Friday, December 23, 2016

Thoughts on the Errors of Combox Warriors


There seems to be a slew of errors going around on social media which feed on a misrepresenting of the interviews with Cardinal Burke over the dubia. Like always, I’m not accusing him of supporting those actions done invoking his name [†]. I’m opposing errors from those I call “Combox Warriors” (Catholic battling in social media over Church matters, viciously attacking those who disagree). These errors stem from the refusal to consider they might have gotten something wrong in comparing what they think follows from what they think the Pope says with what they think previous Church teaching means. In other words, the attacks on the Pope depend on the ipse dixit claims of his critics who need to prove what they assume is true.

So let’s look at some of the problems with their claims.

How is it that X Isn’t a Teaching, but Y is, When Both are Taught at the Same Level?

One of the claims used to deny the teaching authority of Amoris Lætitia is to say it isn’t a teaching because it is only an Apostolic Exhortation. The problem is, these critics also insist that this Exhortation is wrong because it “contradicts” (a point to be proven, not assumed) Familiaris Consortio. But there is the problem. Familiaris Consortio is also an Apostolic Exhortation. So, if Amoris Lætitia is not a teaching because it is “only” an Apostolic Exhortation, then logically one must concede that Familiaris Consortio is not a teaching either.

In other words, you can either accept the authority of both or reject the authority of both. But to accept one and reject the other on these grounds is irrational.

There’s No Facility for Removing a Pope from Office

Another problem comes from Combox warriors quoting St. Robert Bellarmine out of context (we’ll talk more about that below).  The argument is that when a Pope is a manifest heretic, he is no longer the Pope. It is claimed that the Pope’s teachings “prove” he is a heretic (or will be soon). Therefore, it is argued that he’s not the Pope. So, who determines whether the Pope has crossed that line? Cardinal Burke thinks it can be done but “It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.” The problem is, there is no competent tribunal to judge him. No valid council has ever deposed a sitting Pope. In fact, the Code of Canon Law (#1404) tells us, “The First See is judged by no one.”

Indeed, the cause of the Great Western Schism came about because a majority of cardinals deserted Pope Urban VI and elected an antipope (Robert of Geneva, aka Clement VII) in his place. Later, to try to correct the confusion, cardinals called a council at Pisa [*] and tried to depose both the Pope and the antipope and “declared” a new person Pope (antipope Alexander V). In all of this, the Church regards the true Pope to have been Urban VI and his successors.

The Council of Constance declared that a Council had the authority to depose a Pope (the Haec Sancta Synodus decree), but this decree was never approved by Gregory XII (the legitimate Pope of the time) nor his successor Martin V, so it is not considered a magisterial teaching. Therefore, it cannot be invoked against Pope Francis. The point is, despite whether one, four, or even all 121 of the cardinals under the age of 80 want to depose the Pope, there is no valid means they can use to do so.

Before a Pope could be removed from office because he was a “manifest heretic,” we would need one of two things to happen:

  1. The Pope would have to issue a decree defining how a Pope could be removed.
  2. A Council called by a Pope would have to decree on how a Pope could be removed—and the Pope at the time of the Council would have to approve that declaration. 
In other words, the Church has no ability to force a Pope from his office, and will not get one unless a Pope enacts such an ability through his authority. So long as there is no such authority granted, we can trust in God to remove such a Pope—and I deny any Pope past or present fits the condition of manifest heretic.

Let’s Talk About St. Robert Bellarmine’s Opinion [§]

Earlier, I mentioned the passage of St. Robert Bellarmine that critics of the Pope cite to say a Pope can be removed. The arguments I have seen run along the lines of pointing out that he is a Doctor of the Church and therefore his writings are official teachings of the Church. This is not true. The text in question actually discusses 5 opinions. What’s not normally quoted is the fact that the first view rejects that the Pope can be a heretic in the first place:

The first is of Albert Pighius, who contends that the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case: 806 [Hierarchiae Ecclesiasticae, bk 4, ch. 8.] such an opinion is probable, and can easily be defended, as we will show in its proper place.

However, he says that because “the common opinion is to the contrary, it will be worthwhile to see what the response should be if the Pope could be a heretic.” Note that phrase, “if the Pope could.” He’s not assuming it happens. He’s making a speculative, “What if that’s wrong?” Of those four opinions He rejects three of them:

  1. That the Pope can be deposed the instant he falls into even personal heresy.
  2. That the Pope can’t even be deposed for manifest heresy.
  3. [St. Cajetan’s opinion] That if the Pope falls into manifest heresy, he can and should be deposed by the Church.

After analyzing and rejecting these, he supports the following:

Now the fifth true opinion, is that a Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction, and namely St. Cyprian who speaks on Novation, who was a Pope in schism with Cornelius: “He cannot hold the Episcopacy, although he was a bishop first, he fell from the body of his fellow bishops and from the unity of the Church.” 819 [Bk 4, epist. 2]. There he means that Novation, even if he was a true and legitimate Pope; still would have fallen from the pontificate by himself, if he separated himself from the Church.

Bellarmine, Robert (2015-05-22). On the Roman Pontiff. (De Controversiis Book 1) (pp. 309-310). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition. 

Unfortunately, the term “true opinion” is misunderstood today. It’s a philosophical term which refers to an opinion which is held for reasons that are true, as opposed to arbitrary preference, but many wrongly think it means “fact.” So, this isn’t Church doctrine, and St. Robert Bellarmine doesn’t think it is either.

I would sum up this chapter as follows: While not defined, it is probable to believe that the Pope can’t be a manifest heretic, and therefore can’t be deposed. But, if he could be a manifest heretic (which is debated), members of the Church don’t depose him—he’d merely stop being Pope because he’d stop being Christian. (Many of Pope Francis’ critics who cite the Saint’s opinion actually seem to misinterpret it as #1 and #3 which he actually rejects.)

That being said, St. Robert Bellarmine’s treatise was never turned into the official teaching of the Church. As pointed out above, the Church has no defined way to remove a Pope, so this cannot be used by cardinals or councils to depose a Pope.

Popes Honorius I and John XXII

Two Popes who have been mentioned as “proof” of Popes being heretics are Honorius I and John XXII. The problem is, neither Pope proves anything in the case at hand, and it is unjust to claim Pope Francis is in the same situation.

Honorius I was condemned at the Third Council of Constantinople, 42 years after his death, because, in a letter to Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, he seemed to privately hold the heresy of monothelitism. But there is a dispute as to whether he disagreed with Our Lord having two wills (heterodox) or disagreed with the idea of Our Lord having two wills in conflict. Regardless of which was true, he is considered as having failed to carry out his duty by evading the issue instead of confronting it.

If it was true he privately held heresy, his case does not show a Pope can be deposed for heresy. He died in office and a later Pope confirmed the sentence of the Council. Nor can his evasion be equated with Pope Francis refusing to answer the dubia. Honorius I sought to evade an answer. Pope Francis insists the teaching is clear, but some people want excessive clarification. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Pope, there is no evidence that he is seeking to evade a debate.

Pope John XXII is (wrongly) portrayed as a Pope who taught heresy. That is not an accurate accusation. The issue was whether those who die see the Beatific vision immediately or not until the Final Judgment. At this time, the issue was not decided. What John XXII did was give homilies (which are not an occasion for infallibility) holding the former position. The controversy is over whether he was defining doctrine. He was not formally corrected, but was persuaded to change his opinion on the subject.

The accusations of heresy came from a group called the Spiritual Franciscans whom the Pope ruled against. The issue was over whether his condemnation of the idea that, “Christ and his apostles had no possessions whatever.” Seeking to discredit the Pope, they accused him of teaching heresy. However, this was not a defined doctrine and the Pope was not teaching. It was not until his successor, Benedict XII, that the issue was defined. Since heresy is “ the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” and John XXII did not deny anything, let alone obstinately, we don’t consider him a heretic. 


It’s not my place to judge the intentions of the cardinals who are troubled by the Pope, and I won’t accuse them of bad will.  Cardinal Burke did explicitly say Pope Francis was not a heretic, so it would be unjust to put those words in his mouth.

Unfortunately, some Catholics on social media are using his words to justify their attacks on the Pope. These attacks have long been based on their own readings of what they think the Pope says, contrasted to what they think the Church said previously. In doing so, they have two prove two things:

  1. That they have interpreted the Pope according to his intention.
  2. That they have interpreted previous Church teaching according to the understanding of the magisterium today.
In fact, these “combox warriors" show they understand neither correctly. Quotes from both are lifted out of context to show they are “contradictory.” These are the same tactics used by the critics of Vatican II and every Pope from St. John XXIII forward. I won’t lump all these critics together (there are variations), but we have to realize that some of the most abusive attacks come from people who have long seated grudges against the Church and refuse to consider the possibility that they could have gotten it wrong.
It’s my hope that by discussing some of the more common claims, this article might show that the arguments of such “combox warriors” are flawed and leading people astray by deceiving them into thinking the Church is in a state of error. It is only by recognizing the possibility of our own error when disagreeing with the magisterium that we can avoid spreading dissent while thinking we are in the right.



[†] One wishes the combox warriors would give the Pope the same consideration.

[*] This gathering was condemned in the Lateran V Council.

[§] Permissions to quote sections of the recent translation of this work was given by Mediatrix Press. The volume in question can be found HERE. (To get to the relevant chapter, go to Book II, Chapter XXX) I’ve copied the footnotes to the text in brackets after the number for readers who want to make sure nothing is overlooked. 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Thoughts on Authority and Disobedience

The Church has rules. That’s not open for debate. Some of these rules come from doctrine: God has taught us, and we cannot disobey these rules without disobeying Him. Others come from the Church applying her beliefs to face situations that arise in a given time, We cannot disobey these rules (Luke 10:16), but the Church can decide to change them when conditions change. Dangers arise when people confuse these things. If one assumes that Our Lord’s teaching is a “man made rule,” or that a discipline is Our Lord’s teaching, they wind up rebelling against Our Lord and the Church He established.

There’s more to it than that, however. Some confuse their assumptions about Scripture or about Church teaching are the teaching of Our Lord or His Church, when they actually apply restrictions or laxity which are not present. As Catholics, we’re blessed to have a Magisterium which has the right and responsibility to determine how these teachings are to be understood and applied in each age. They have the authority to decide when a change of discipline is needed and how Our Lord’s teachings, as passed on to us by the Apostles, faces the new challenges from the world.

Our Lord gave the Church the authority to bind and loose in His name, and this authority did not end with the death of the Apostles, but continues on with their successors until the end of the world. There will occasionally be Judases among them, but we believe the Lord will keep His promises and protect the Church from teaching error. These promises are important. If we did not know who was protected from teaching error, we could never know who we could trust to properly bind and loose. If the Bishop of Rome could sometimes truth and sometimes err—as happened with the patriarchates of ancient Christendom—how could we know who to turn to?

The history of the ancient Church tells us of sincere men who believed that the words of Scripture taught something contrary to the Church. These men persuaded emperors and patriarchs to embrace errors about the faith. It was only the Bishop of Rome that consistently resisted these errors. Sometimes that was tenuous—that a Pope might only be silent instead of teaching error—but the evidence shows that Popes did not teach error when using their authority to teach [†]. If a Pope were to teach that it was permissible to do evil, this would be a matter of the Church binding error, permitting a Catholic to do something which endangered their souls. The next Pope to do this would be the first.

Understanding this, we can see how reckless it is to accuse the Pope of teaching error, against the true faith of the Church. Such an accusation goes far beyond the accusation of the man holding the office. It must assert that God does not protect His Church and we must decide for ourselves when the Church teaches rightly or wrongly. That’s a recipe for spiritual anarchy, and contrary to what the Church teaches about herself. 

Accordingly, some who disagree with the direction a Pope takes try to downplay the authority of a teaching. Since the Church teaches that the faithful must obey her teachings, some try to claim that a teaching is not binding unless it is infallible. Others try to draw a dividing line over what level of Papal document is binding [*] and claim that an unpopular document is neither binding nor protected from error. That is to legalistically split hairs. Even before Vatican II, the Church had a clear idea as to when the Pope was not protected from error:

The Pope is therefore not infallible when he gives a decision as man, bishop, scholar, preacher, or confessor, nor when he expresses an opinion on questions of art, politics, or secular science. Infallibility is quite distinct from personal impeccability.


F. J. Koch, A Manual of Apologetics, ed. Charles Bruehl, trans. A. M. Buchanan (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1915), 177–178.

One can exclude a press conference, an interview, decisions governing the diocese of Rome, writing a book [§], giving a homily and the like. But when the Pope, or those authorized by him, gives instruction, we are obliged to obey:

can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.


Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 248.

Yes, we can have (charitable) differences of opinion on how to best carry out these decrees, but we can’t refuse obedience in the name of appealing to an earlier teaching of the Church or by trying to contrast the Bible with the Church. Unfortunately, people do make these appeals. Critics of St. John Paul II appealed to the Bible with selective quotes on love and mercy. Critics of Pope Francis try to argue that he contradicts his predecessors.

The problem is, if we accept their claims, we’re back to the problem of never being able to know when the magisterium taught truly and when they did not. Some liberal Catholics reject Popes they dislike. Some conservative Catholics do the same. Without a final authority, who can determine who is right? We’d be reduced to making the appeal the Mormons make about the Book of Mormon: Feeling a “burning of the breast.” But heretics feel just as strongly about their errors as orthodox Catholics feel about the truth. So we can’t rely on what feels right, or how we interpret Scripture or Church teaching. We must use the magisterium as the guide. If we proclaim that we can’t trust the authority of the Church today, then we have no guide at all. We merely have a Church with a billion Popes.

We can trust God to protect the Pope from teaching error as Pope. That can either be through extraordinary tools, like ex cathedra teachings, or it can be from preventing a morally bad Pope from teaching, or somewhere in between. But we can’t declare a teaching we dislike as somehow being an exception to our obligation to obey the Pope when he teaches. We can’t invent excuses not to obey. So, having faith in God to protect His Church, we should pray for the Pope and bishops to be effective teachers.



[†] Pope John XXII held a private opinion on the Beatific Vision which his successor later defined to the contrary. But at the time, it was not defined, and he did not teach as Pope on the subject. Pope Honorius may or may not have personally believed in Monothelitism (Scholars are divided). However, he did not formally teach it as Pope. The documents under contention were private letters.

[*] Ironically, some of these critics will simultaneously say that a Papal statement is not binding but somehow prove the Pope is “teaching error.” If it is a teaching, it is binding (See Code of Canon Law, #751-754). If it is not teaching, the Pope is not “teaching” error.

[§] For example, Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy was very insightful, but not protected under infallibility.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Just Who is Causing Confusion Here?

The growing mantra among Catholics dissatisfied with the Pope is that he “causes confusion” in the Church when he speaks or writes. What I notice, however, is that the confusion usually stems from how people read the news reports about the Pope and interpret quotes about what he says. For example, despite the existence of the Vatican website providing transcripts that prove otherwise, some Catholics still believe the Pope said, “Who am I to judge?” regarding the morality of homosexual acts. This interpretation is false, and whether one approved or disapproved of the misinterpreted “teaching,” it was those who spread the misinterpretation who caused confusion, not the Pope.

Throughout the pontificate of Pope Francis, this story has been repeated. People presume that the Pope intends to change Church teaching and either praise or condemn him, depending on what they think about this “change.” Never mind the fact that the Pope said his position was that of the Church. Never mind that none of his writings from before he became Pope showed any sign of wanting to change Church teaching. People who assumed that he wanted to change Church teaching—for whatever motive—interpreted anything they were unfamiliar with as “proof” of changing Church teaching. Seeing this, I have to ask: Who is really causing confusion in the Church? The Pope who speaks on complex subjects? Or people who break these complex subjects down into soundbites?

At this point, people will probably think about the dubia controversy and claim the Pope could “easily” clear up any confusion by answering the questions. Some of these people are no doubt sincere. But others have a history of hostility to the Pope or to the long held teaching of the Church, and seize on whatever can be twisted to suit an agenda. I will not put any specific Catholic in that category, but we need to be aware that this category exists. If Catholics in this category misrepresent the intentions of the Pope and give his words an interpretation that suits their agenda, the Pope is in a no-win situation. No matter what he says, it will continue to be interpreted by those who have an agenda, and they will continue to twist his words to support their agenda.

I think the problem we need to face is this: In a culture of smart phones we have instant notifications of oversimplified reports from people who do not understand the theological nuances. People give these notifications far more weight than they should. Isolated quotes are not given context. The result is, people fill in these blanks with their own interpretations, even though they have neither the information, nor the knowledge to do so. Then, when a full transcript is released, people who misinterpreted the Pope blame him for their own misinterpretation. When an explanation is given on how people misinterpreted the Pope, people claim “the Vatican” is walking it back.

So I have to ask, how can the Pope hope to answer the dubia satisfactorily when it is a no win situation? If he answers the dubia in their Yes/No format (which I think was a mistake on the part of the cardinals, but I don’t accuse them of malice), people will assume he’s either “walking back” or denying Church teaching. If he answers in depth, people will again take quotes out of context and interpret them according to their own views.

The Smart Phone problem will not be easily resolved. Not every theological issue can be explained in 140 characters or a Facebook comment. Study of texts is needed to prevent error from false interpretation. But there is one thing we can do to avoid confusion.

We must stop assuming that the Pope is heterodox or incompetent and intends to change Church teaching. If we assume these things, we will misinterpret what he says and writes through that lens. But if we assume he is orthodox, we will see what he says in light of Church teaching and carry it out in that light. That won’t end confusion. Church history is full of dissenters questioning a teaching and using that dissent as “proof” that the teaching is contested. There will always be people in the Church who seek to twist the meaning of what the Church teaches to justify what they want to do anyway—look at how pro-abortion Catholics abuse the concept of Double Effect to “justify” abortion. But if we assume the Pope is orthodox, then the interpretations that try to turn “X is a sin” into “X is not a sin” will be revealed as the counterfeits they are.

So let’s stop accusing the Pope of “causing confusion” when it is clearly those who misinterpret or, in some cases, misrepresent that cause the confusion.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Time to Choose

Things are falling apart faster than I expected. Certain Catholics (not all of them: I pray this is merely a noisy minority) have gone beyond expressing disagreement and misunderstanding and have started rejecting the authority of the magisterium under Pope Francis. Some openly accuse him and his supporters of heresy. Others think the Pope is incompetent. But the assumption of these individuals is their opinions carry more weight than the teaching of the Pope, and they are deceiving faithful Catholics into going along. Now, each Catholic who professes to be a faithful Catholic will have to make a choice.

The choice every Catholic must make is whether to remain in obedience to the Pope and giving assent when he teaches, or to decide they can be Catholic without the Pope and listen instead to Catholics who say what they want to hear.

Despite slogans of “Answer the question,” what we are seeing is not a Pope who is corrupt or in error with “heroic” Catholics opposing him. This is not about “bashing” the cardinals who issued the dubia. This problem precedes this, and has its roots in factions which have been at war with the Pope, promoting dissent since 2013. These dissenters undermine our faith in Our Lord who built His Church on the rock of Peter, deceiving many into thinking the Pope is destroying the Church.

It saddens me to watch Catholics deceived into deciding they can no longer support the Pope. They think the problems in the Church will vanish once Pope Francis’ pontificate ends. But we have always had confusion and dissent in the Church. History shows that whenever portions of the Church fell into error, it was always the Bishop of Rome who was a beacon to the truth. We’ve had muddled Popes and morally bad Popes, but none of them have taught error. If his critics are right, this will be the first time a Pope has ever taught “error” and encouraged people to follow it.

But this is what Our Lord promised to protect us from. Informed Catholics used to know that the Papacy was the final line in the sand to determine what was bound and what was loosed. If the Pope can teach error (binding error and loosing truth), then we no longer know when truth was taught, and by whom. That’s denying the promise of Our Lord to protect His Church.

So, when it comes to this choice, I make mine to stand with Pope Francis. I trust that God will protect Him from error, and I reject the accusations that our Pope is incompetent or heterodox. That doesn’t mean I deify him or think he cannot sin. It means that since false teaching will endanger souls, God will protect the Pope from making false teachings.

While I believe the dissenters are a minority, I will hold to this position, even if I stand alone, because I believe that being in communion with the Pope is God’s intention for us in being faithful Catholics.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

False Interpretations and Unspoken Assumptions

There’s no doubt that there is infighting in the Church. Without getting into who is right and who is wrong, Catholics are pitted against each other. This time, it is not just orthodox vs. heterodox. Added to that conflict is a civil war between Catholics professing to be faithful to the Church—indeed Catholics who strove to defend the Church during earlier pontificates—on whether one needs to oppose the current shepherds or whether that is wrong. One of the areas of contention is over the claim that we never had this level of confusion in the Church before (a claim I disagree with).

I have a few theories. One of them involves the growth of Social Media plus smart phones allowing us to be instantly misinformed about what is going on with the Church. One who wants to undermine the Church can now reach a global audience as opposed to xeroxed pamphlets shoved under people’s windshield wipers. But that’s only one part of the problem. It doesn’t explain how some stalwart defenders of previous Popes can now turn on the current one. To some critics of the current Pope, they don’t see how one can support him without rejecting his predecessors. Since they know his predecessors taught truly, they believe they have to oppose the Pope today.

Yes, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI did explain boundaries of intrinsic evil. Nobody denies that. But what we forget is they also stressed reconciling the sinners to God, not expelling them from the Church, except for grave issues in hopes that would bring them back to their senses. Like it or not, they did have teachings against unrestrained capitalism and destruction of the environment (in earlier documents, they called it “ecology”). Like it or not, there were bishops who did regrettable things during their pontificates but remained in their positions. There were pro-abortion Catholics who were never excommunicated back then too. We tend to forget these things and that some Catholics bitterly condemned them.

It seems to me that Pope Francis takes his predecessors’ teaching on intrinsic evil as a given and has devoted his teaching to emphasize what we overlooked (but was always present) in his predecessors’ teachings—how to reach out to those Catholics estranged from the Church in the hopes of bringing them back. This is why I think some have missed the point of previous papal teaching: We were so concerned with blocking those people actively trying to corrupt Church teaching (and they existed), that we assumed all people who wound up afoul of Church teaching were part of this group. We didn’t consider that some of them might have been badly educated on what the Church taught and why, and might be brought back if we reached out to them. We assumed they made an irrevocable decision and any attempt to reach out to them meant compromising on truth.

Yes, some of the issues are muddled because some people do want to undermine Church teaching, whether knowingly or through being mistaken. But when one starts wth the assumption that the Pope’s position is the teaching of the Church (the quote ignored in favor of “Who am I to judge?”), we will see his teachings on mercy and forgiveness presuppose the works of his predecessors. It’s only if we assume he intends error to begin with that we’ll see error in his words. This is why Benedict XVI could talk of Pope Francis in an interview this way:

[Q] Some commentators have interpreted this exhortation as a break, particularly because of its call for the decentralization of the Church. Do you detect a break from your Papacy in this programmatic text?

[A] No. I, too, always wanted the local churches to be active in and of themselves, and not so dependent on extra help from Rome. So the strengthening of the local church is something very important. Although it is also always important that we all remain open to one another and to the Petrine Ministry – otherwise the Church becomes politicized, nationalized, culturally constricted. The exchange between the local and global church is extremely important. And I must say that, unfortunately, those very bishops who oppose decentralization are those who have been lacking in the kind of initiatives one might have expected of them. So we had to help them along again and again. Because the more fully and actively a local church itself truly lives from the centre of faith, the more it contributes to the larger whole.

It is not as though the whole Church were simply dictating to the local churches: what goes on in the local churches is decisive to the whole. When one member is diseased, says St Paul, all are. When, for example, Europe becomes poor in faith, then that is an illness for the others as well – and vice versa. If superstition or other things that should not occur there were to fall in upon another church, or even faithlessness, that would react upon the whole, inevitably. So an interplay is very important. We need the Petrine Ministry and the service of unity, and we need the responsibility of local churches.

[Q] So you do not see any kind of break with your pontificate?

[A] No. I mean, one can of course misinterpret in places, with the intention of saying that everything has been turned on its head now. If one isolates things, takes them out of context, one can construct opposites, but not if one looks at the whole. There may be a different emphasis, of course, but no opposition.

[Q] Now, after the present time in office of Pope Francis – are you content?

[A] Yes. There is a new freshness in the Church, a new joyfulness, a new charisma which speaks to people, and that is certainly something beautiful.

Benedict XVI, Pope (2016-11-14). Last Testament: In His Own Words (Kindle Locations 769-787). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

This is the testimony of a Pope emeritus who believes the current Pope to be orthodox and consistent with his predecessors. But many Catholics who praise Benedict XVI seem like they would disagree with his assessment.

This is why I have misgivings about the things four cardinals, a group of philosophers, and a mob of Social media critics say—in various levels of politeness—the Pope should answer the dubia. Whether they intend it or not, what some of them really mean is, Answer it so we can see if you are orthodox or heterodox. When one looks at it this way, there is no confusion when the Pope and his supporters say things are already clear. He does intend them to be understood in the light of Church teaching.

I believe the way out of the confusion some complain about is not in the Pope speaking differently. Confusion ends when we start assuming the Pope is orthodox and we interpret what he says from that perspective. No Pope will look orthodox if people assume he is heretical. Remember, sede vacantists and the SSPX interpreted St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI as teaching error when these Popes went against their views.

The confusion is not about what Pope Francis said or did. The confusion is about individual Catholics on the internet being mistrustful of the Pope. They have interpreted Church teaching in a certain way and anything that does not match that interpretation must be in error. What they don’t ask is whether they misinterpreted the Pope or prior Church teaching. If a critic misinterprets one of these (they often misinterpret both), they will reach a false conclusion.

We should start questioning our own interpretations. If interpretations do not correspond to what a teaching is, they are false interpretations. We should look at our own assumptions. If they are wrong, we will be misled. The hard part is, self-deception is easy. Nobody likes realizing they’re wrong and we have ways of shifting the blame to excuse ourselves. But when this interferes with our obligation to seek out and follow truth, that can have dangerous consequences.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Let's Talk About Dangerous Thinking Leading to Sin

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

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


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


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



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

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

Two Scenarios of Schism

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

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

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

Danger Lies in Assuming One’s Personal Interpretations are Doctrine

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

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

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

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


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

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

Misunderstandings Leading to False Accusations

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

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

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


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

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

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

Thompson: Does that mean they can receive Communion?


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

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

Conclusion: The Dangerous Ways of Thinking

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

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

Afterword: My Personal View

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fallacious Thinking and Attacks Against the Pope


Regardless of whether one thinks the cardinals who sent dubia to the Pope acted rightly or wrongly, one of the fruits of their action is a bad one: It’s become a rallying point for those Catholics who oppose the Pope and seek to undermine him by accusing him of error. That’s a dangerous position, one that encourages dissent and possibly de facto schism. It may even lead to the damnation of souls.

I want to make clear that I am not accusing the cardinals of bad will or seeking to promote schism. These are serious charges that must not be made without evidence. Their intentions and the state of their souls are for their confessors to assess, not a layman like myself. However, the Pope’s opponents on social media are making those serious charges against him, either directly or indirectly.

The Problem

The point of contention, as I understand it, is these cardinals do not see how Amoris Lætitia can be reconciled with the teachings of St. John Paul II. The dubia asked if those teachings still hold true. The Pope declined to answer and the cardinals went public. The result of this is a number of Catholics made assumptions (none of them good) about that silence and what it might mean. The problem is, logically, we cannot draw a conclusion from silence. We can only point to it as a lack of evidence one way or another

Let’s look at it this way. If silence from Pope Francis implies a rejection of St. John Paul II, as his social media critics imply, then we could ask whether if Cardinal Burke and his compatriots are in favor of schism because they do not speak against those combox warriors who misuse their statements. There could be any number of reasons, for example, “Not wanting to draw attention to it by publicizing it.” A person could argue that not speaking about these rebels is encouraging them, but they can’t use the silence to “prove” the cardinals want to encourage them.

Fallacies of Ignorance and Silence

But once we recognize this, we have to apply it to Pope Francis as well. People might want him to offer clarifications to the dubia, and might be disappointed when he doesn’t, but we can’t claim his silence is in support of error. That brings us to the two fallacies that critics of the Pope—and even some of the faithful—have been using: The Argument from Ignorance and the Argument from Silence.

The Argument from Ignorance is a fallacy which confuses what a person knows with what is reality. For example, if someone says, “I can’t think of any reason why Pope Francis would not answer,” that does not mean there is no good reason not to answer. Not knowing an answer is not the same as there being no answer. So to argue that he does intend to change Church teaching on the basis of his not answering is fallacious. 

The Argument from Silence fallacy happens where one assumes that silence is proof of a position. “He didn’t defend himself, he must be guilty,” or “He didn’t admit it, he must be innocent.” Silence is simply “no testimony.” In American law, no person can be compelled to give evidence against himself, and a prosecutor cannot use this refusal as “proof” of guilt. What the silent person intends and the motives for the silence are unknown. So to argue from the Pope’s declining to answer that he cannot defend his position without contradicting St. John Paul II is an argument from silence.

The point of this article is to encourage people to recognize there is a difference between wanting the Pope to respond and drawing a negative conclusion from his declining to do so. Because we Catholics are forbidden to make rash judgment, we certainly cannot rashly judge the Pope as being a heretic or incompetent on the grounds he did not answer.

The Real Problem That Fuels the So-Called “Scandals”

Let’s be frank. The most a papal critic can allege from this case is that the Pope used poor judgment (though I would probably challenge that). But that fact is not anything new in Church history. . .

John paul ii kisses koranEven St. John Paul the Great had his “not so great” days.

No matter how much one likes a Pope, there will always be something cringeworthy in their actions. That’s because we’re all humans in need of salvation. No matter how much one dislikes a Pope, cringeworthy actions do not detract from their office and our obligation to give assent when they teach as Pope. You can go all the way back to Pope Peter, and you’ll still have to deal with the “Denying three times” scandal and the “not eating with gentiles” scandal.

We have to realize that Pope Francis is not a Pope John XII or Alexander VI. Nor is he an Honorius or John XXII. The Church will not collapse because of Pope Francis any more than it collapsed under those members of the Papal “Hall of Shame.” God promised to protect His Church. If we don’t believe that, then our problem is much greater than a Pope.

We need to realize the Pope has been constantly attacked for almost four years by critics and every one of those attacks is based on a misinterpretation of what he said. There’s a third logical fallacy here—Begging the Question. People who assume the Pope is a heretic interpret everything he does under the suspicion of heresy. People who assume the Pope is incompetent interpret everything under the assumption he handled it incompetently. The problem is, these accusations have to be proven, but his accusers act as if they were true—and they have begun to instill doubt into weary Catholics who begin to think: “There must be something to these accusations, or people wouldn’t make them.”

There’s a real danger here. Certain Catholics hate the Pope and what they think is “corruption” of the Church since the Pontificate of St. John XXIII. They lead some members of the faithful astray, causing them to think they’re the only faithful Catholics left when, for almost 2000 years, the Church has been led by the successor of Peter without teaching heresy.


The point of this is, this latest attack on the Pope has its roots in an anti-Francis mindset and has no rational basis. A person is not wrong to wish a Pope might handle a situation differently at times. But we have to realize that what we wish and what the Pope determines as the best way to handle the situation can be two different things. To accuse him of bad will or incompetence because his decision is not what they want is not the obedience of the saints. It’s the same behavior that dissenters used to attack previous Popes.

We should reflect on this, and consider who benefits from this behavior: Not the Church, but the devil. We should think long and hard about divisive behavior before committing it.