Thursday, June 30, 2016

Being Faithful in Small Things Means Being Respectful to the Pope

When people talk about the Catholic Church becoming more faithful, they generally think of a Church that expels the liberals and leaves us with a more conservative Church that was doctrinally pure—according to the preferences of the individual imagining it. It’s easy to understand the temptation. Catholics get tired of dissenting Catholics walking around with seeming impunity and they get tired of what they think are ineffective bishops. Catholics wanted vindication and they didn’t want to keep battling people who claimed to be good Catholics while openly rejecting Church teaching. What people didn’t consider was that this would stand the parable of the lost sheep on its head, where the shepherd who, instead of leaving the 99 to save the one, wouldn’t worry about 70 lost sheep so long as he had 30 good sheep who didn’t stray.

This mindset shows up when Catholics take offense with the Pope’s words about seeking forgiveness from those we wronged. Since this involved the past mistreatment of people with same sex attraction, people reacted with outrage. Some went so far as accusing him of wanting to apologize for Church teaching. That sort of thing happens all the time. The Pope speaks. People rely on out of context quotes and go berserk. They assume mercy means permissiveness, and asking forgiveness for mistreatment means apologizing for Church teaching—even though the Pope specifically rejected this interpretation.

But what makes this troublesome is I’m not talking about radical traditionalists here. I’m talking about people who spent years or even decades defending the Church suddenly treating Pope Francis as if he were a burden to endure and saw themselves as needing to defend the faith in spite of him.

These people will hasten to tell you they are not being unfaithful. They profess obedience to the Church and Pope. I don’t dispute their sincerity. What I dispute is their belief that their behavior is not dangerous. I do not believe a person can withhold loyalty and respect to the Pope in small matters without eventually becoming disloyal and disrespectful in great matters. Our Lord warns us in Luke 16:10, “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.” If we can’t trust a person to be respectful and loyal to the Pope in small matters, how can we trust him to be faithful in large matters?

No, I’m not talking about radical traditionalists. I’m talking about Catholics who profess loyalty to the Church and the Pope, but they are patronizing about it. They feel superior to him and think they have a better grasp of Church teaching. They’ll argue that the Pope can make mistakes when speaking as a private person, and not intending to teach the Church (which is true). But they don’t ask if maybe they are the ones who made mistakes in interpreting the Pope or Church teaching itself. They’ll point out that we have bad Popes (which also is true) but they don’t show that Pope Francis is one. In other words, they mention the cases of not being infallible and of bad Popes in order to lead people into thinking the Pope’s might have spoke in error and might be a bad Pope. What they don’t do is prove that the Pope speaks wrongly. They  blame him for the misunderstandings that happen but don’t ask whether there is another cause—like our tendency to focus on one sentence in isolation when we must read his entire statement in entirety if we would understand. 

This is the danger: If one is so confident that they know better than the Pope, they eventually will decide that they can only obey him when they agree with him. The danger though is that Our Lord linked obedience to his Church with faithfulness to Him (see Luke 10:16 and Matthew 18:17), and the Pope is the head of the Church. Even when one might disagree with him on a minor matter, it is wrong to treat him like a fool—even if one is polite in doing so. I’m not advocating papolatry or ultramontanism (two popular ad hominem attacks thrown at Pope Francis’ defenders). I’m simply saying that Catholics who rush to blame him for the confusion caused by religious illiteracy are causing scandal, leading people to mistrust the Pope and the Church. Such people should remember that  Our Lord warns that the fate of those who cause such scandal:

But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh. 


 The Holy Bible, Translated from the Latin Vulgate (Douay-Rheims), Mt 18:6–7.

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).

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Rise of the "I'm With Stupid" Faction in the Church

Im with stupid

The modernist and the radical traditionalist are two factions that pretend to be good Catholics while openly distorting or rejecting what the Church says. They interpret what Scripture and Church teaching say in order to promote the views they already want to be true and to attack orthodoxy where it rebukes them. Faithful Catholics oppose these factions, because they realize that Our Lord built a Church led by the Apostles and their successors and that hearing this Church means hearing Our Lord (Luke 10:16, John 14:5).

But there is a new faction rising which seduces the orthodox Catholics by way of making professions of loyalty to the Church and Pope—with a twist. This is the faction that professes their obedience and loyalty to the Pope, but treats him like a burden must endure every time he opens his mouth or writes something. I call them the “I’m With Stupid” Catholics. These Catholics spend more time trying to criticize what the Pope said, than they do showing how the Pope’s words are Catholic. 

Pope crazy

They might not accuse him of heresy as the radical traditionalists do, but they do believe they need to lecture him on what the Church teaching is. That’s not helpful and it’s not loyal either. I say this because such complaints leave the reader with doubts about the Pope’s orthodoxy, knowledge, intelligence, or sanity. One does not build up the Church by tearing down the Pope, no matter how polite one is about it.

It is not helpful to publish articles talking about what harm might happen if people should misinterpret him. Can you imagine the Church Fathers writing epistles about how people might misinterpret Our Lord telling people that if our eye leads us to sin, we should pluck it out? How about St. Francis de Sales, writing Controversies, spending his time complaining about how some teachings of bishops and Popes were badly phrased and led Protestants into error? They didn’t. They spent their time explaining how these things were properly understood. 

Let’s face it. Many have misinterpreted Scripture and many have misinterpreted Church writings to justify terrible things. That does not mean Scripture or Church writings must be full of error. It means we can’t rely on ourselves to properly understand if we rely only on what we think the text means. We have to understand the words in the context the speaker or author intended. That means we treat fact as fact, hyperbole as hyperbole, anecdote as anecdote, and so on. We don’t scour the footnotes to find a secret meaning that is different from the actual text.

It also means we don’t make it about us. We don’t show off our own knowledge against the Pope’s words. Our task in social media and in our blogs and articles is to help people understand the faith better, not to criticize those who shepherd us because we think the Pope or bishops should have said things better. The Pope’s not an idiot. He’s not heterodox. He doesn’t speak poorly. The misunderstanding happens because people assume Pope’s words mean what they think the words should mean. That way of thinking forgets the Pope speaks in a different language and comes from a different culture than what we know as Americans. So if we assume the translated words we receive—especially when we receive them from short quotes from secular media—have the same emphasis everywhere in the world as we give them, more often than not, we’ll get it wrong.

Will people uneducated in the faith make this mistake? Yes. But our task, as Catholics seeking to defend the faith, is showing people why this way of thinking is wrong and how they should understand it instead. That means we must clear up misinterpretations of Pope Francis’ words in the same way that we clear up every other misinterpretation of what the Church teaches from the First through the Twenty First centuries.

If we would do that, we have to stop treating what the Pope says as a burden to be suffered and start leading people to understand how his words can help us deepen our understanding of the faith.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Church of a Billion Popes?

12 You see those who are wise in their own eyes? 

There is more hope for fools than for them. (Proverbs 26:12).


Christianity is a religion focused on knowing, loving and serving God. This consists of placing our faith in Him and keeping His commandments. Catholicism recognizes that this faith and obedience involves hearing and obeying His Church. So, in theory, there should be no problem in knowing where to look when we have disputes over the best way to live our faith. Unfortunately, we do have constant disputes over how to live. Some of it involves Catholics who believe that those entrusted in shepherding the Church are in the wrong. Some of it involves Catholics fighting over the best way to live our Catholic faith. In these cases, we have people usurping the authority to judge over the Church and condemning those who disagree with their views on leading the Church.

Pope Francis 1

That leaves us with a situation where we have a Church of a billion Popes, each one deciding for himself how they and others should live. If the Church teaches differently than he should like, he judges the Church to be heretical. If another Catholic, striving to live faithfully, has a different view on how to best live the Catholic faith, others accuse him of being a “bad Catholic.” But with a billion “popes,” each person also takes offense at another speaking against his own interpretation. Mutual anathemas get hurled—by people who have no right to hurl them—and each person leaves convinced that the Church has gone to hell in a hand basket.

But the Church is not to blame for that situation. The cause is a massive influx of opinion and news (giving us much more minutiae then we would have had even 20 years ago) that, thanks to the smartphone, can reach us anywhere there is wireless phone service. We’re instantly told about what happens, but what we’re told is often untrue or misinterpreted by the reader. We pride ourselves on the ability to pick up our smartphone and read what the media or a blogger claims Pope says, but we seem to have lost our ability to investigate whether there is more to the story than what the headlines say.

Smartphone 325482 960 720(This is the real culprit in why we hear “off the cuff”
remarks from the Pope today but not in the past)

So, when the Pope speaks about many invalid marriages because people enter them without understanding what marriage is, people stop with the headline that screams POPE SAYS 'MOST MARRIAGES INVALID!' In other words, they take the sensational part out of context and accuse him of attacking their own marriage or of trying to undermine the sacrament. I’ve even seen some editorials claim the Pope says most children are bastards (in the literal sense), seemingly never having heard of a putative marriage.

A “church of a billion popes” means a tower of Babel where nobody knows what is going on. But the thing to remember is, the “church of a billion popes” is not the Church we have. The Church we have is the same one we had since Pentecost, AD 33. When it comes to teaching, God protects the Church from leading us astray. When it comes to the shepherds speaking and acting as private individuals (i.e. offering their opinions or living a certain way), we need to remember that until the 21st century, we only rarely heard of them. We only know of St. Peter eating apart from the Gentiles in Galatia because St. Paul saw a need to write about the controversy. Odds are, Christians in Jerusalem or Antioch didn’t hear about it at the time it happened.

That’s important to remember. If we had the internet in earlier centuries, people across Christendom would be rolling their eyes about Pope John XXII and his sermon on the Beatific Vision or of cardinals restraining Urban VI from physically attacking someone he disagreed with. Pope’s don’t behave impeccably, and sometimes they do things we wish they didn’t...

John paul ii kisses koran

What Catholics need to remember is we don’t suddenly have a heretic or an idiot in charge of the Holy See. We don’t have a case where a Pope is suddenly reckless about his words and actions while his predecessors were flawless in word and deed. This sort of thing has always been with us. It’s only recently that we’ve had instant access to what the Pope says and does, and we think nobody else acted this way.

That brings us to what makes a “church of a billion popes” dangerous. Nobody considers the possibility that their own knowledge of the situation is lacking—that would feel like an admission we are stupid. We assume that our interpretation of a text is what the author meant and do not consider the cultural differences or our education drawing us to a meaning the author never meant. Whether it’s a Bible literalist or a radical traditionalist, people are out there who confuse Church teaching with what they think a Church teaching means and then blame the Church for their own confusion. Then they take their own misinterpretation and condemn the Pope, the bishops or fellow Catholics for not accepting their view as Church teaching.

What we have to remember is there are not a billion popes. There is one Pope, and that Pope is Pope Francis. We have to remember that when he teaches, his teaching is not one of a billion opinions but something we have to give our assent to (see Code of Canon Law #749-752). When he says or something that is not teaching, we still have to be respectful to him—even if we wish he handled it differently.

We must also remember there are different ways to carry out our obedience to the Church and, so long as we are not seeking to justify disobedience in doing so, we can disagree (charitably!) on the best way to follow Church teaching. For example, we can never justify abortion and be a good Catholic, but we can disagree about the best way to deal with gun violence in our nation without being a “bad Catholic.” To demand that another Catholic embrace your opinion on the subject is to make yourself one of a billion popes again.

Dealing with the confusion within the Church is not a matter of muzzling Pope Francis or turning back Vatican II. It’s a matter of realizing who the successor of Peter is (not us), realizing God protects His Church, and realizing that we are living in a wholly new situation in sharing data where fact checking and context is often far slower than the quotes we see. It’s a matter of realizing our own limitations in comprehension and rejecting the idea of our interpretation being the same as what the Pope or other Church documents said.

If we can remember and follow this, we have a Church with one Pope who is the successor of Peter. If we forget it, we have a Church with a billion popes and the chaos which goes with it. So when considering how to act, let’s remember that the Church our Lord made has only one Pope.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Love and Truth Will Meet—and Apparently Say "See Ya"

11 Love and truth will meet; 

justice and peace will kiss. 

12 Truth will spring from the earth; 

justice will look down from heaven. (Psalm 85:11–12).


There’s an ugly battle flaming up between Catholics when it comes to the Orlando mass shooting. it’s a battle over how to address the people who have a same sex attraction when it comes to condolences. Are they a community? Or are they not? The dispute is over whether one should send condolences to the “LGBT community” or whether that would look like an endorsement of sinful acts. This seems like something which they can resolve charitably. Unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where the two sides are practically throwing anathemas at each other, assuming the other side is guilty of bad will or even malice.

Setting Up the Situation

To sum up the two positions briefly (and hopefully, fairly):

  1. Those who think we should use term “LGBT community” say this is no different than referring to “the black community” or the “Jewish community,” and nobody should take offense or think this is an endorsement of sinful behavior.
  2. Those who oppose the use say that grouping people by their inclination or behavior is not the same as real ethnic or religious communities, but instead equates people with their behavior. Also, given the tendency of the media to present such things as “CHURCH TO CHANGE TEACHING” headlines, it does matter whether or not Catholics use this term.

So the question is over whether calling people with a disordered attraction a community is in keeping with the command to love the sinner and speaking against the sin.

There’s no official teaching on the proper form here. The official statement from the Holy See said:

The terrible massacre that has taken place in Orlando, with its dreadfully high number of innocent victims, has caused in Pope Francis, and in all of us, the deepest feelings of horror and condemnation, of pain and turmoil before this new manifestation of homicidal folly and senseless hatred. Pope Francis joins the families of the victims and all of the injured in prayer and in compassion. Sharing in their indescribable suffering he entrusts them to the Lord so they may find comfort. We all hope that ways may be found, as soon as possible, to effectively identify and contrast the causes of such terrible and absurd violence which so deeply upsets the desire for peace of the American people and of the whole of humanity.

The Pope did not use the term, but there’s no doubt he was clear in condemning an evil act and showing love and compassion for victims and their families. So, unless wants to condemn the Pope, there is nothing wrong with avoiding the term. On the other hand, some bishops did use the term in sending condolences and Catholics dispute whether this was right.

Here’s the Problem

The problem with this debate is many debaters are openly insulting of the other side, accusing them of being bad Catholics. Hotheads among Catholics who support using the term “LGBT community” accuse those who don’t like it of bigotry and a lack of compassion for the victims and their families. Hotheads among Catholics opposed to the term accuse those who do use it of heresy and sending a false message to the world. Neither side is free of inflammatory rhetoric (So don’t go pointing fingers at the other side).

But people are assuming that a dispute proves a lack of love or a neglect of truth. Yes, we want to show compassion to the victims and their families. Yes, we want to condemn the mass shooting as something evil regardless of how the victims lived. But we also must make clear (where fitting) that our moral beliefs are not going to change because of the evil some do.

So, we have an obligation. Before we condemn a Catholic for being heretical or hateful, we have to know the intentions the speaker or writer had. Does the person who uses the term “LGBT community” mean to endorse something against Church teaching? Or is this a case of simply not thinking about the potential meanings people might draw from it? Does the person who does not use the term mean to show hatred to the victims? Or is it a case of wanting to be clear about where the Church stands?

What gets overlooked is the fact that a person may not intend what the listener/reader believes it the point. We should strive to speak clearly. But not all will have the same talent in doing so. We have to realize that condolences phrased differently than we like may not mean support of evil. It is possible the speaker is unclear or we have simply misunderstood because we give words meaning that the speaker does not intend. If the speaker uses the term, but does not mean to support sin, we must not condemn him for heresy. if the speaker does not use the term, but does not act out of hatred in doing so, we must not condemn him of bigotry. It is only when we know the person acts from a bad motive, that we can offer a rebuke.


It’s hypocrisy to love the person far away and hate our brother. God, who told us to love our enemies, also told us to love our neighbor as ourself. So if we call for love and compassion for the victims, but will not show it for the fellow Christian who we argue with, we are doing wrong. It’s time to stop accusing each other of bad will and time to start understanding what the other person meant, accepting different views as valid when they are compatible with Catholic belief and gently guiding them back when they are not.

Savaging each other over disagreements because we assume the other is deliberately choosing to do evil is rash judgment and we become hypocrites if we refuse to love our fellow Christian.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Reflections on Orlando and Searching For Meaning

It’s undeniable that the attack in the Orlando night club shooting was evil. Outside of a few twisted individuals out there, everyone realizes this type of thing is indefensible. Regardless of what moral objections there may be over a person’s life, murder is never justified. One does not oppose wrongdoing by doing wrong. Yet, sometimes there are extremists who cross that line. Whether they act from mental illness or from dangerous views, there are people out there who will respond to things they don’t like in a disproportionate and dangerous way.

I think that when something like this happens, people sometimes start drawing the wrong conclusions. Some find scapegoats. Others, seeing some sort of similarity with the wrongdoer, feel they have to tone it down and sometimes appear to cave in on what is true due to fearing guilt by association. Nobody who feels revulsion over evil wants to seem guilty of supporting it, but they do want to root out the cause of the evil. That’s natural, but it can do more harm than good.

The problem is, it’s not enough to go with our emotions. We have to use our minds as well to find out what did happen and respond to the reality of the situation. In the course of less than 24 hours, claims shifted from the shooter being a rage filled Muslim extremist enflamed by the image of two men kissing to a claim that the shooter was a regular at the gay nightclub where he carried out his massacre. Today’s news may debunk this. Or maybe we will find more that proves it true. Who knows? Right now, the answer is “not us." The point is, we need to slow down and learn what happened before declaiming on “What Ought To Be Done."

Conservatives are blaming Islam. Liberals are blaming guns and intolerance. Rhetoric gets ramped up so high that whoever questions one of these causes finds themselves accused of blindness, or even supporting this crime. But few are asking the question, “What is the truth?” But the moment we stop asking that question and instead start blaming the groups we dislike, we stop searching for meaning and go into “It’s your fault!” mode. People want vengeance, not justice and they seem to want a hated foe to take the blame.

Some of the claims are contradictory. For example, if it does turn out to be true that the shooter was a patron of this club, then “homophobia” seems less likely and we need to find a new motive to help us understand it. If it turns out he was mentally ill, then perhaps the claims of this being a planned terrorist attack are false. So, I think there are some things we need to learn here.

First of all, we cannot guilt ourselves into silence over right and wrong. When the Church says we must speak against wrong in evangelizing the world, then we cannot shrink back from speaking the truth. That doesn’t mean we can be tactless or judgmental about it. As Pope Francis has made clear in his pontificate, we do need to show mercy and understanding. We have to show compassion and love.

Second, we need to remember that God wants the salvation of all. His respect for our free will may mean some will speak or act wrongly. But we can’t abandon them to damnation. That means both we can’t be harsh and drive them to despair and it means we can’t be so wishy-washy that people can’t find out whether a thing is wrong or not.

Third, building on God’s desire for our salvation, even if some victims have done wrong themselves, that does not mean they “got what they deserved” in this case. We should not say such things. God sent Old Testament prophets to exact punishments that were bloody by our standards. God did not send this shooter to do it.

Fourth, the actions of an extremist do not indict the whole unless the crime is explicitly what a person’s professed religious or value system obliges. It does not indict all Muslims, gun owners, people who believe homosexual acts are morally wrong unless the evidence inescapably proves this. 

So as we begin today with new developments and continued recriminations in this evil, let us remember our obligation to speak truth with love and compassion. Let us also remember our obligation to search for the truth before blaming our favorite scapegoats or backpedaling on what we believe about right and wrong.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Building Houses on the Sand: A Reflection on Relationships With God and His Church

House on sand

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’ 


24 “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. 26 And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.” (Matthew 7:21–27).

There’s a dangerous mindset among some Catholics. It’s one where a person believes he can reject a Church teaching and still be a good Catholic. In fact, often the person thinks he is a better Catholic than those in authority. He believes the Church teaches wrongly on a subject and has lost her teaching authority as a result. This person believes the Church can only regain her authority if she will either abandons a teaching he dislikes or reverts to a time he thinks was a golden age for the Church. Often such a person will think he is being faithful to the Church because he is faithful to that idealized view of the Church that he wants to defend.

But that’s not being faithful to the Church. The Church consistently keeps the teaching Our Lord passed on to the Apostles, from generation from the first century down to today. Whether the head of the Church is St. Peter or Pope Francis, it is the same Church and the same faith, with the same God protecting them in feeding the sheep (John 21:15-17). From the 1st century to the present, Our Lord has built His Church upon the rock of Peter (Matthew 16:18). He has insisted that people heed this Church (see Matthew 18:17 and Luke 10:16) to the point of saying that rejecting the Church rejects Him.

Neither the radical traditionalist nor the “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics give their assent to this authority. Both think there was a break in teaching. The radical traditionalist believes the Church went wrong because of Vatican II. The “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholic thinks the Church went wrong before Vatican II, finally got it right, before Blessed Paul VI and his successors “betrayed the Council."

Neither group is right. During the two millennia the Church has existed, we’ve had good Popes, mediocre Popes, and bad Popes. No matter who was Pope, you will be able to find some behavior which was wrong, weak-willed, or at least ill-considered. But even with the worst Popes in our history, they have never taught error [†]. The Church has never taught good was evil nor that evil was good.  Have individual priests and bishops fallen into error? Yes, at times. But that is not the same thing.

If the Church is what she claims to be then, to be faithful Catholic Christians, we must give our assent to the teaching of those given the role of shepherd. We cannot pretend we are being good Catholics if we say we must reject Pope Francis in order to be “faithful” to the Church. Nor can we say we’re rejecting Church teaching in order to be faithful to Our Lord. He said that if we love Him, we must keep His commandments (John 14:15) and rejecting those He sent is rejecting Him (Luke 10:16).

Banias Spring Cliff Pan s Cave(This is a rock. More specifically, it is Caesarea Philippi [AKA Banias] where Jesus told Peter
that he would be the rock on which Our Lord would build His Church[§])

If building a house on rock is listening to and obeying Our Lord’s words, and His words include telling us to hear His Church, then it follows that listening to the Church because Our Lord gave her authority is obeying what He said. It also means that obeying only when it suits us—which is failing to keep His words when it doesn’t—is building a house on sand. 

Many people resent the implication they are building on sand. They think it would be easy to tell the difference, just like it would be easy to tell the difference between a pile of sand and a boulder. But the difference was not always clear in Galilee and Judea when Jesus told this parable. The sand could feel solid and people could think they were building on a solid foundation. The sand could be solid for years. But if a torrential rainstorm came, that assumed solid base would wash away.

Sand(This is sand, not rock, even though it might look like rock. 
So long as it is dry, all is well. But if it rains...)

Likewise, if we put our trust in our personal interpretation of God’s word and what part of Church teaching we think is right, it may seem solid. Our faith may stand for years. But in a time of trial, we may find our faith collapsing because we put our faith in our own perceived wisdom and righteousness. I reflect on this when I consider the rebellion against the Church during the pontificate of Pope Francis. Not only did radical traditionalists and “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics assume a break in teaching, but some Catholics who were staunch defenders of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI bought into these claims as well.

What I think happened is this. The media between 1968 (the year Humanae Vitae was promulgated) and 2013 focused almost entirely on the Church teaching on sexual morality and abortion. So it was easy to think this was the sole focus on the Church. The Popes in this period spoke on many other topics well. But the media did not cover them. So it was easy to think that so long as one stood up for life and sexual morality, it was enough. So when the media began covering Pope Francis when he spoke about other areas of Church teaching, many people believed this new emphasis from the media was a change of teaching by the Pope. Just as the media ignored St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI when they spoke on other teachings, the media ignored Pope Francis when he spoke on life and sexual morality teachings.

So, when Pope Francis spoke on these topics, Catholics who assumed that their faith was mostly about defending life and marriage either felt betrayed or elated, depending on where they stood on the defense of life and sexual morality. There was no break in teaching and Pope Francis’ predecessors did not neglect these other issues [#].

Offering my opinion, I think what people built their houses (that is, their faith) on was not the rock of Jesus’ words and His Church, but on the sand of what they thought Catholicism was, based on a partial understanding. I see the rains as the increased—but grossly uninformed—media coverage about what the Pope said.  The house of faith collapsed when people assumed that while the Church could err, they themselves did not and see any discrepancy between their presumptions and what the Popes said “proved” the Popes erred. I call this a collapse because they’ve damaged their faith in God’s Church and, as a result, they’ve damaged their relationship with God as well.

I believe we avoid this ruin by putting our faith in Our Lord and in the Church He built, trusting Him to protect it from falling into error. Yes, there will be times when members of the Church—even high ranking ones—do something that scandalizes us. But the bad behavior or personal error of individuals is not the teaching of the Church. There is no break. In the same way, we must stop placing confidence in our own views over the teaching of the Church when they differ. Every schismatic and heretic in history believed they were right and the Church was wrong. They wanted to “protect” the Church from error, but never considered their rejecting the Church was a sign of their own error.

It is only when we realize that it is far more reasonable that we are in error than to think God has stopped protecting His Church that we can pull up the stakes from the sand of our pride and error and move to the rock of faith in Christ.


[†] We need to be clear here: Teachings are not the same thing as bad policy or bad laws in the Papal States before 1870. Nor should we confuse teachings with the opinions from individual members of the Church. These have never been authoritative in any way.

[§] gugganij - own photography - eigenes FotoPermission details
Own work, copyleft: Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5 and older versions (2.0 and 1.0)

[#] For example, many thought Evangelii Gaudium was a break with previous social teaching from the Church and a sign of Pope Francis’ “Marxism.” But if you compare it with Pius XI with his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo anno, you will see their criticisms of abuses in capitalism are virtually identical

Friday, June 10, 2016

Do They Speak the Truth?

Truth is saying of what is, that it is and of saying what is not, that it is not. In other words, truth points to reality and we should strive to live according to truth because we should strive to live according to reality. Since we are finite beings with imperfect knowledge, we have to constantly reassess what we think is true, discarding what turns out to be false and amending ourselves when our earlier grasp of the truth turns out to be inadequate. If someone makes a claim, but we do not know whether it is true or false, we need to find out before accepting or rejecting it—we can’t just rely on their say so.

Crystal ball(Some people, despite their claims, are not reliable sources of truth)

When you read that, it seems obvious. But human fallibility makes it difficult. Some people are liars. Some mistakenly think a falsehood is true. Sometimes people misinterpret the message and think their reasoning about these misinterpretations are truth. It is true we can’t assume that the person who speaks falsely is malicious, but just because a person says something does not make it true.

This realization is especially important when people say things that impact how we view the world. Just because an anti-Catholic attacks membership in the Church because they claim we do not follow Scripture, or just because a radical traditionalist attacks what the Pope says today on grounds that he “contradicts” what earlier Popes had to say does not make their claims true. If one wants to refute a worldview, they have to show that they accurately understand what the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Church holds compared with what others claim she holds. The brilliant 19th century work A Manual of Catholic Theology tells us:

The heirs of the Apostles have the right and duty to prescribe, promulgate, and maintain at all times and in behalf of the whole Church the teaching of the Apostles and of the Church in former ages; to impose and to enforce it as a doctrinal law binding upon all; and to give authoritative decisions on points obscure, controverted, or denied. In this capacity the Church acts as regulator of the Faith, and these doctrinal laws, together with the act of imposing them, are called the Rule of Faith. All the members of the Church are bound to submit their judgment in matters of Faith to this rule, and thus by practising the "obedience of Faith" to prove themselves living members of the one kingdom of Divine truth.

Scheeben, Matthias Joseph (2015-03-26). A MANUAL OF CATHOLIC THEOLOGY: Based on Dogmatik (Complete in Two Volumes) (Kindle Locations 1412-1416). Lex De Leon Publishing. Kindle Edition.

So, if the anti-Catholic, the radical traditionalist, the modernist dissenter or other person tries to attack part of the Catholic faith with the intention of changing our view of reality, the first question is, whose interpretation of Church teaching do we trust to be most accurate?

  1. The individual who accuses the Church of saying X?
  2. Or the Church under the authority of the present Pope and bishops in communion with him?

Hint: The answer is #2. Even if one rejects the authority of the Catholic Church as having the authority to teach, it is common sense to ask a person whether we have understood them, not to assume that our interpretation is error-free. If we’ve misunderstood what the Church has said, the end result of our reasoning is going to be worthless. But people don’t try to find this out.

For example, anti-Catholics make all sorts of assertions about what we believe and pull out Bible verses to “contradict” us. But they never ask whether they have understood us accurately or whether they have misapplied Scripture on the rare occasion when they do understand us rightly. Radical traditionalists assume that a difference in tone from one era to the next “proves” a change in teaching.  But the question to ask is whether the Church today is really condoning what she used to call sinful or whether she is merely speaking about changed tactics or changed circumstances while still holding to the underlying belief.

So, before we accept their claims as true and try to live according to them, we have to see if they are true. Does the Church teach the same as what her critics allege she teaches? But we can’t just rely on someone’s claim that there is a conflict (an ipse dixit fallacy). We have to seek out an expert who can speak with authority on the subject. Who is that expert? The heirs to the Apostles, the Pope and bishops in communion with him. Catholics believe that as successors to the Apostles, they share in the authority Our Lord gave His disciples. So, if an individual's interpretation of Scripture or a Church teaching does not match what the magisterium today teaches, then we know the individual does not speak the truth. 

Once we realize that, we will recognize them as false teachers. Even if they are sincere, they do not speak the truth about what the Church teaches and what they claim against her cannot be trusted.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Which is Manmade? The Church or Your Movement?

Introduction: The Context of the Question

In 1850, Blessed John Henry Newman gave a series of lectures to Anglicans of the Oxford Movement who wanted the Established (Anglican) Church to adopt pre-Reformation beliefs and practices. In one of these addresses, he pointed out that the Establishment hostility to this movement meant they had to make a choice:

But, first, there is a point to be cleared up. Either the movement is not from God, or the Establishment is not: we must abjure our principles, or abandon our communion. If we abandon our communion, we do so as denying that it is from God; if we continue in it, we do so as not denying it. 


 John Henry Newman, Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church (London: Burns & Lambert, 1850), 139.

This point wast they needed to make a choice between fidelity to one or the other because they couldn’t have it both ways. If they thought the Anglican Church was manmade, they needed to go where this Apostolic Church of God existed (Rome). But if they thought the Anglican Church was from God, it meant they had to abandon their movement because the Anglicans rejected their movement. They couldn’t have it both ways. His point was, if they wanted to follow God, they had to embrace the Catholic faith and not try to pretend Anglicanism was a third branch alongside Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

The Application: Do We Declare the Church Manmade to Defend Our Movements?

Church struggle

His dilemma is relevant today for the movements tempted to dissent from the Catholic Church. Whether it is a case of radical traditionalists claiming they can disobey the post-Vatican II Church in favor of their movement, or whether it is a Catholic conformed to the world who wants the Church to change her moral teaching where it is inconvenient, we have to ask, what is manmade? The Catholic Church? Or one of these movements claiming she went the wrong way?

Blessed Cardinal Newman asked this to encourage people to go to the true Church. I repeat it to encourage people to stay in the true Church. 

If the Catholic Church comes from God, then obedience to God means obedience to the Church. She has the authority to address new situations or change disciplines on how to best serve God and guide the faithful to Him. In that case there are no breaks when the Church intends to teach. Individual (or groups of) bishops, priests, religious and laity can fall into error. But if we stay in communion with the successor of Peter, we stay in communion with the Church God promised to protect. In such a case, movements rejecting the authority of the Church must be manmade and are rebellious against God, not faithful to Him. 

On the other hand, if the Catholic Church is manmade then it only has the authority we choose to give it. If we don’t like something, we’re free to reject it. The problem is, there’s no reason for anyone else to accept what you accept. The radical traditionalist who likes the period between the Council of Trent and 1958 only has a preference. There’s no reason it’s any more valid than the parts they reject. Likewise, the dissenting Catholic who objects to certain teachings and invokes a “higher” belief taught by the Church has no basis for invoking that “higher belief.” If the Church is only manmade then the truth of her teaching depends on the human wisdom of the teacher. And, like every other human teacher, people often disagree about their value and relevance.

So, if the Church is manmade, she has no more standing than a political party or a think tank. Some of her ideas may be right, but we’re free to disagree about what those right ideas are. The Extraordinary form of the Mass is no more or less valid than a Clown Mass and dissenting with the Church on abortion is no more wrong than dissenting from the Church on social justice.

But if God founded the Catholic Church, then it matters a great deal whether we obey or disobey, whether we trust her evaluations in modern times or reject them.

The Conclusion: Claiming the Church Broke From Your Movement is Absurd and an Excuse for Dissent

To avoid the consequences, the person who rejects a certain part of Church teaching when it goes against his preference usually tries to claim the Church broke away from what God intended when the Church taught what they didn’t like. The radical traditionalist argues that the Church went wrong somewhere between 1958 (the election of St. John XXIII and 1970 (when the Missal changed). The secularized Catholic claims the Church went wrong in teaching “X is a sin” usually tries to argue that God intended the Church to be democratic and when Church teaching is against them, it’s “breaking” with what Jesus intended.

But if the Church can break and fall into error, then it undermines the authority of the teachings dissenters want to invoke. How does one know the Church didn’t break earlier? After all, that is what the non-Catholics argue. 

Trying to support a particular movement changing what the Church should be and trying to justify it by saying the Church itself fell into error at a certain moment in time (when it disagreed with you) is to declare the Church a manmade institution that can break and err. The Church has always claimed her teaching has been unbroken. The teaching has developed, but it has never contradicted itself. Moreover, the teaching authority of the Church has remained unbroken. Again, if one wants to argue that it has broken under Pope Francis, one has to acknowledge it could break under a previous Pope. But if God protected the Church from breaking and teaching error in the past, we can trust Him to protect it now and in the future.

This brings us to the modern version of Blessed John Henry Newman’s dilemma. 

  • If the Church is from God and rejects these dissenting movements, then we too must reject them if we would be faithful to God.
  • if the Church is not from God, then our favored dissenting movements have no more authority than any other dissenting movement we might despise.

The only rational choice is to stick to our belief that Church came from God, not man, and trust Him to protect the Church from teaching error, especially where souls are at stake. Otherwise, we are lost, never knowing which one of many competing interpretations of what God teaches is correct.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Let's Talk Elections—More Specifically Let's Talk About Our Behavior in Them

I’ve said elsewhere I don’t want my blog to be a vehicle for my political opinions. I especially don’t want my blog to misrepresent my political opinions as being Catholic moral theology. While we’re forbidden certain actions, we can reach different decisions about how to best be faithful to Church teachings. We must avoid rationalizing the forbidden choices through pick-and-choose quoting Church teaching in order to justify what we were planning to do anyway. We have to apply Church teaching to every aspect of our lives, promoting good and opposing evil to the best of our ability. That includes our political preferences. When one candidate openly supports an evil condemned by the Church, we’re not supposed to support that candidate without a reason that outweighs the harm done. 

I don’t think I am violating my blog editorial policy by saying this election is particularly bleak for Catholics and other Christians seeking the right thing. In ordinary times any one of these candidates would disqualify themselves as the greater evil. This time, we’re going decide between two dismal choices. Donald Trump fails because of his violations of social justice teaching. The Democrats (at this time I can’t figure out who’s going to get the nomination though, at the time of my writing this, Hillary Clinton seems favored to win) fail because of their open support of moral evils. Some people enthusiastically support one of these candidates. Many are reluctantly choosing one on the basis of reducing the harm done to the nation. A few are championing a Third Party in general, write-in, or not voting at all. (My post on all these concerns is HERE). The problem with that movement is, while these people are clear on who they oppose, they cannot agree on who to support.

When we analyze these choices, we need to remember that the right to life takes top priority. We can’t take a number of lesser concerns and claim that, put together, they outweigh the right to life. St. John Paul II called support for these other concerns “false and illusory” (Christifideles Laici #38) without support for the right to life. But, when no credible candidate supports the right to life, we can vote to shrink the damage done by voting for the candidate we think is less extreme in their support for evil. We don’t support that candidate’s evil, and we have an obligation to oppose it. We can’t just wash our hands of it on Wednesday, November 9th and say “Not my problem."

That’s standard teaching on Catholic ethics in voting. People faithfully obeying Church teaching can reach different decisions on what their conscience will allow. The question we have to answer is, What defense will we offer at the last judgment for our vote? In other words, we will have to answer to God for our actions so we need to take our decision seriously.

What leaves me with election burnout are those Catholics who have embraced one of the choices—usually for reasons I find unconvincing—and go out of their way to condemn people who reach a different decision as being bad Catholics. Each of these factions will contrast the evils of the other choices with Church teaching, but when they compare their own choices with Catholic teaching, I find that reasoning shallow and, as a result, the accusation of being a bad Catholic for disagreeing with them to be offensive.

We all have the obligation between now and November of being open to new discoveries of truth that might impact how we need to vote. Truth is a key word here. Many throw unproven allegations—often based on what they think the words mean—across social media. We have the obligation to investigate them—NOT assume they must be true because we dislike this candidate—in light of our obligation to promote good and oppose evil. We may discover one candidate grows progressively worse than we thought, or we may discover allegations against a candidate are false. In these cases, we have to reevaluate our decision to see if it is still in keeping with Church teaching.

Certainly we can still hold opinions on the best way to vote, and we can debate each other about these opinions. That’s a good way to learn more about the consequences of our opinion and whether we still want to hold them. But we can’t commit rash judgment in doing so. Trump supporters and third party supporters (the biggest civil war I see between Catholics on social media[†]) can’t accuse each other of being bad Catholics when their consciences forbid them to vote the other way.

Dialogue is certainly welcome to help people reach the right decisions. But in doing so, we should keep in mind something said by GK Chesterton. “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.[*]” We must not condemn faithful Catholics who make a legitimate choice different from ours. Nor can we refuse considering if we somehow went wrong in our own reasoning.

If I was making a single point about what to watch out for, I’d say the danger is pride. Nobody wants to be in the wrong. Being a practicing Catholic means trying to live according God’s teaching and the teaching of His Church. So when someone says “I think that’s wrong,” anger is easy to come by. But even practicing Catholics are sinners. We don’t have the papal charism of infallibility. We can make mistakes. That’s why it’s important to constantly reevaluate our views and respond to differing views with patience and charity. If we don't, the results could be serious...



[†] Generally speaking, I haven’t found Catholics who support Hillary Clinton and few who support Bernie Sanders because they openly support things as “rights” which the Church calls intrinsically evil (always evil regardless of intention or circumstance). I have met some third party supporters who would support Clinton or Sanders over Trump if they didn’t have a 3rd party to consider, because they believe Trump is lying about opposing abortion and/or fear Trump would cause great harm in nuclear or conventional war. “Abortion vs. World War III” is the common rhetoric used here.

[*] Chesterton said this in the context of providing reasons for why one is Catholic, and not coming across like an uninformed bigot. I think his words can apply to other disputes as well.