Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chickenhawk: Thoughts on Catholics and Ad Hominem Attacks Aimed at Silencing Opponents


Before I begin, let me just say that in writing this article, I don’t intend to defend or promote any specific candidate or their position. Indeed, I hope to write something that would remain true if it was read fifty years from now. My concern is that many people who are using this argument seem to be unaware of the fact that it can be used to attack other positions as well. Thus the Catholic who uses it to attack a political view they dislike may find himself “hoisted by their own petard” when someone uses the same argument against a moral teaching of the Church. Then this person would end up looking like they support a double standard.

To avoid such problems, we need to be consistent and ethical in how we speak out or blog against something we oppose on moral grounds. If we behave inconsistently, somebody will notice and even if they don’t call us out, they will notice and assume we behave hypocritically.

The Current Misbehavior

One of the common attacks that happen when Catholics debate the current slate of people campaigning for nomination is an ad hominem attack. An ad hominem [literally meaning “to the person”] happens where, instead of refuting an argument, the person attacks the individual who makes the argument. There are many different ways one can attack the person who argues, but they all are guilty of the same thing—attacking the individual does not actually refute what was said, even if it succeeds in makes the person look foolish.

Ad hominem 2

During election years we see statements appear which are designed to attack people who hold a position contrary to what the attacking individual supports. This year is no different. In this current election cycle, this argument I’ve noticed is an attack on the person who favors strong military action against ISIS. The argument is that because Candidate A did not serve in the military, he is not qualified to advocate a position of strong military action. Rhetoric portrays them as casually sending men off to their deaths, not caring about what happens to them. The problem is, calling a candidate a Chickenhawk (defined as a person who speaks out in support of war, yet has avoided active military service) does not demonstrate that the candidate’s position is wrong. It only demonstrates that the person attacking disapproves of the position. But who is to say that the disapproval is true? Slapping a label on a candidate is not a refutation of his position. 

This argument is an enthymeme (an argument with a hidden but assumed premise). It assumes a premise that only people who served in the military are qualified to decide in favor taking military action. It then takes the fact that Candidate A did not serve in the military to disqualify him from holding his position on military strategy. That’s a bad argument to make for several reasons.

Flaws With the Argument Are Apparent

One problem is, this argument does not address the question of whether a lack of military experience disqualifies or whether having experience qualifies someone to decide in favor of military action. One of the obvious responses is to contrast Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. FDR was not in the military.[1] Hitler was. So to use the “chickenhawk” argument, FDR was not qualified to make a decision committing troops to combat, while Hitler was qualified. But history shows that this is absurd. So we can see that military service or its lack is not, by itself an indicator of whether a decision to use troops is justified.

A second problem is that this argument can be used to target anyone who holds a position that is disliked. For example, consider all the people who target pro-lifers by saying that men can’t become pregnant, therefore they shouldn’t condemn abortion. Or the people who say that Priests are celibate, therefore they shouldn’t condemn contraception. Just like the “chickenhawk” ad hominem, the intent of this kind of attack is to embarrass and exclude a person who holds Position X by saying he has no right to take a position contrary to the preferred one on account of one aspect of his life he cannot change whether through circumstances of birth or through events in life.  

A third problem is that it overlooks the possibility of change of views over time. A person who chose not to join the military for whatever reason is not locked into the views they held when they were 20 for the rest of their lives. For example, I was an idiot at 20 and my views have been substantially modified since then. Others may have behaved in a way they now regret. I would not make a blanket claim that all people regret their past. But neither can we assume that these people are deliberately being hypocritical. 

A fourth problem is we can reverse it. If a person who did not go into the military has no right to advocate an aggressive military response, then it logically follows he also has no right to oppose military action. In other words, we might as well make America like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers [2] where only veterans can be citizens. We might as well forbid men to have pro-abortion views and celibate clergy to have pro-contraception views. In other words, the argument is only applied in a partisan manner to silence people we disagree with, never to determine what is true.


Again, I don’t write this to defend any candidate or their position. I write this to encourage people to recognize that this argument is not one used to determine the truth. It’s used to try to turn people against a view the arguer dislikes by attacking the person who supports the disliked view. It’s basically a cheap shot. We need to stop using. If we want to lead people to embrace a certain view, we should use reasoned discussion as to why our view is correct and the opposing view is wrong. We should not use cheap shots aimed at embarrassing the opponent.

So I would encourage my fellow Catholics to stop using this form of attack. It’s fallacious, it’s unjust and it is one which can be used to attack our own beliefs. Instead, let us show why their position is wrong—not with rhetorical tricks, but with truth, leading by example to show that we seek to live what is true and good.




[1] We have had (to the best of my knowledge) twelve Presidents who never served in the Military: Adams, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, Cleveland, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, FDR, Clinton, and Obama. If one excludes presidents who were in the military but never served in combat, the number increases.

[2] The movie was pretty brainless, but the book did at least raise some interesting questions about why we don’t take our citizenship more seriously. No idea if that was Heinlein’s intent, but that was the result for me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Outrage and Burnout

If running against men has wearied you, 

how will you race against horses? 

And if you are safe only on a level stretch, 

what will you do in the jungle of the Jordan? [Jeremiah 12:5]

I sometimes think that an election year means that everybody’s IQ suddenly drops 10-20%. People start tolerating behavior in their favored candidates that they would scream in outrage if their opponents used the same tactic. Insults replace reasoned discourse and discerning the truth takes a back seat to making sure “your guy” wins. I find that I really start to feel burned out with all this going on. I feel disgusted when the candidates who stand in opposition to what I stand for attempt to attack all I hold important by grossly distorting it. I feel dismay when I see my co-religionists use the same tactics, making the faith look like a partisan affair. And I grow extremely discouraged when I see people who share my faith say that a candidate who explicitly calls good what the Church condemns being touted as the “most Catholic” candidate. Sometimes I just find myself thinking...

I imagine it might be similar to what Elijah must have felt (though his situation was much worse of course) when he saw the moral ruin his homeland had fallen into:

Elijah was afraid and fled for his life, going to Beer-sheba of Judah. He left his servant there and went a day’s journey into the wilderness, until he came to a solitary broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death: “Enough, Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” He lay down and fell asleep under the solitary broom tree, but suddenly a messenger* touched him and said, “Get up and eat!” He looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water. After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the Lord came back a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you!” He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.  [1 Kings 19:3–8]

As Catholics, we can’t retreat from the election year idiocy. We need the nourishment God provides to continue our task and not give into despair or the moral corruption that sweeps our nation. We need the grace that comes from God through prayer and reflection on His Word and the words of His saints. Of course, in doing so, we need to remember that if we bring a bad attitude to prayer, with the mindset of “Let those people know my preferences are right!” then we won’t receive this nourishment of grace.

I think we ultimately need to start with the attitude of Our Lord on the Mount of Olives, where He said, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). That’s not an invitation to passivity or indifference of course. It’s a call to submit to God’s will. In other words, we need to discern what God wants us to do in the face of adversity.

Personally, I find the Liturgy of the Hours to be a great help. The Psalms show the full extent of our concerns before God, everything from “Thank You for being You” to “Why is this happening to us?” I especially am struck by the latter category. We think we have it rough, but so did the early Christians and Jews. In every generation there is harshness and discouraging news, where the faithful individual looks at the physical or moral ruins of his culture and asks “Why did this have to happen?” No, we can’t always understand why God permits things that seem so catastrophic to us. But we need to remember that God is the Lord of the universe and that, while He may permit evil for a time, He will not permit it to ultimately triumph. 

So, it is not wrong to ask God for deliverance from a specific evil. But let’s not blame Him for the evil being there. Let our first step be to pray for and discern what God wants us to do in this situation, accepting His will over our own. We love Him, we keep His commandments (see John 14:15) and we see what His commandments obligate us to do in bringing His kingdom to the world. In doing so, let us remember that our witness to the world by keeping His commandments (without a double standard) is a better witness than all the political arguments we can make for a favored candidate or against one we dislike.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Thoughts on the Change of Rules for Washing Feet on Holy Thursday

Emphasizing a Different Aspect of a Teaching Does Not Equal Changing Teaching

So the Pope made a change in the Holy Thursday rite of Washing of Feet and both Progressive and Traditionalist Catholics tend to see it as a harbinger of change in the Church. They only disagree over whether it is a good or a bad thing. I think the assumption that this signifies change to areas of doctrine is false. I think that people are forgetting a few things, and forgetting these things lead to bad conclusions.

The point I would make is that when Our Lord acts, there is a great deal of depth to His actions. It would be foolish of us to limit the meaning of His actions to only one aspect. So the Church can decide to emphasize one aspect of this depth of meaning at one time in her history and another aspect at a different time. In doing this, the Church is not contradicting the other aspects of meaning.

The account of the Washing of Feet is found in John 13:1-17. In it, Jesus washes the feet of His disciples. It’s a scandalous action. It’s something a servant would do, not someone as important as Jesus Himself. But Jesus stresses that it is something they must do for others, just as He has done it for them. Now, for years this action has been emphasized as part of the Institution of the Priesthood and the role of the Priest’s service to others, and this emphasis is good. The Church has not “lost her way” in giving this emphasis. But it’s not the only emphasis to be found in Our Lord’s actions.

Because there is another compatible emphasis to be found in Our Lord’s words and actions. In this emphasis, we see the Priest as carrying out the words in John 13:15-16. "I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him."

Reading these verses, I see the Pope’s actions in changing who might take part in this ritual as showing that the Priest is carrying out Our Lord’s actions by washing our feet. His change does not change the meaning of Our Lord’s actions and does not change the Church teaching on who may be ordained to the Priesthood. It merely emphasizes a different action that might be summed up as: "Just as Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, we now wash the feet of our parishioners, serving Him by serving you."

There’s nothing wrong or objectionable in that approach. It certainly does not contradict Church teaching or undermine Our Lord’s words or actions. Nor does this aspect block the Church from changing it again later if she felt a need to emphasize the link to the priesthood again. The idea of a discipline is it can be changed if the magisterium thinks it is for the good of the Church.

On the Other Hand, Change Does Not Justify Previous Disobedience

That being said, I would like to address one common response made by some when this news came out. That response was “We’ve been doing it for years.” To which I say, “Yes, but doing it when it was forbidden is to do wrong.” The thing to remember is that while a discipline is changeable, it is not something we can reject on our own preference. Before Vatican II, the Church forbade meat on Fridays. Now, she permits other options as a penitential act. However, before the Church made that change, the person who did eat meat on Fridays did wrong. Not because there was anything wrong with meat, but because they rejected the authority of the Church on how to do penance on Fridays.

In the same manner, those Catholics who knew the Church teaching prior to 2016 and still admitted women to the rite of washing of feet did wrong because they rejected the authority of the Church on how to celebrate the rite.

One can’t point to the actions of Pope Francis on Holy Thursdays between 2013 and 2015 to justify their actions. He had the authority to make a one-time exception on each occasion. We didn’t. The priest would have had no more right to wash the feet of women prior to the Pope’s decree that a priest would have to make use of the extinct Mozarabic rite just because St. John Paul II did in 1992 and 2000.


Disciplines can change. There are several examples of this over the history of the Church. However, these changes are never legitimate when done contrary to what the magisterium rules to be the norm. It’s not inconceivable (though extremely unlikely) that some day may see the Church lift the requirement for ordaining only celibates. But even if she should (again, extremely unlikely) that would not validate the behavior of priests who married before such a change was made.

The important thing to remember is this:

  • What Our Lord has called evil, the Church does not have the authority to call good or neutral. What Our Lord has called good, the Church does not have the authority call evil.
  • What the authority of the Church binds, the authority of the Church can loose. What the authority of the Church looses, the authority of the Church can bind.
  • The individual has no authority to loose what the Church binds or call good what God has called evil. Nor does the individual have the authority to bind what the Church looses or call evil what God calls good.

Once we remember these things, we can keep things in perspective.

Monday, January 18, 2016

"What's the Worst That Can Happen?" Reflections on Catholics and Voting in 2016


With the first primaries yet to be held, I’m seeing Catholics debating the worst case scenarios and what should be the best response if certain candidates get nominated. I try not to use this blog for discussion on the merits of candidates, so I don’t plan to discuss why I favor candidate X or deplore candidate Y. That kind of approach tends to turn a discussion into a partisan debate that obscures the Catholic teaching itself. Also, since some people come to this blog to seek an explanation of what the Church holds, I don’t want to give someone the impression that my personal views on what candidate is best/worst is Church teaching.

The reason I write this is that I am seeing three views thrown around where those who promote them give the impression that their view is the only one compatible with Catholic teaching. Now it is not wrong that people who sincerely seek to follow Church teaching reach different views on what is the best (or least odious) way to vote given the candidate choices. The problem that I see is that some of these arguments seem to overlook the consequences of their decision. What I hope this article will do is to encourage people to consider the consequences of their choice in seeking to make the best decision out of those available, by pointing out some of the pitfalls of each decision that one needs to consider.

The Proposed Options and Preliminary Considerations

As I see it, when we decide that none of the options are appealing, the options boil down to three:

  1. Vote for the candidate of one of the two major parties as the lesser evil
  2. Vote for a Third Party or independent candidate on grounds that neither candidate is a lesser evil
  3. Refusal to vote on the grounds that neither candidate is a lesser evil

It’s not a hopeful view of the slate of candidates in this Presidential election, and many Catholics are struggling to find the choice which they find least offensive to their sensibilities. That is legitimate in itself. After all if a person believes that they cannot in good conscience vote a certain way, they ought not to do what their conscience condemns. However, we are all obligated to form our consciences according to the teaching of the Church and we ought to determine whether what seems least offensive to our sensibilities is actually the proper way to think of it.

Voting for the Candidate of One of the Major Parties

Barring some incredibly bizarre occurrence, the next President of the United States will be either a Democrat or a Republican. Regardless of your opinion of our dualistic political system, enough people vote for one of the two parties to ensure that 2016 will be no different than any other election since 1860. It’s reality and we need to be aware of this fact when voting.

It’s more than that however. Some people are conditioned to think that their party is the only party to vote for and consider voting any other way to be a betrayal of what they stand for. That’s a bad way to think from a Catholic perspective. Partisan rhetoric aside, parties change over time. Certainly conditions in America have changed since the Democrat and Republican parties were originally formed. A party which supports something morally good in one era can abandon that good or embrace a separate evil in another. So to invoke a certain President from the past as the eternal symbol of the party is only accurate to the point that that President reflects the current values of the party.

In addition, we have a case where neither party fully embraces Catholic views. The current Democrats reject the Catholic position on many moral issues and the current Republicans reject the Catholic position on social justice. And when the parties do nominally agree with the Church position (Democrats on social justice, Republicans on morality), they often are either ineffectual in their support or propose solutions which are morally dubious at best.

The point of all this is neither of the major parties is “God’s party” where it reflects what we as Catholics hold to be good. Because of this, the Catholic has to consider what is the good that a party purports to stand for and what evils it supports. Do the evils one party favors outweigh the goods the party claims to stand for? Is the other party’s opposition going to be an obstacle to the evils the first party supports? Is one party’s lukewarm defense of good no different than the other party’s fervent promotion of evil?

To discern this, we need to look at the issues and contrast them with what the Church teaches on right and wrong. The Church teaches that some things are intrinsically evil—that is to say, there can be no circumstances or intention that can make that action good. In other cases, a thing can be morally good or neutral in nature, but is made evil by intention or circumstances. So, when a party supports something intrinsically evil, we need to be very careful before casting a vote in this direction. If we vote for the party in question because it supports that intrinsic evil, that is sinful. 

But what about if we deplore that evil? Can we vote for that party for other reasons? The answer is, it depends. As the future Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in 2004 in a memorandum:

[N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.]

That’s not an invitation to vote as you please. The concept of material cooperation indicates that even when the person does not directly participate in an evil act, the more enabling a person’s action is, the greater the proportionate reason is required to justify such an act.

So, when a person insists that the party which supports intrinsic evils, the question to be answered is, "What reason do you see the party that supports an intrinsic evil as 'not being as bad; as the other party?” I’m not talking about personal preference here. The Catholic Church teaches us about morality, and the American bishops speak about specific conditions that we need to be aware of as voting Americans. If we take the perspective of that’s not ex cathedra, so I can ignore it, then we have missed the point. While we can be in disagreement on the best way to follow Church teaching, Church teaching in itself is not optional. For example, the Church makes very clear as to the importance in rejecting abortion:

Now the first and most immediate application of this teaching concerns a human law which disregards the fundamental right and source of all other rights which is the right to life, a right belonging to every individual. Consequently, laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law.


 John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae §72 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995).

So, when the Church condemns things as intrinsic evils that go against the fundamental rights as defined by the Church, and one party supports those intrinsic evils as “rights,” we have to ask ourselves, “Is the stand of the other party so evil that we must support this party’s stands as the lesser evil? Or are we just voting out of political preference and ignoring real moral issues?” Unfortunately, it’s a question few seem to ask. Instead, we cherry pick Church teaching to find the quote (often out of context) to justify what we were going to do anyway.

Ultimately, we have to be honest with ourselves, recognizing our sinful nature and considering the possibility that our support for one party might be based on our own selfishness and that we are ignoring the Church teaching on the issue. Unfortunately, self-deception is easy if we appoint ourselves the interpreter of what is and is not in keeping with Church teaching. When one starts (for example) using arguments that a candidate who is pro-abortion is really the most “pro-life candidate,” it is pretty clear that self-deception has come into play

Voting for the Third Party or Independent Candidate

Now nobody wants to be forced into an either-or situation where both choices are bad. So some people try to find a third option which says “None of the above.” When it comes to the elections, some try to find a third option. They usually do this because of a few different views. They believe in the candidate, or believe that they need to start supporting third parties to break the monopoly of the dualistic system we have, or they are so disgusted with the two main parties that they say “a plague on both your houses” and vote this way as a protest.

The thing to remember is that historically third parties don’t succeed in America with national office unless they address an important issue the main parties are ignoring. The Republican Party succeeded in becoming a major party because they were formed to address the issue of slavery in a way which neither of the major parties of the time (Democrat and Whig) were addressing. [1] Sure we have local and state races turn out this way, but this is rare.[2] 

What a third candidate tends to do historically is to divide the vote of one major party so that the other major party gets elected even though a majority of voters voted against him or her. The most drastic case of this happened in 2000 in Florida. George W. Bush carried the state with 537 votes. What people forget however is that if Ralph Nader had not run for President, the odds are good that those 97,000 votes would have gone to Al Gore, and we would not have had lawsuits over “Butterfly Ballots” and “Hanging Chads.” Other cases where a third party has played spoiler and divided the vote was H. Ross Perot in 1992 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. In both cases the third party divided the vote of one major party and resulted in the election of the other major party with less than 50% of the vote. [3]

So, the moral consideration necessary for the Catholic who feels offended by the two major parties is whether they truly feel that there is no real difference between the two. Their vote for a third candidate will take votes away from one of the two major parties…is the voter willing to accept that consequence?

I don’t ask this question with the intent of playing “Gotcha!” assuming there is only one right answer. Theoretically speaking, it is possible to have an election where both candidates are equally offensive to Catholic teaching and that great harm will be done regardless of who is elected. In such a case, a “protest vote” may be the only recourse a person has to avoid going against conscience and to demonstrate that not everybody approves of a policy.

But given the potential results (that we could be potentially assisting in giving the election to a morally offensive party), we have to be very certain that the evils supported by both parties are truly equivalent and not just a result of recognizing that only one party is morally offensive and the other party against one’s own preferences. Remember, we are talking about the impact of the elections on souls here. A government which actively enables evil is more harmful than one which is lukewarm about protecting good.

Refusal to Vote

Some go so far as to refuse to vote for any candidate at all, whether for a specific office or for that entire election. This tends to be a sort of political despair where one declares themselves to find no merit in any potential candidate or else feels their vote is meaningless (for example, a Democrat in a solidly “Red” state or a Republican in a solidly “Blue” State) or even apathy over the whole concept.

This is never an option to be taken lightly. In fact, the Church teaches that voting is a responsibility for which we have a moral obligation:

2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country: (2265)

Pay to all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

[Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners.… They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws.… So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.

The Apostle exhorts us to offer prayers and thanksgiving for kings and all who exercise authority, “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.” (1900)


 Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 540–541.

To refuse to vote is to be passive in the face of seeking a greater good or rejecting a greater evil. If enough people who dislike the current system refuse to participate, the result is to ensure that the negative system will continue without hope of change. Effectively, the only time a refusal to vote is a reasonable response is when there is no real choice and participation seems to give legitimacy to something wrong:

(from Moon over Parador)

Making Proper Decisions and Avoiding False Rhetoric Used To Avoid The Discernment Process

We need to avoid using false rhetoric to justify a choice as praiseworthy when that choice is being done out of pragmatism, partisanship or apathy. Likewise, we must not misuse what the Church teaches about the moral issues of voting to camouflage the fact that we would vote that way anyway. The Christian faith binds us to follow Our Lord, even when it is difficult. Sometimes the choice is not clear-cut. There can be choices where there is no “good” candidate and we have to vote so as to block what we see as the most harmful option.

When these decisions have to be made, we have to consider what the Church teaches about evil, and what evils must be placed first in our discernment. If some grave evil is promoted by one party, it is only tolerable to vote for that party if the other party holds to something even worse. The obvious example might be brought up concerning Weimar Germany facing the choices of one party supporting things contrary to the Church vs. the Nazi Party. The question is, do we really claim (outside of silly slogans by college students) that the choices in America have reached that level?

“What’s The Worst That Can Happen?"

I personally believe that we need to ask ourselves seriously what are the negative consequences of our vote that we can reasonably anticipate. Obviously we can’t anticipate something when the candidate lies about it and entirely conceals their intention. But when a candidate makes clear what they do stand for, we have to compare and contrast that with the teaching of the Church and the moral obligation to do good and avoid evil. We need to ask whether our vote will try to block the candidate or party which seeks to do what the Church calls evil or whether it will make it possible for the party which supports that which the Church condemns to come to power.

I want to make clear here that I’m not trying to force the reader to vote for a certain party or candidate. I simply want to point out that voting is a civic duty in the eyes of the Church and we need to cast our vote in such a way that good is promoted and evil hindered to the best of our ability. In some elections, voting for one of the two parties may be justified. At other times, both parties might be going against what God has commanded, requiring a third party or a refusal to vote.

But ultimately, we must make certain that our beliefs as Catholics are forming how we vote, not our political preferences. No party is 100% following the teaching of the Church. So there will be parts of the party platform which do not fit in with the moral teaching of the Church. So in such cases we must evaluate which sins are the worst in the eyes of God and His Church, and not feign ignorance over just how much the preferred candidate supports them.

In doing this evaluation, we seek the truth and strive to do what God calls us to do.



[1] I imagine that if both parties were to become officially pro-abortion, it is possible that we might see this situation occur again. Of course given our inertia to uncertain change or to go against a party one has sympathy for, it might not.

[2] Murkowski in 2010 and Lieberman in 2006 are examples, but these were both incumbents in cases of the voters disagreeing with the party nomination and reelecting them despite not receiving the nomination.

[3] Adding the Electoral College to our equation makes it more complicated of course. Bush, Clinton and Wilson all received the Electoral vote majority. The third party vote caused certain states to go the other way with the “winner take all” approach than they might have gone without a third candidate.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Thoughts on Reading Pope Francis' "The Name of God is Mercy"

This isn’t a book review of the Pope’s new book The Name of God Is Mercy. Rather it is a reflection on some of the points that really struck home with me and the ideas they raised in me, leading me to say, “This is amazing!” Admittedly, a large portion of the book does fall under that description, so if I wanted to quote all the excerpts that impressed me, I’d probably be posting the entire text.

Let’s just say right off that many people have wronged Pope Francis. Both those who hope he will “decriminalize” their favorite sin and those who fear he will abandon Church teaching have wronged him. The reason I say this is because the book recognizes a link that the Church has long taught: To receive mercy requires us to be sorry for our sins. That is a theme running through the book. Once a person understands this basic concept, it becomes clear that the panic within the Church over the Pope’s words and actions are wildly inaccurate. He’s not looking for ways to bring people who are at odds with the Church to Communion without a need to repent. He’s looking for ways to encourage such people to get right with God through the Church. In other words, people have spent the past 3 years rejoicing or panicking over something he never intended and missed the point of what he was calling people to.

I would describe it this way. What people misinterpret as a “liberal” Pope is actually an attempt to show mercy to those who think they are irredeemable, letting them know that Our Lord is constantly calling them back. At the same time, he is warning those who think they are fine as they are and don’t need to change that they are wrong. In one excellent passage, the Pope is asked if there can be mercy without the acknowledgement of sin. His reply is:

Mercy exists, but if you don’t want to receive it… If you don’t recognize yourself as a sinner, it means you don’t want to receive it, it means that you don’t feel the need for it. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what happened. Sometimes you might feel skeptical and think it is impossible to get back on your feet again. Or maybe you prefer your wounds, the wounds of sin, and you behave like a dog, licking your wounds with your tongue. This is a narcissistic illness that makes people bitter. There is pleasure in feeling bitter, an unhealthy pleasure.

If we do not begin by examining our wretchedness, if we stay lost and despair that we will never be forgiven, we end up licking our wounds, and they stay open and never heal. Instead, there is medicine, there is healing, we only need take a small step toward God, or at least express the desire to take it. A tiny opening is enough. All we need to do is take our condition seriously. We need to remember and remind ourselves where

Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 510-517). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But how many of us actually want to receive mercy instead of vindication? I think many of us want to be proven right. We want the Church to admit she has done “wrong” in teachings we run afoul of. The individual does not want to admit that they have done wrong in being divorced and remarried or in contracepting or in rejection of authority to changes the Church makes in terms of discipline. We look for flaws in the behavior of individuals in authority in order to deny the authority of the Church. If the individual Pope or bishop can be shown to have done wrong on X, we think it justifies our rejection of authority on Z (a totally unrelated subject). But when we approach the teachings of the Church this way, we’re showing we don’t want to receive forgiveness.

The Pope also deals with another aspect of mercy. He uses the imagery of the Torah and the exclusions of lepers to avoid contamination and to protect the clean. He points out that Jesus showed mercy to the lepers in healing them—He is concerned with the well-being of the leper, not just the clean. He extends this image to the concerns of the Church, with showing mercy to the sinner and avoiding having the faithful brought into sin:

This excerpt from the Gospel shows us two kinds of logic of thought and faith. On the one hand, there is the fear of losing the just and saved, the sheep that are already safely inside the pen. On the other hand, there is the desire to save the sinners, the lost, those on the other side of the fence. The first is the logic of the scholars of the law. The second is the logic of God, who welcomes, embraces, and transfigures evil into good, transforming and redeeming my sin, transmuting condemnation into salvation. Jesus enters into contact with the leper. He touches him. In so doing, he teaches us what to do, which logic to follow, when faced with people who suffer physically and spiritually. This is the example we need to follow, and in so doing we overcome prejudice and rigidity, much in the same way that the apostles did in the earliest days of the Church when they had to overcome, for example, resistance from those who insisted on unconditionally following the Law of Moses even for converted pagans.

Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 588-595). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Of course we need to both protect the sheep inside the pen and save those outside of the pen. But it is wrong to think of one at the expense of the other. The Pope isn’t saying either-or. He’s saying do both…avoiding the danger caused by solely thinking about the protection of the clean and avoiding the concept of mercy which is devoid of turning back to God. Oh yes, contrary to the claims by people who hope or fear that the Church will change her teaching. The Pope makes clear that the Church speaks about sin because she has to speak the truth:

The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth: “This is a sin.” But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God. Jesus forgave even those who crucified and scorned him. We must go back to the Gospel.

Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 477-480). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Which makes perfect sense. As St. John put it:

Now this is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. 10 If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 


 New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 John 1:5–10.

The Church speaks about sin because, unless we recognize that we walk in darkness, we deceive ourselves and cannot act in truth. If the Church wants to be the vessel of God’s mercy, she must speak truthfully about sin. Otherwise, we’re flailing about and unable to recognize the mercy God has for us—because we will not seek it. So all the calls for “changing Church teaching” in changing from saying “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin” is not being merciful.

So, unpacking these sections of the book, I see the Pope making three important points that we all have to remember:

  1. All of us have to recognize that we are sinners who are in need of mercy. We have to avoid thinking that we are good enough as we are with no need to change. If we will not repent and turn back to The Lord, we do not want to receive mercy.
  2. All of us have to recognize that protecting the flock in the pen does not permit us to neglect the sheep outside of the pen.
  3. The Church teaches about sin because the has to testify to the truth that sin separates us from God. If the Church will not teach about sin, she cannot testify to the truth about God.

With these three points, all of us have to ask about our relationship with God and His Church. Are we refusing the opportunity to accept mercy? Are we refusing to show mercy to others? Are we recognizing that the teaching about sin involves recognizing that which separates us from God and where we need to change? Are we refusing to accept that the teaching of the Church is not arbitrary rules, but speaking the truth so that we might accept God’s mercy?

Each one of us will have to look into their own heart and seek out where repentance is needed. Each one of us will have to seek out reconciliation with God through His Church as He established as His means of doing so. God’s love and mercy are unmerited gifts. God does not owe them to us, but He does want to give them to us, if only we will accept them.

This is something important to consider for us as we go through this Year of Mercy (and afterwards too).

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Thoughts on the Purpose of the Christian Religion

In modern times, Christianity has a problem with people who choose not to follow the people who are the appointed leaders. They believe that when the Church differs with them, the personal preference is to be heeded, not the Church. Such an attitude is understandable when we deal with Non-Catholics who do not believe that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ, or non-Christians and non-religious people denying Christianity altogether. The point of Christianity is that it professes to have revelation from God, and that people who have been entrusted with the authority of applying that revelation have their teaching backed by this revelation. So a person who does not believe Christianity possesses any such revelation, it stands to reason that they won’t follow the teachings of that Church.

However, when it comes to Christianity, which professes to believe in the God of the Old Testament and believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, this faith necessarily presupposes that God has given us realization—through the Law, the Prophets and finally through His Son. When the Christian falls afoul of the commandments in some way, the fact is he or she is behaving in a way which God has revealed to us to be counter to the way He wants us to live. Furthermore, when God has revealed that authority has been given to certain human beings to bind and to loose (Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18) for the purpose of bring the message of salvation and teaching His commandments so that people may live as He commands (Matthew 28:19-20 and Revelation 22:11), then obedience to that human authority is a part of being faithful to that revelation of God.

Now, with the non-Catholic, the non-Christian and the non-religious, they have some excuse (if they are sincere in their error) of not obeying the authority of the Church. We do have a mission to reach out to them, but their disobedience is not based on a disregard for the truth they have been taught (see Luke 12:47-48). Their judgment will be based on what they could have learned and what effort they put into seeking the truth. It’s not for us to try to guess whether they have searched hard enough or not. Rather we are to try to give them the message of salvation and the teachings of Our Lord so that they will not have to risk that judgment (and doing so in a way which does not drive them away from the truth on account of our behavior).

However, we who profess to believe in the Catholic Church as being the Church established by Our Lord have no excuses when it comes to not being obedient to revelation and to the teaching of the Church that we profess (with our lips anyway). As Vatican II put it, in Lumen Gentium #14:

All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

This leads to the problem of dissent. If we profess a belief in a God who reveals His will and who establishes a Church to teach people His ways, then what are we thinking when we decide to set aside a Church teaching in favor of our own preference? To do so is to either effectively deny God’s revelation or to effectively deny that the Church has any authority to teach in His name. In either case, it forces us to ask: For what purpose do we belong to a Church if we do not believe her claims to be true?

Of course such a rejection does not have to be total. People can (and do) choose to believe the Church is mostly right, except for that one area that he or she chooses to disagree with. Perhaps they are fine with the Social Teaching of the Church, but not the teaching on sexually. Or perhaps they profess to accept the moral teaching of the Church but refuse to acknowledge her authority when it comes to social justice or the ordinary form of the Mass. In such situations, the person reserves the right to say they will not recognize the authority of the Church.

The problem is, the fact that the Church has any authority on a favored issue requires that she has authority from God in the first place. If God has not revealed His authority, then one might be excused for making their own morality up. But, if God has revealed His authority, then the behavior which goes against His authority goes against Him (see Matthew 7:21, Luke 10:16 and John 14:15).

We certainly know that Our Lord has made revelation known to us saying that some actions are sins in His eyes. When we seek to determine right and wrong, and we profess to believe that there is a God who will come to judge the living and the dead, it certainly makes sense to listen to Him and to those whom He empowers to teach in His name. If we choose to treat this revelation as if it were not revelation, it raises the question: On what authority does this person make their claim to determine good and evil? As Frank Sheed put it, “The most brilliant moral system, constructed without the information only God can give, is brilliant guesswork,: (Is It the Same Church page 33). The person who disregards the Revelation in Scripture and Sacred Tradition in favor of his or her own guessing on what God really wants is choosing to ignore God’s commands in favor of the guesswork that “God doesn’t really still mean that."

In essence, the person who, while professing to be a Christian, chooses to deny the Scripture and Tradition or the person professing to be Catholic who chooses to disobey the Church, has a very confused concept on what they are called to be as Christians. If God has revealed that X is a sin, then how can one claim that in rejecting that revelation they are still being faithful to the God who revealed it? It can only be done through refusing to seek out what the truth is, relying instead on what feels good to the person. But Scripture warns that what seems right can lead to destruction (Proverbs 16:25). 

The fact of the matter is, in trying to put Jesus and His Church at odds, one is denying part of what God reveals, pretending it is manmade. But in doing so, the person is making Christianity meaningless. As Peter Kreeft put it:

Socrates: Furthermore, if you do that, why do you need the Bible at all?

Bertha: What do you mean?

Socrates: If it agrees with you, it's superfluous, and if it doesn't, it's wrong. Why read a book that must be either superfluous or wrong? In fact, why read or listen to anyone? They must all be superfluous or wrong.

Bertha: That's ridiculous.

Socrates: My point exactly.

Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 532-534). Kindle Edition.

To pick and choose is to put one’s own preferences first and when it agrees, it is only useful as a piece of propaganda to justify oneself; when it disagrees, it is considered wrong. But if the Bible or the Church is wrong in your eyes in some cases, why should another not use the same way of thinking and reject what you think is important as “manmade” and promote the things you disagree with? In such cases, the revelation of God and the teaching of His Church has no meaning. There’s no point in professing to be a part of something that you reject when it pleases you. The point of professing to be a Catholic is because one believes in God and that the Church teaches with God’s authority. Deny that and religion is a social awareness group.

But as Pope Francis said:

[W]e can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ - I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.

Confessing Jesus Christ is to acknowledge what He says to be true, and when He gives the Church His authority, this means that to confess Jesus Christ is to be obedient to His Church. If we don’t choose to live in this way, then our profession to be Catholics is stripped of all meaning.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Speaking Truth and Avoiding Falsehood and Rash Judgment

Regular readers of mine probably know my favorite quotation of Aristotle, his definition of truth by heart, but it’s time to cite it again:

To say that what is is not, or that what is not is, is false; but to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true; and therefore also he who says that a thing is or is not will say either what is true or what is false.


 Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, Translated by Hugh Tredennick. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989).

What brings up this citation this time is my seeing a growing number of people on the internet willing to impute motives to people based on their own interpretation of the quoted words, without concern as to whether the author intends those interpretations or not. It’s an important thing to keep in mind. If we want to speak truthfully about a person, we must make sure that our interpretation of his or her words are what the author intends before we praise or criticize the author/speaker in question. If we don’t do this, then we speak falsely about the person and our criticism is either wrong or, if it’s right, it’s only right by coincidence. 

This is especially a problem when personal preferences and beliefs color the meaning of words. For example, I have had to defend St. John Paul II when he used the word “feminism” from detractors who assumed he was using it in the sense of the American meaning of radical feminism. From this interpretation, his detractors accused him of being faithless to the Church. Or for a more recent example, millions of people still think that Pope Francis was endorsing “same sex marriage” on account of an out of context quote, “Who am I to judge.” (See HERE for context). Such people do not speak the truth when they claim/accuse the Pope of changing Church teaching.

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft demonstrated why this is a problem in one of his Socratic dialogues he wrote (they’re all worth reading):

Socrates: I think you are confusing belief with interpretation.

Flatland: No, I'm just saying we have to interpret a book in light of our beliefs.

Socrates: And I'm saying we must not do that.

Flatland: Why not?

Socrates: If you wrote a book to tell other people what your beliefs were, and I read it and interpreted it in light of my beliefs, which were different from yours, would you be happy?

Flatland: If you disagreed with me? Why not? You're free to make up your own mind.

Socrates: No, I said interpreted the book in light of my beliefs. For instance, if you wrote a book against miracles and I believed in miracles, and I interpreted your book as a defense of miracles, would you be happy?

Flatland: Of course not. That's misinterpretation.

Socrates: Even if it were my honest belief?

Flatland: Oh, I see. We have to interpret a book in light of the author's beliefs, and criticize it in light of our own.

Socrates: Precisely. Otherwise we are imposing our views on another. And that is certainly not charitable, but arrogant.

Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 749-755). Kindle Edition.

So if I interpret the meaning of something based on my personal beliefs, and not according to the intention the speaker/author had, then I miss the point. Moreover, if my criticism is based on this misinterpretation, I do injustice and quite possibly do moral wrong to the person I criticize. Speaking falsely can be a sin if we know it is false, or if we can research the statement and see the true content, but simply don’t bother to (vincible ignorance). But even in a case where the person who speaks falsely has no way of learning that his/her criticism is false (invincible ignorance), wrong is still done. Invincible ignorance simply means that the person has no way of finding out that they speak or act wrongly.

Nor can we hide our speaking rashly behind the excuse of “So-and-so needs to speak more clearly” (which is an excuse which is very popular among the detractors of Pope Francis). If you think a person speaks unclearly, then you have the obligation to act on that belief to be extra careful in avoiding misinterpretation and false accusation.

All of us have the moral obligation to speak truthfully. If we know we speak falsely when we speak against someone, then we outright lie. If we just assume that an accusation must be true without verifying that the speaker/writer intended to say what we accuse them of, then we are guilty of rash judgment.

This doesn’t apply only to other people committing rash judgment against Popes. It also applies to the people we dislike. A person can find Obama, Bush, Clinton, Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Wayne LaPierre (among others, I’m just culling the boogeymen most hated by Left and Right) to be offensive and supporting offensive policies. But that offense we take does not give us leave to spread whatever hostile interpretations we think sound good. We still have the same obligation to make sure that what we say is true and that we have made an accurate interpretation of our foes. In other words, even if the person that you oppose is a total bastard, that doesn’t give you the right to speak falsely against him or her.

I think this is especially important in an election year. Issues will be thrust forward, and candidates will take both sides. There will be attempts made to put the preferred idea in a positive light, and claim bad will for the opposed idea. We are not allowed to take part in misrepresentation, whether this misrepresentation tries to make an evil plan sound good or morally neutral, or to make a good or morally neutral idea seem evil. If we speak in favor of something or someone, we must do so honestly, and if we speak in opposition to some person or policy, we must be sure we accurately understand it first, and not distort it.

Otherwise we bear false witness and do wrong, whether we do so deliberately or through careless indifference.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Is This Really the Hill You Want to Die On?

There is a rhetorical question out there, derived from the military, which goes: Is this the hill you want to die on? The meaning of the question was “Is this objective worth the cost?” (i.e. is this objective worth dying over?). The question has a wider usage now, but the basic meaning is the same: Is this fight worth the effort? It’s certainly a question we need to ask ourselves, keeping in mind the ultimate goals of our life on Earth. It’s especially worth asking ourselves as we seek to understand whether a task is a part of our life as a Christian or a distraction from it.

The world is full of disputes, and the Christian has to determine whether a dispute is one about his Christian values or about one’s preferences over how they would like things to be. When it comes to the former, the Christian of course needs to take a stand for his beliefs. But if it does not concern the Christian values dieectfy or actually reflects a worldly or aesthetic concern, then the Christian needs to consider well the importance—or lack thereof—when it comes to making a dispute over it. They especially need to consider this well when they are willing to indict those who disagree with their views.

Now, this is not to say that we should be indifferent about real problems. When The Faith is being attacked, we need to respond (though in a manner which is moral and compatible with our faith), and when we have been wronged in a secular matter, we have the right to seek redress. But sometimes the situations we get worked up about is neither an attack on the faith or a redress of grievances. Rather, we want people to acknowledge our ideas as authentic, and attack people who disagree with our opinions.

Consider Social Justice. We as Catholics cannot ignore our obligations in this matter. But some conservatives equate the term with “Socialism” and reject the teaching that is at odds with their political preferences. On the other hand, some liberals think that Social Justice means the embracing of liberal policies on government regulation or taxation. Both end up attacking people who disagree with them as not behaving in a Christian manner. The Pope is labeled a Marxist, and bishops are accused of going against the teaching of Christ. But in reality, they are picking a battle that is senseless to fight. Catholic Social Teaching does not bind us to one political platform. It tells us what sort of things we must acknowledge and avoid, calling us to work together to find a solution that actually helps people.

Or consider the issue of gun violence in America. Of course it is deplorable, especially when it comes to the issue of mass shootings. The Church condemns such things. However, the issue of gun ownership in relationship to gun violence is not as cut and dried as some would lead you to believe. The Church allows for self-defense (see the Catechism ¶ 2263-2264). However, it also recognizes that the state has the responsibility to ensure the safety of the citizens, which may prevent a laissez faire approach to firearms. The people who invoke the authority of the Church to say total banning of firearms is required or to say that infringing on the right to own a bazooka is required are both staking out a position that is not defensible in the name of the Church. A Google search on the subject finds many opinion pieces on the subject (pro- and anti-gun). But the actual statements made by those in authority within the Church do not stake out either position. Consider the 2012 USCCB statement on the subject. It does not demand the total disarmament some Catholic bloggers are calling for. It calls for reasonable restrictions aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of those who would abuse them. Yes, it is not well defined, allowing people to have disputes on what a “reasonable” restriction is. Also of interest is a Vatican statement [*] on small arms trafficking:

Unfortunately, howeverit is impossible to ban all kinds of small arms and light weapons. "In a world marked by evil ... the right of legitimate defence by means of arms exists. This right can become a serious duty for those who are responsible for the lives of others, for the common good of the family or of the civil community. This right alone can justify the possession or transfer of arms". (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, "The International Arms Trade: an Ethical Reflection" in Origins 8 (24), 7 July 1994, p. 144).

This is not an absolute right, since there are specific conditions placed on the licitness of the production, possession and acquisition of arms. Nonetheless, in our meeting today the topic is fairly limited. Here we are discussing illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. This is, in a manner of speaking, a negative statement of the fundamental question of the legitimacy of the international arms trade.

In other words, there can be a legitimate use of small arms for self defense, but not an absolute right. Like the discussion of Social Justice, the Church does not say that one political position is endorsed. Rather she calls on people to work together to find a solution using the teaching of the Church as a basis.

I could mention many other issues of political and economic concern that people stake out as a hill to die on, and I’m sure that in each case the person who supports a certain position would label me as being unchristian and a tool for the other side for not supporting their position. But, that would miss the point. I don’t write this to endorse a specific position (liberal or conservative) on Social Justice or Gun ownership. Rather I write this to point out that the hill to die on is the Church position, and we should be working together to find a good solution.

The “hill to die on,” the things we fight about to defend should be the actual Catholic teaching. In such a case, defending that “hill” done according to Our Lord’s commands may lead people to hate us (see John 15:18-21), but we cannot yield here. However, the things where we can have legitimate differences of opinion as Catholics should not be that hill where we leave people hating us because of our own behavior (see 1 Peter 2:19-20).

So keep this in mind as we discuss issues in blogs or on Facebook. Defend the faith with charity, but don’t fight flame wars over things where there are legitimate grounds for difference of opinion.


[*] Being an address to the United Nations, this document is of course not a magisterial document. But it does raise a point on how the Church views self defense and firearms.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Back to Basics: Learning the What and Why of Church Teaching

When it comes to moral obligation members of the Church can suddenly become very pharisaical in the sense of setting aside God’s commandment and the teaching of His Church in favor of their own thoughts on how things should be done. We see people trotting out fragments of what Popes, Councils and Saints have said on a subject and using those fragments to justify their behavior against what the Church actually teaches. The result is that we see some people arguing that a Church teaching concerning rare circumstances like the Pauline Privilege justifies divorce and remarriage in the case of a Sacramental marriage, or that the Church teaching on Double Effect and hysterectomies and ectopic pregnancies justifies sterilization and abortion. When the Church responds to that argument with an emphatic “No,” people accuse the Church of hypocrisy, contradiction, and double standards.

Or (so people won’t think this error is only committed by people on the political “Left”), we can see people scandalized when it appears that the Church has said for the longest time that people must abstain from meat on Fridays and now they don’t, or that the Mass must be celebrated in Latin, but now it doesn’t. They accuse the Church of “changing” her teachings and falling into error.

Basically, people see the Church as “changing her teachings” in one area and either demand (or fear) that this means the Church can change her teaching in any other area.

But nowhere do we see people actually seek to understand why the Church offers X as a general teaching and then appears to say “not-X” when it comes to certain cases. That’s the problem and why people go afoul of Church teaching. They think that their perceptions of Church teaching is correct and that their personal preference in relation to the Church teaching is correct and when the Church tells them they are in error, the response is to accuse the Church of being in opposition to Our Lord or in contradiction to the Popes, Councils, and Saints of past centuries.

That’s the problem. When it comes to two teachings alleged to be in contradiction, nobody actually bothers to see what the actual Church teaching is and why she considers certain cases to be in keeping with the basic teaching. But this mindset is not practiced in other fields. Nobody thinks it is a contradiction when the law looks at cutting a person open to be attempted or actual murder, but makes an exception for the surgeon performing open heart surgery. That’s because the law understands there is a difference between a qualified surgeon performing a legitimate and authorized operation and a crazed man in an alley wielding a knife.

People need to remember two things:

  1. What God binds, the Church cannot loose and what God looses, the Church cannot bind.
  2. What the Church binds, the Church can loose and what the Church looses, the Church can bind.

These two statements are not contradictory. Rather they make the distinction between God’s ultimate authority over creation and the Church’s authority to decide how to best teach what God has commanded. They also recognize that while the essence of God's teaching can never be denied, certain ways of calling the faithful to practice the teaching can be changed if the magisterium sees fit.

Take the case of compulsory abstinence from meat on Fridays before Vatican II. The basis of the discipline ordered by the Church seems to be based on the commandment to honor God. Meat is not evil in itself. We’re not gnostics here that think matter is corrupt. But before Vatican II, the Church decided that all Catholics should abstain from meat on Friday because it is a sacrifice to remember the Passion of Our Lord on Good Friday. For a Catholic to knowingly disobey this command would be to refuse to honor God in the manner prescribed by the Church as binding.

But, as a theology professor I once had put it, “What if you love fish? Is that really a sacrifice then?” What we ultimately had was that some people were missing the point, thinking that “Fish on Friday” was the real moral command as opposed to “offer a meaningful sacrifice on Friday.” So, if "Lobster on Friday because we can’t have hamburger” begins to be the way people start to approach this discipline, then the Church can decide to change the discipline to make the intended meaning more clear. In each case where this happens, the Church can say “OK, to combat the abuses that have slipped in, we will change discipline X in these ways.” Because the Church has bound, the Church may loose and the person who preferred the old way has no authority to condemn the Church for implementing a new way.

However, the person who sees these changes and says, “Eating meat on Friday was once a sin but now is not, therefore the Church can change her teaching on contraception, divorce, homosexuality and women priests” (whether they say it out of hope or fear) has confused what God binds with what the Church binds. The Church believes she has no such authority to change what God has commanded. We might develop a deeper understanding of what fits in with God’s command and modify disciplines to more fully reflect God’s commands in relation to justice and mercy, but the Church can never say “X is permitted” when God says “X is not permitted."

What we must always keep in mind is that when we feel troubled by a Church teaching—especially when we find ourselves at odds with it—is that our troubled feeling is not a license to disobey or dismiss the teaching of the Church. Our obligation is to seek to understand the reason for the teaching and how the Church understands the exception to the rule and why she does not see herself as contradicting herself or God. As Catholics we believe that Our Lord Himself gave the authority to bind and loose to St. Peter, the Apostles and their successors (whom we hold to be the Pope and bishops), and as such we do not have the right to disobey what the Church teaches.

Ultimately, it means we must seek to learn the what and why of the Church teaching when we feel confused or even trapped, and not rely on our personal desires and feelings. As moral theologian Germain Grisez put it:

6. Existing desires and accepted projects must also be called into question. Indeed, a fully mature Christian conscience comes into being only when all merely assumed goals and standards have been examined in the light of faith, and faith itself has been accepted by a commitment which one confidently holds to be reasonable and right. So St. Paul urges: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Volume One: Christian Moral Principles (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1997), 83.

In other words, we must form our standards of behavior according to the light of faith and look to the Church as the mother and teacher whom God has entrusted us to, using her teachings as our guide to interpret our actions and thoughts, and not seek to use her words in ways she never intended.

Friday, January 1, 2016

If I Might Interject...

So, as of today, the blog formerly known as Arnobius of Sicca has been given a new name. It’s now known as If I Might Interject… which is a name I thought better fit the purpose of my writing. Some may wonder why I chose to rename the blog. 

Well, when I first took up blogging in 2007, I simply took the name of the Patristic author I was reading at the time. His work Against the Nations was interesting and lively, compared to others in the volume. Since I didn’t know the first thing about blogging, I figured it was a nice unique name that wouldn’t be confused with someone else’s work. (I had also been considering Clement of Alexandria, St. Polycarp and St. Irenaeus for names).

My first doubts came in studying a work about Patristics when the author was being described. It seems the general consensus was that the man was a pagan who suddenly decided to become a Christian and the bishop asked him to prove that he was sincere (as opposed to jumping on a bandwagon). He did so by producing a hastily written book which some scholars say show he wasn’t entirely clear on what Catholic doctrine was. In fact, his work Against the Nations was mostly notable for the citations of Greco-Roman literature which were otherwise lost today. (Apparently they were quite crass passages. The editors of the series chose to leave certain passages untranslated in Latin on account of this). That was kind of embarrassing. I didn’t want my blog to have that sort of affiliation with the name.

In a more practical sense, I got an idea as to how practical the name was, when I mentioned to a fellow RCIA teacher in the parish that I had a blog. He asked me the name and I told him. He blinked and said, “You couldn’t come up with an easier name to remember and spell?” I had to admit he had a point. I was beginning to realize that the name I chose was not in keeping with the purpose and image of the blog that I had envisioned. The problem was, I had no idea what to change it to.

Late last year, a blog friend on Facebook sent up a trial balloon seeing how his readers might receive the name If I Might Interject. I thought it was a good one, and I actually wish I had claimed it. It seemed to fit well the purpose for my blog—to interject a Catholic perspective in the disputes of the world as something new to consider. 

However, he went with a different name for his blog rename, and when I asked him if it was all right to use this title for my own, he said it would be OK.

So, after spending several hours figuring out things like ICANN domains, and how to point the new URL to the current blog, things fell together with the help of a really on the ball individual manning the help email messages at Blogger who helped explain what needed to be done. There’s a few minor drawbacks of course. It seems that I can’t change the author name, so I guess it will continue to show up with posts by “Arnobius of Sicca.” (I guess changing that is like doing a legal name change. Difficult and not done through ordinary channels), but so far links are pointing where they need to go, so it’s a minor quibble at best.

That’s the reason for the change of name. I don’t intend to change the blog content. Just to make it more accessible.