Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Me-gisterium? On Portraying Personal Preference as Church Teaching


I’m noticing that there is a growth in a troubling trend on the internet. Some Catholics, whether on Facebook, blogs or comments on articles, have begun to elevate their rhetoric over personal preferences on policy to the point that they accuse other Catholics who question whether that policy is good or prudent of supporting evil or otherwise being a bad Catholic. I call this troubling because of the fact that the Church does allow us some leeway in determining how best to promote a Church teaching or oppose an evil.

Distinguishing Between Church Teaching and Personal Preference

Let’s clarify something first. When the teaching authority of the Church says that we must do X or must never do Y, then to refuse to do X or to choose to do Y is morally wrong. Moreover, to encourage others to disobey the Church on either issue would be causing scandal. Therefore, in our advocacy for a thing or our opposition to a thing, we absolutely cannot contradict Church teaching. If we oppose Church teaching, we do evil. That’s indisputable when it comes to our moral obligation.

But when two people agree that the Church teaching must be followed, but disagree with each other on the ways and means to sincerely and most effectively carry out the Church teaching, then it is unjust of Person 1 to accuse Person 2 of not being faithful to Church teaching. Person 2 can disagree with the prudence or philosophy of Person 1’s position without denying the truth of the Church teaching.

Hijacking Magisterial Authority

Now let’s carry it a step further. When Person 1 in this example decrees that the Church teaching on X requires that we embrace the specific policy that he supports, he is creating a counterfeit magisterium that makes use of what the Church actually said and misappropriating that teaching to lend unjustified authority to his or her personal politics or preferences. This happens in many ways across the political spectrum and across the Catholic spectrum from Modernist to Radical Traditionalist.

For example, the Church teaching on Social Justice requires us to care for the poor. Obviously, any Catholic who takes the position of “Let the poor suffer, we do not care” does wrong. Now, some people think that care for the poor means supporting higher taxes to help provide for the poor. So, they vote in support of taxes and encourage others to do the same. There is nothing wrong about that in the sense of going against Church teaching. Others may not agree with Person 1 saying that they believe that supporting taxes logically follows from the teaching, but provided that Person 1 does not go beyond saying that he or she thinks this follows from Church teaching, there is nothing morally wrong about that.

However, suppose Person 2 disagrees with Person 1 over the strategy of raising taxes. Person 2 thinks that the government propensity to waste and corruption makes this strategy imprudent without certain safeguards, or thinks other economic strategies can help the poor more effectively. Provided that Person 2 does not contradict Church teaching on Social Justice, there is nothing wrong with his/her position either. One of their strategies may be more effective and our leaders should seek out the most effective way to carry out social justice.

Now, if Person 1 begins to insist that Church teaching requires support for higher taxes and claims that Person 2 is rejecting Church teaching because he/she disagrees with Person 1, then Person 1 is creating a counterfeit magisterium and is hijacking Magisterial authority to give his/her personal opinion an authority it does not have. Person 1 is then doing wrong—quite possibly causing scandal by leading Catholics and non-Catholics alike into the wrong belief that the Church teaches what she actually does not.

We can substitute “taxes” with “the extraordinary form of the Mass” or “banning firearms” or other opinions. In all of these cases, we must give our assent to the teaching of the Magisterium. But when two people agree with the Church teaching but disagree on the way of best carrying out that teaching, then the person who insists that their personal policy preference is the teaching of the Church, then that person is hijacking Church authority.

The Sin of Scandal

This is becoming a serious problem. I know of bloggers and Facebook personalities who are indicting the people they disagree with as being bad Catholics solely on the basis of the disagreement over a preferred policy which has not been taught by the Church as the only way to follow. Such behavior causes scandal because they mislead people into thinking that the Church teaches something she does not.

Think about it. If a Catholic with some renown supports a partisan political policy and accuses those who disagree with that policy of being bad Catholics, does that not lead sincere people to believe that the Church teaches error when in fact the error is on the part of individual who claims more than he or she has a right to? Might not that misconception lead people to reject the truth of the Catholic because they have been deceived about what she teaches?

Conclusion: Avoiding Turning the Magisterium into a Me-gisterium

Those of us who write about the Catholic faith have an obligation to write about it accurately, saying of what is, that it is and saying of what is not, that it is not. If we wish to advocate for a particular piece of legislation or political program that we think logically follows from Catholic teaching, we must make clear that this is our opinion and must NEVER use our reputation as a Catholic blogger to give the impression that our preference is mandated by the Church.

This is crucial to remember. As Catholic bloggers, we have no authority of our own. We can only point to the teaching of the Church, doing our best as co-workers for the truth to help make clear what the Church teaches and why she teaches. We can never make our preference appear to be her teaching. Otherwise we set ourselves up as a “Me-gisterium” centering on ourselves and not on the teaching of Our Lord as preserved by His Church.

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