Friday, December 9, 2016

Let's Talk About Dangerous Thinking Leading to Sin

can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.


 Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247.


A sign that our discernment is in real contact with the Holy Spirit is and will always be adherence to revealed truth as it is proposed by the Church’s Magisterium. The interior teacher does not inspire dissent, disobedience or even merely an unjustified resistance to the pastors and teachers established by him in the Church (cf. Acts 20:29). It belongs to the Church’s authority, as the Council said in the Constitution Lumen Gentium (n. 12), to “not quench the Spirit, but to test everything and retain what is good” (cf. 1 Thess 5:12, 19–21). This is the direction of ecclesial and pastoral wisdom which also comes from the Holy Spirit.



John Paul II, April 24, 1991. Audiences of Pope John Paul II (English) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014).

Since too many people seem to assume that defense of Pope Francis is a condemnation of Cardinal Burke et. al., I should make this preliminary note: It’s not my intention to judge the souls or motives of the four cardinals. My concern is with the attitude of “Combox warrior” Catholics on social media who accuse the Pope of heresy and ignorance. Comments accusing me of judging these cardinals will be deleted.

Two Scenarios of Schism

When I talk about schism coming in the Church, there are two possibilities on how it may come about. One I think is unlikely, the other I think probable.

One scenario—which is what most people think when they hear the term—is that certain Catholics get so fed up with the Pope, that they set up one of his critics as an antipope and form a separate Church. This was a scenario popular in religious fiction during the Pontificate of St. John Paul II when he faced open dissent from those who wanted to change Church teaching. This sometimes happens in Church history, but in this case, I think this scenario is unlikely.

The other scenario—the one I think is more probable today—is that critics ramp up their opposition to the Pope, alleging he is teaching error. A growing number of Catholics believe this and refuse assent to his teachings because they believe, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and are led to think they know the Catholic faith better than the Holy Father. So they refuse to listen to him when what he says doesn’t square up with what they think the Church teaching is. In this situation, those refusing submission to the Pope  deceive themselves into thinking the shepherds of the Church are in error while they are a faithful remnant. They don’t think they’re schismatics because they’re not leaving the Church or creating an antipope.

Danger Lies in Assuming One’s Personal Interpretations are Doctrine

Let’s be clear, however. Simply wanting the Pope to answer the dubia is not in itself a sin. In doing so, we should be aware that there may be things going on behind the scenes that lead to him deciding to handle things differently than we want. The danger comes when one says, “I can’t see any reason for not doing this, so the Pope must be wrong.” Even if it should turn out there was no good reason, the worst one can accuse the Pope of is being a poor administrator, NOT that he is teaching error.

It becomes more dangerous when we become so invested in a certain interpretation of Church teaching, especially when a document was written in a different era. A changing world can lead to the Church taking a different approach in a different approach while accepting the long held doctrine of the Church. But if one has embraced a certain Church policy from one time to the point of confusing it with doctrine, there is a danger of thinking a change of policy is a rejection of doctrine.

For example, in his work Fundamentals of Catholicism, then-Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about the shift of tactics in dealing with the world between the times of Pius IX and St. Pius X compared to Gaudium et spes. In a passage that outraged some Catholics (and was used as ammunition by some sede vacantists), he wrote:

Let us be content to say here that the text serves as a counter syllabus and, as such, represents, on the part of the Church, an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789. Only from this perspective can we understand, on the one hand, its ghetto-mentality, of which we have spoken above; only from this perspective can we understand, on the other hand, the meaning of this remarkable meeting of Church and world. Basically, the word “world” means the spirit of the modern era, in contrast to which the Church’s group-consciousness saw itself as a separate subject that now, after a war that had been in turn both hot and cold, was intent on dialogue and cooperation. From this perspective, too, we can understand the different emphases with which the individual parts of the Church entered into the discussion of the text.


 Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans. Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 382.

People who were invested in the Syllabi of the earlier Popes took the term “counter syllabus” and accused him of heresy, saying he rejected doctrine and accepted the French Revolution as good. He said nothing of the sort. He didn’t deny the earlier teaching of the Church. He merely believed that the world had changed and the (non-doctrinal) approach of the Church needed to address new situations that had arisen since 1789. Never mind the fact that Vatican II begins with the premise that the Church established by Our Lord is the Catholic Church. People who preferred previous practices believe this is a change of doctrine, even though it is a change of practice.

Misunderstandings Leading to False Accusations

And that’s where the problem with the Church today exists. The Pope and bishops in communion with him (and never apart from him) determine how Church teaching is applied in every generation. Sometimes misunderstandings happen. The question is, will people investigate whether they have misunderstood, or will they assume any fault lies with the magisterium when there is a conflict, refusing to consider any other possibility?

For example, one common accusation from combox warriors is the Pope intends to implement the ideas of Cardinal Kasper in approving remarriage and reception of the Eucharist after divorce. Such accusations show they don’t really know what the Cardinal (whom I believe to be wrong) said, nor how his words differed from the Pope. What Cardinal Kasper thought was a good idea [*], was to invoke the opinion offered by some Church Fathers and accepted by the Orthodox churches (but not the Catholic Church):

But if a divorced and remarried person is truly sorry that he or she failed in the first marriage, if the commitments from the first marriage are clarified and a return is definitively out of the question, if he or she cannot undo the commitments that were assumed in the second civil marriage without new guilt, if he or she strives to the best of his or her abilities to live out the second civil marriage on the basis of faith and to raise their children in the faith, if he or she longs for the sacraments as a source of strength in his or her situation, do we then have to refuse or can we refuse him or her the sacrament of penance and communion, after a period of reorientation?


 Walter Kasper, The Gospel of the Family, trans. William Madges (Mahwah, NJ; New York: Paulist Press, 2014), 32.

You won’t find this view in Amoris Lætitia, because the Pope doesn’t teach this view. What he discusses is getting people back to Church with the aim of reconciling them with God. He asks bishops and priests to remember the intents and circumstances and not just stop at the fact of intrinsic evil [†]. My reading of Amoris Lætitia and the Argentine bishops’ instruction is the ultimate goal is to get the divorced and remarried to live as brother and sister. If they should fall into temptation and sin, this is what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is for.

Some people read the same words and misinterpret the Pope as saying the Church should find ways around Our Lord’s teachings. But there’s no justification for it. In his February 18, 2016, press conference, he said in response to a question:

Thompson: Does that mean they can receive Communion?


Pope Francis: This is the last thing. Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration. And those two were happy. They used a very beautiful expression: we don’t receive Eucharistic communion, but we receive communion when we visit hospitals and in this and this and this. Their integration is that.

Things like this show that an interpretation claiming the Pope intends to permit the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried without repentance is a misunderstanding, and an accusation that he intends to change an unchangeable teaching turns out to be a false accusation.

Conclusion: The Dangerous Ways of Thinking

The dangerous ways of thinking come from not being able to consider the possibility of going wrong personally. If I hold that the Pope can go wrong but I can’t, I’ve created a blind spot that prevents me from properly examining myself for error and repenting if error is found. Under such a view, we create a church of a billion popes where the only the Pope and everybody else who thinks differently from me can go wrong. Yes, one can wish a Pope handled things differently, and (as I pointed out above) that includes how he handled the dubia. But there’s a difference between wishing the Pope had handled things differently and saying “Not my Pope,” or “I can’t follow him any more,” as two Catholics I encountered on Facebook today said.

The first attitude is acceptable so long as one recognizes his authority to act as he sees fit. The latter is literally schismatic as defined by Canon Law. It is possible that the person didn’t realize how serious a claim was. It is possible they would never uttered those words if they had known. But it is a refusal to submit to the Pope. So one should think long and hard if they dislike the Pope. 

Afterword: My Personal View

Above, I’ve tried to show how the attacks against the Pope are flawed. Now I’d like to offer my personal views.  

I believe the attacks against the Pope are unjust. The assumption that anyone who defends him is “a modernist” and “a Hillary supporter” [§], shows the ideological slant of his critics. There is no cause for this, and such accusations show a lack of knowledge of what Pope Francis said, what his predecessors said, or (alarmingly on the increase) ignorance of both. Our Lord established Peter as the Rock on which He would build His Church. The attacks against Pope Francis are, whether his foes realize it or not, undermining the Rock, and will come back to haunt whoever succeeds Pope Francis.

For centuries, the saints spoke about obedience to the Church as part of our obligation towards holiness. Now, a growing number seem to think one can be holy in opposition to those who lead the Church. I am not making any accusations against any Catholic here (even if I wanted to, I certainly have no authority to do so). But if someone who reads my blog is tempted to take that approach, I plead with you as a fellow Christian to reconsider your actions and mindset.

As for me, I will continue to defend the Pope both because I place my faith in God to protect His Church from teaching error [∞], and I reject the accusations made against his intentions, orthodoxy and competence. This view might make me unpopular, but for me, prayer and study leads so I can take no other stand without being unfaithful. 


[*] The problem I have with Cardinal Kasper’s view is Our Lord’s and subsequent Church teaching tells us that when a marriage exists, one cannot remarry. Unless I misinterpret him, he seems to think a couple is “truly sorry,” they can go on living as if they were man and wife and receive the sacraments. But being truly sorry means doing what one can to turn away from the sin. So it seems like he holds contradictory premises.

[†] The reason I’m puzzled with the dubia is they are focused on the concept of intrinsically evil acts as if the Pope were ignoring them, but (as I see it) the Pope seems to accept that as a given and asks the clergy to look more at the other two parts of assessing sin. 

[§] I’ve received both accusations from combox warriors. The latter is a non sequitur which shows the political motivations of some of the Pope’s critics.

[∞] If the Pope actually said the divorced and remarried they can receive the Eucharist without repentance (which I deny) that would seem to be a teaching on faith and morals.

No comments:

Post a Comment