Saturday, April 9, 2016

Are We Ink-Blot Catholics?



What are we to make of the factions who are utterly convinced that the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Lætitia is about letting people in sinful situations continue, only disagreeing over whether it is a good thing (the secular media and some liberal Catholics) or a bad thing (some conservative Catholics)? I’ve read the Exhortation myself and find it entirely consistent with Catholic moral teaching, including the task of determining culpability for a specific individual struggling with sin (Pre-Vatican II works call this casuistry but nowadays the term has received a pejorative meaning of rationalizing sin).

Determining personal guilt has always been a difficult assessment, and for a person who is suspicious of Church doctrinal “corruption" or scrupulous, the task of determining culpability can seem like promoting sin. It reminds me of a joke that goes like this:

A psychiatrist is giving his patient an Rorschach test. He holds up the first card with an ink blot and asks the patient what he sees.

“Two people having sex,” the patient replies.

So the psychiatrist holds up a second ink blot and asks the patient what he sees.

The patient again replies, “Two people having sex."

After five more cards with the same answer, the psychiatrist puts down the deck and says, “You seem to have a fixation on sex.”

The patient replies, “Don’t blame me. You’re the one with all the dirty pictures!" 

The joke is the ink blot pictures have no meaning and the patient is the one who made the connection with sex. He blames the psychiatrist for something in his own mind. 

Seeing Sin in Papal Documents

Watching the behavior of certain Catholics on the internet, that joke seems increasingly relevant. Seeing a number of respected Catholic theologians impressed by the writings of the Pope contrasted with a small number consistently insisting these documents are proof of a change in Church teaching, I tend to think the “change in Church teaching” they see is in their own mind. Some carry a hope that the Church will bless what she formerly call sins. Others dread it. But the first step is to understand what the Church says while avoiding interpreting it with preconceived notions.

If a Catholic interprets a Papal document under the assumption that the Pope is trying to “turn back” Vatican II, he will see any insistence that we must be faithful to Church teaching as restrictive. If a Catholic interprets a Papal document under the assumption that the Pope is a secret modernist, he will see any calls for mercy or social justice as part of the modernist heresy. But if the Pope is not trying to turn back Vatican II, nor trying to promote modernism, then these readings are wrong.

Elevating Perceived Personal Holiness over Church Authority

What we have in these cases are people who are certain that they properly understand how to practice the Catholic faith while the magisterium does not. Every attack on a Church teaching (as opposed to a non-binding utterance by a priest or bishop) blames the Church for the disagreement, refusing to consider the possibility of personal error. Here’s where we run into a problem. This judgment of Church teaching is a begging the question fallacy. The individual takes as fact that his interpretation of Scripture or Church documents are free of error. When the Church teaches differently than this interpretation, the individual assumes that the Church teaches error. What the individual doesn’t ask is whether he was the one who got it wrong. If he did, then his “proofs” of Church error are not proofs at all.

We ought to remember the words of our first Pope, St. Peter, who warned (in 2 Peter 3:14-16) the faithful about avoiding confidence in personal interpretation:

14 Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace. 15 And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, 16 speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures. 


 New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 2 Pe 3:14–16.

People giving a personal interpretation wrest scripture to their own destruction when they don’t follow those given the responsibility to discern the proper understanding. Why do we then think we can decide the proper meaning of a Church document that opposes the magisterium? When every interpretation opposed to the magisterium depends on a personal reading, these interpretations are not proofs that the Church is in the wrong. First one must prove his personal interpretation is the teaching of the Church as judged by the current magisterium.

The theologian does investigate Scripture and Church documents in studying how to better fulfill Our Lord’s teachings. There is no wrongdoing in investigation. But when the teaching authority of the Church—led by the present Pope—says the theologian errs, then one must either obey the magisterial judgment or rebel against it. In the former case, there is no sin. In the latter case, this is rebellion. If we profess that the Catholic Church is founded by Christ and received from Him the authority to bind and loose, then we can see rebellion against the Church is rebellion against God (see Luke 10:16). 


When any Catholic looks at the affairs of the Church or reads a Church document, he needs to ask himself whether he sees things rightly or whether he sees the Church through preconceived notions. A person who know the Our Lord established the Catholic Church and protected from formally teaching error, then the sins of the members and bad decisions of leaders are not signs of catastrophic failure in the Church. But if a person assumes that the Church can err, then he automatically sees error whenever an unfamiliar concept appears. 

That’s how we become ink-blot Catholics. We hold something preconceived and when the Church says something outside our comfort zone, we assume it must be the fault of the Church for teaching something that she has no intention of teaching at all.

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