Sunday, June 26, 2016

Usurpation: When Preference Replaces Church Teaching

One thing the 2016 elections makes clear is that while our preferences and Church teaching may be similar, they are not the same thing. In saying this, I don’t indict my fellow Catholics of being “bad Catholics.” What I mean is, what we think is the best way to live as a Catholic are sometimes prudential judgments where other faithful Catholics can legitimately disagree. So, if we insist that our prudential judgment is the only way to follow the Catholic faith, we end up being unjust to those who follow their own prudential judgment.

It’s easy to make that judgment. Some Catholics do make bad decisions while believing them to be compatible with Church teaching. When that happens, we do have to help them understand (in charity) what the Church does teach. The problem is, we tend to think that because some go astray, it means whoever reaches a different decision than we do must be guilty of the same thing. We see this happen in disputes over what sort of laws we should pass in response to national events and what sort of votes we should cast to be faithful to the Church and her teaching.

What we should remember is, the Church teaches us about truth, morality and the need to follow it if we would be faithful Catholics. She does not tell us we must vote for candidate X or law Y. As Benedict XVI wrote:

[#9] The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.”11 She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation.


 Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2009).

If we act against the truth taught by the Church (such as calling an openly pro-abortion candidate “the real pro-life candidate”) we do wrong. But if people take to heart the teaching of the Church and, properly understanding it, their conscience leads them to vote differently than we prefer, we cannot attack them as being bad Catholics. We can debate (in charity) whether certain reasoning is accurate, but we can’t say they choose to do evil because they do not embrace the third party option or do not think the recent slate of gun control legislation will solve anything.

When one Catholic accuses another of supporting evil when it is only a difference of prudential judgment, this is what St. Thomas Aquinas calls usurpation—a case “when a man judges about matters wherein he has no authority” (Summa Theologica II-II q.60 a.2 resp) [†]. We don’t have the authority in judging a man an evildoer when he follows Church teaching in good faith and to the best of his ability. We can shake our heads and disagree. We can offer charitable arguments on why we disagree. But if we equate our preferences with Church teaching, we usurp her authority when we judge.

If we don’t get this attitude under control, it sometimes becomes suspicion of the Church herself. If we continue letting our preferences usurp the teaching of the Church, we risk becoming judges of the Church where the Church can only be right when she does our will. That too is usurpation. The Church binds and looses because God gives the Church this right and responsibility. We do not have such a right.

But when we claim the Church went wrong and can only repair herself if she follows our preferences, we are usurping what God has given His Church. It doesn't matter whether The Church seems inept or error prone to us. God has given the successors of the Apostles the right and obligation in leading the Church and we trust Him to protect the Church. If we feel called to reform the Church, we must work under her authority, not against it. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, did not write abusive articles about how awful the Church was. Instead, he followed Our Lord’s call to rebuild His Church, by giving obedience to the Pope and bishops.

We can have preferences about how the Church should handle things. That’s not wrong in itself. It goes wrong when we make our preference the yardstick that measures the Church, when it should be the Church that measures our preference. When we start viewing the Pope as a burden, or claiming that the Church went wrong after Vatican II, or thinking her moral teachings are arbitrary teachings she should abandon, we have gone wrong, and may be guilty of scandal if we lead others into this rebellion.

The way to change, is to learn the teaching of the Church and to avoid condemning the Church herself or people who strive to be faithful just because they go against our preferences. in the course of being faithful. Some Catholics may not like that others oppose certain gun control measures. Some Catholics may be in a civil war over whether to support Trump or a 3rd party. But before condemning them, we need to learn both what the Church allows and what motives these fellow Catholics might have for their decision. 



[†] The whole response is worth reading:

I answer that, Judgment is lawful in so far as it is an act of justice. Now it follows from what has been stated above (A. 1, ad 1, 3) that three conditions are requisite for a judgment to be an act of justice: first, that it proceed from the inclination of justice; secondly, that it come from one who is in authority; thirdly, that it be pronounced according to the right ruling of prudence. If any one of these be lacking, the judgment will be faulty and unlawful. First, when it is contrary to the rectitude of justice, and then it is called perverted or unjust: secondly, when a man judges about matters wherein he has no authority, and this is called judgment by usurpation: thirdly, when the reason lacks certainty, as when a man, without any solid motive, forms a judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter, and then it is called judgment by suspicion or rash judgment.


 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne).

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