the bishop, (or, recently, the academic who wants to get Ross Douthat fired from his position), we find one of three problems:
- The attack lacks truth
- The attack lacks charity
- The attack lacks both truth and charity.
Whenever we feel the need to write about a problem with the Church, or a leader of the Church, we have the obligation to seek the truth, to be charitable in how we interact with those we disagree with and make sure we do respect those in authority when expressing our concerns. Otherwise, our behavior is not praiseworthy, but shameful. This is something we all need to practice—I’m sure some of my readers are looking at what I’ve written and are rolling their eyes over my own blind spots in this area. Yes, I have to work on this too."So let us show love and respect for the Pope and bishops when we are troubled with the behavior of some, and let us show love and respect for our fellow Catholics with whom we disagree with. Let us make sure that we seek out the truth and not merely the views of our preferred news sites. Let us show charity, and not disdain for those we disagree with.
Otherwise, we may find that the measure we used will be used against us (Matthew 7:2)