Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Do You Not Yet Have Faith?

35 On that day, as evening drew on, he said to them, “Let us cross to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. 38 Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm. 40 Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” (Mark 4:35–40).

This account of Jesus stilling the waves speaks volumes about our lack of faith in God. The disciples, seeing the storm, believed they were going to die and that Jesus was somehow going to just let them. But his rebuking the wind and sea shows us He certainly has the authority and power that keeps everything under control. He wasn’t going to let the boat sink, even though the disciples feared he might overlook the dangers and forget them.

We might smile at the disciples, but we’re no different. We fear that He will not involve Himself in what frightens us. If pressed, we might deny that we don’t trust Him and are merely concerned with other factors, but when it comes down to it, people are afraid He is going to just let His Church collapse at the hands of those they fear the most. 

Of course, free will means any one of us can act in a way that disrupts the Church. But when God makes a promise, He keeps it. He might not keep it in the way we expect—for example, the first century Jews had ideas about the Messiah that were not what God intended—but He keeps it faithfully. We, on the other hand, have a bad habit of anticipating God to fulfill his promises in a specific way, and if He does not seem to fulfill it in that way, we fear He is not going to fulfill it at all.

I think of that as some Catholics and Catholic periodicals who spent years defending the Faith and the authority of the Church, are suddenly despairing and assuming what they do not understand is the sign of a catastrophe. Because they cannot reconcile their interpretation of Church teaching with the actions of Pope Francis, they assume he must be in error. They invent theologies that can somehow have, at the same time, a “heretical” Pope and a Church protected from error. 

Such Catholics lament that this is the biggest crisis to afflict the Church since the Arian heresy, and wonder what will happen to the faithful (a group that always includes them, and usually excludes those who disagree with them). But I think this is a view that is ignorant of history. The Church has always had to deal with attacks. Whether attacks from persecution, heresy, or corruption, the Church has always needed to withstand and correct. What we forget, however, is the Church has made changes to disciplines without changing her teachings in doing so.

The problem is often one of perception. If one wrongly thinks a changed discipline is a sign of heresy or corruption, that one will no doubt assume the Church is in mortal peril. If one wrongly thinks that the existence of error means the magisterium supports it or is incompetent, they will assume the Church is in mortal peril. Critics thinking this way tend to assume the Church will remain in error until she does things the way they want them done, even though the Church is not in error.

The disciples, traveling on the Sea of Galilee, assumed that being in the company of Jesus meant that they would not experience difficulty. As a result, when things became difficult, they responded in a panic. But God responded in His own time and His own way. We need to recognize Our Lord will do the same for our own troubles. No, this isn’t a call for passivity. We have tasks to do in converting the world. But we shouldn’t think that the problems of the Church means that God forgets His Church and his promises. He protected the Church in the past. He protects the Church now. He will protect the Church in the future. Recognizing this, Our Lord’s question to His disciples remains’s relevant to our own fears: Do you not yet have faith?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Do We Understand? Or Do We Assume?

Introduction

Pope Francis recently issued some words of wisdom about the division of ideology and the loss of respect. These divisions are causing some Catholics to savage others they disagree with. The general assumption is that a disagreement on how one must act is proof that the “other side” is either ignorant or malicious in not choosing the accuser’s view. The buzzwords line up with the person’s ideology, and the accusations assume that the other side embraces the worst positions for the worst reasons.

Assuming the Worst, Without Cause

Human beings, because of their flawed nature, are prone to sin. So it is quite understandable to see people willfully choosing evil, or making morally bad choices with lesser levels of intention. We can’t ignore that. We’re called to reach out to sinners and bring them back to the truth. The problem is, accusers are assuming the fact that there is a disagreement as proof being an enemy of al that is good and decent. But, when one looks at both sides, they are actually making the same arguments, and merely plugging in different buzzwords. A supporter of Trump might assume most or all of those who oppose him must support abortion, Islamic terrorism, and so-called same sex marriage, even if the person accused supports none of them. Likewise, the opponent of Trump might assume most or all who voted for him support racism, fascism, and letting the rich prosper at the expense of the poor.

The problem is, many of these accused Catholics who thought differently on how to vote, or on what the worst evils were, used the same reasoning to reach different conclusions. For example, I’ve seen them agonize over whether they should vote for what they saw as the least offensive choice among the two major candidates, knowing both were bad, or vote for someone else, risking the possibility of the worst choice getting in. In doing so, some of them might have been ignorant of Church teaching, and made bad decisions. Others may have known of and rejected Church teaching. But not all of them did so. The result is, many are rashly judged as holding a position they actually reject.

It doesn’t have to be about Trump either (He’s just, currently, the most controversial issue). Consider the liturgical wars. Some who prefer the way of the 1962 Missal believe all who disagree are heretics. Some who prefer the current Form of the Mass are schismatics. Some are—but not all. Again, those who do not are being rashly judged, accused of directly willing whatever bad effects come.

The Root of the Problem

I think there are two things people don’t ask: What the actual Church teaching permits, and what the person we disagree with actually thinks. If we don’t know both, we risk falsely accusing a person of supporting something he actually rejects. Even if it turns out he does support a wrong position, our accusation is merely a coincidence with no basis behind it.

Knowing what the Church actually teaches on a subject is important, because we have both the actual stated teaching, and the application based on conditions. For example, the Church speaks on the obligation to care for those in need. She does not define how we must vote, or what political platform we must endorse in order to meet that obligation. Provided we don’t try to “play the Pharisee” and evade our obligations under a disguise of piety, we can choose different ways to carry it out. In this case, it would be rash judgment to assume the person who chose a different way, while trying to be faithful, is ignoring Church teaching.

Likewise, when it comes to addressing the issue of sinners in the Church and reconciliation, we need to remember that the clergy need to not only assess the fact that something is intrinsically evil, but assess the intentions and circumstances that leads to our committing these sins. Why does the Church tolerate what we think is horrible? It’s a good question—and maybe we need to investigate, not assuming that our not finding an answer means there is none to be found.

The point is, if we don’t understand the fullness of the Church teaching, or lack of understanding may lead us to see sin where there is none, or vice versa. We may think the Church is too harsh or too lenient, when she is exactly right. We may think others are guilty when they innocent, or think they are innocent when they are guilty.

Our task is not done when we do understand the fullness of Church teaching. We have to also understand what the person holds before we accuse him of acting against it. Take, for example, the case of Pope Francis. If someone studies what he has to say—not the media accounts—you can see how close he is to the teaching of his predecessors. Personally, I found his harshest denunciations of evils in the practice of Capitalism in Evangelii Gaudium sound remarkably similar to the words of Pope Pius XI, or St. John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. I find he is no less firm in opposing the sexual sins than his predecessors. But his critics take snippets of quotes, given without context, and assume he intends to overthrow the Church teaching. But when one reads what he says in context, it is clear that the fault lies with his accusers.

On the other hand, some do get things wrong. They either reject Church teaching, or they wrongly think they are following. We still need to understand their position. Otherwise, how will we correct them? Nobody likes to be accused of holding a position they actually reject. If we falsely accuse them of rejecting Church teaching, or misrepresent their position, we will not show them the right path. Instead we’ll be fighting the wrong battle.

Conclusion

We need to realize that making false accusations against others will not bring about peace and conversion. As Christians, we have an obligation to seek out the truth and act on it. But in these days of instant communication of misinformation, we’ve stopped seeking and started assuming. We assume we can’t go wrong, but others can. And so we calumniate many of them by accusing them of actions and motives they do not hold to. That has to stop. By acting that way, we become self-righteous and we drive others away.

Our Lord had strong words to the Scribes and Pharisees for behaving this way. How much stronger will they be when directed towards us for knowing His teaching, but not living it?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Self-Righteousness or Seeking Righteousness?

Introduction

Some things the Church warns about gets shunted aside in different eras. If we think of them at all, we think of them as something other people do and never scrutinize our own actions. I think one of these issues is the issue of self-righteousness—the belief in one’s own actions and motives are morally superior to their opponents. Those who did not share that position were considered morally wrong, not merely mistaken. Unfortunately, many confuse their own self-righteousness with seeking righteousness, which means seeking out what is right and carrying it out. If we assume our own actions are righteous, while those who disagree with us choose evil; if we never ask whether we are doing wrong, while being certain no good Catholic can think differently than us—those are signs of being self-righteous.

Before I go on, I want to make something clear. I am not speaking in support of moral relativism. Some things simply are incompatible with being a Catholic Christian, and we may never dismiss them or treat them lightly. If a fellow Catholic is in error, he or she does need to be led to the truth. But not all differences are based on the willful disregard of Catholic teaching. Moreover, it is not just “other people” who can be in error. We can be blind to our own faults as well.

A Political Example

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

(Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth)

One of the sadder things I see on social media is the division that still exists among some Catholics over moral decisions made during the election. Since the 2016 elections were arguably the worst choices we’ve had in living memory, Catholics were faced with the unenviable decision of picking one of the unfit candidates from the major parties, or an unelectable candidate from a minor party. Catholics trying to act in good faith made their decision on how to prevent the most damage for the next four years. It’s the kind of thing where afterwards, you expected Catholics to say to each other, “That was a terrible election. I pray our options are better next time.”

But in many cases, that didn’t happen. Some Catholics focussed instead on others who made a different decision on how to best limit evil, assuming they were supporters of the worst evils that came from their choice. So, those who voted for our current president are accused of being responsible for every action he takes that runs counter to Church teaching, regardless of whether the Catholic voter supported it or not (the guilt by association fallacy). Meanwhile, those who voted against him are accused of favoring every evil his main opponent supported. So, every time President Trump does something, we get a flood of posts accusing those who disagreed with the poster of either supporting evils in his proposals as well as counter-posts accusing the first group of supporting evils that would have happened if he hadn’t been elected.

At the same time that this is going on, these factions are congratulating themselves for standing up for the Catholic faith because of the superficial links between their favored party and the Church teaching they happen to feel strongly about, ignoring the parts where their favored party runs against Catholic teaching. I’ve seen Catholics who voted, Democrat, Republican, and Third Party act this way, all castigating the others. In other words, these groups accuse each other of putting politics above the Catholic faith, never considering that both groups used the same arguments to reach different conclusions. 

Non-Political Examples

It’s not only in politics. We can see it in the “all we need to do to save the Church is…” attitudes. Some argue that we all need to return to ad orientem, reception of Communion on the tongue, etc., and if we don’t, we’re ignoring the problem, or even in cahoots with those who rebel. Others say the Church needs to change her attitude towards contraception, divorce/remarriage, woman priests, etc., to prevent the collapse of the Church, and those who disagree are against Christ. The problem is, these solutions are not based on the teaching of the Church, but on what we think the Church should be. Often we elevate a discipline to a doctrine. Often, we try to treat a doctrine like a discipline. But in both cases, we tend to attack the people who disagree with us as ignoring the problem or even being a part of it.

But like the political examples above, people are assuming that different views means being part of the problem, through not caring or about actively willing evil. I think the difference between this and the political examples is we are no longer arguing over the best way to apply Church teaching, but whether Church teaching is to be followed. In this case, we’re not only being self-righteous towards others, but towards the shepherds of the Church. Like so many other things, this isn’t done by a single faction. Whether it is a case of a rigorist Catholic saying the Church has no right to reach out in compassion to sinners, or a laxist Catholic saying the Church has no right to bar Catholics from the Eucharist, these are cases where the self-righteous Catholic is saying they are superior to those tasked with shepherding the Church. Whether it’s a case of accusing the Pope of heresy or of accusing a saint of heresy, this is (among other sins) self-righteousness.

The Risk To Ourselves

The problem is, when we fall into self-righteousness, we forget to consider three things:

  1. The fact that we might be wrong in assuming our opponent's error or bad will
  2. The fact that we might be wrong in the positions we hold.
  3. The fact that we are to show patience and charity to those actually in error.

Let’s face it. If we’re going to call a Catholic who viewed Trump as the least harmful choice, “Anti-abortion but not pro-life,” (or if we call the Catholic who could not vote for Trump in good conscience and voted for a Third Party, “pro-Hillary”), we’re being self-righteous. We overlook the fact the individual might have acted in good will. We overlook the possibility of making an error of our own. And, if the person actually did vote this way for reasons incompatible with Catholic teaching, we are not likely to win them back by behaving self-righteously. But bringing them back is part of the Great Commission.

Here’s a personal example on the third point: When I was in my early 20s, I began to consider the Catholic faith I was raised in seriously. But some of my positions were not compatible with the Catholic faith, and I was struggling with these issues, trying to understand how something I had always thought to be politically bad was morally good. If I had encountered the social media crowd of Catholics who insult and speak abusively towards those who thought differently, I would have probably equated the Catholic faith with their behavior and left it behind, thinking it wrong. I probably would have been morally culpable for the errors I clung to, thinking them right. But I think God would have had something to say, at the Final Judgment, to those who drove me away as well.

Pope Francis, in stressing mercy, remembers what many American Catholics seem to forget—we’re not goalies, trying to keep lesser Catholics out. Nor are we just throwing out the rules and saying, “Anything goes.” What we’re trying to do is reach out to those lost sheep and bringing them back into the fold. That means reconciling them with God. And how can we reconcile people who we drive away? How will we answer God when we, instead of rescuing the lost sheep, pitch it back in the brambles?

It Starts With Ourselves

As i said back in the beginning of the post, I’m not saying we should let people do whatever they want and not worry about it. IF they are in error, we need to guide them back. But if we’re self-righteous, how can we guide them? We need to be guided ourselves. This means we need to turn to God in prayer and study, seeking out how we are called to live, not confusing our preferences with what the Church actually teaches. We need to investigate the actual statements and motives of the person who disagrees with us—not presuming on either. We need to recognize that if we are actually not in error and another is, we are called to be Christlike in reaching out to them.

Escaping self-righteousness in favor of seeking righteousness is hard. For example, I’m constantly struggling with sarcasm when it comes to people I think are wrong and should know better. I struggle with it because I know there’s no spiritual growth, and a lot of spiritual harm there. But the temptation is always there to want to “put wrongdoers in their place” and seeking to do right in such cases is much harder.

But, if we fail to make the attempt, then we are like the Pharisees who opposed Our Lord and judged others, never showing mercy, and never considering our own need for it. Don’t think this is a Conservative problem or a Liberal problem. Don’t consider this a Traditionalist problem or a Modernist problem. This is a problem for any person who will neither consider the possibility of their own error, nor show mercy when they are right.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Thoughts on Difficulty vs. Doubt Regarding the Holy Father

Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of religion; I am as sensitive as any one; but I have never been able to see a connexion between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There of course may be difficulties in the evidence; but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines, or to their compatibility with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a particular answer is the true one. 

 

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), 264–265.

Blessed John Henry Newman spoke of having difficulties with the Church, but that this never led him to doubt. I think his distinction is a good one: We can have difficulties on understanding a Church teaching, the actions of the Church, or the behavior of a churchman without falling into doubt about the authority of those who lead and teach. I have defended St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. But this does not mean I openly praise everything they have done. There are some things I wish they handled differently. But those actions have never led me to doubt that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Church from teaching error, or to doubt the Church teaching on the authority of Popes.

For example, I wish Saint John Paul II had not elevated certain individuals to bishoprics, I wish he had not kissed that Quran, I wish he had treated Assisi 1986 like a conference. I wish Benedict XVI had not used the example of “a gay prostitute with AIDS” in the Light of the World interview, and had not lifted the excommunications of the SSPX bishops. I wish Pope Francis would put a moratorium on press conferences, and I wish he would address conflicting interpretations of Amoris Lætitia. All of these things led to confusion in the Church. However, these difficulties have never led me to doubt their orthodoxy. Nor have they led me to doubt or explain away their authority when they exercised it differently than I preferred.

I think this is the difference: The person with difficulties may struggle at times when a Pope does something that seems disruptive. But he doesn’t reject the Pope in some degree, or seek to deny his authority at some level. However, the person with doubts does allow himself to do these things. That doesn’t mean the doubting Catholic is a schismatic—though doubt can lead there. But the doubting Catholic thinks the action of the Pope cannot be reconciled with his own understanding of what the Church should be, and seeks a solution to justify setting aside Church teaching or obedience to the Pope.

I think another insight from Blessed John Henry Newman fits here:

I will take one more instance. A man is converted to the Catholic Church from his admiration of its religious system, and his disgust with Protestantism. That admiration remains; but, after a time, he leaves his new faith, perhaps returns to his old. The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church’s infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines “which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught,” whereas it really meant “whatever the Church then or at any future time should teach.” Thus, he never had the indispensable and elementary faith of a Catholic, and was simply no subject for reception into the fold of the Church. This being the case, when the Immaculate Conception is defined, he feels that it is something more than he bargained for when he became a Catholic, and accordingly he gives up his religious profession. The world will say that he has lost his certitude of the divinity of the Catholic Faith, but he never had it.

 

John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates, & Co., 1870), 240.

I think he makes a good point that goes beyond converts to the Church. The Catholic who recognizes the divinity of the Catholic faith, established by Our Lord and passed on to us by the Apostles, recognizes that it remains the same Church in AD 33, AD 117, AD 1057, AD 1517, and AD 2017. Our understandings of the Faith deepens over time, which can lead the magisterium to make new definitions or change how teachings are best applied to carry out the Great Commission.

I think his point about the Catholic who accepts what the Church teaches up to this point and the Catholic who will accept the authority of the Church whenever she teaches or changes discipline is vital in recognizing the difference between difficulty and doubt: Do we believe that Our Lord, who established the Church and promised to be with her always, continues to do so? Or do we think the problems we have with the Church means the Church has gone wrong to some extent? I think we must recognize that if we reach the point where we think the Church, in exercising her authority, is wrong or can’t be trusted, we have gone from difficulty to doubt about God protecting His Church.

When facing things that trouble us, we have an obligation not to let our difficulty become a doubt. As the Catechism puts it:

2088 The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against faith: (157)

Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.

 

Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 506–507.

We’ve had, at this point, 266 Popes. A handful of these have been morally bad. A couple may have privately held error. But despite the existence of bad Popes—and I deny Pope Francis is one—they never taught error. We need to ask ourselves why. Popes like John XII show we can have Popes who care nothing for serving God and the Church. But they didn’t issue any decrees exempting themselves from keeping mistresses or nepotism. How are we supposed to believe that 265 Popes avoided teaching error, but suddenly Pope Francis broke that streak?

Doubts that try to make that argument actually undermine the Church they hope to protect. If one argues Pope Francis is a bad Pope who teaches error, that person will have no reply—without resorting to the Special Pleading fallacy—to the challenge, “How can you say previous Popes did not teach error?” If one argues (and I have encountered some who do), “Francis refused to accept God’s guidance,” then that one has to answer how Benedict IX, John XII, Liberius, Honorius I, etc., managed to accept God’s guidance despite acting wrongly elsewhere. But if God did protect the Church from our acknowledged bad Popes, then the doubter must explain why He chose not to with Francis. It is only when one says, “God always protects the Church from teaching error,” that they can avoid this dilemma.

This is why I have said it is more plausible to believe the Pope’s detractors have it wrong, than it is to believe that the Pope is teaching error. To believe the Pope teaches error, one must doubt Jesus protects the Rock on which He built His Church. That doesn’t mean we won’t have difficulties with what Popes do. There will be gaffes and misunderstood actions. God protecting Popes from teaching error when they use the teaching office doesn’t mean God protects them from sinning or being a bad administrator of the Church. We don’t have to defend the dark spots in the history of the Papal States, or ill-advised concordances. But when the Pope acts in teaching, or administrating the Church, we are bound to give assent (see CIC 747-754). The only way to avoid refusing obedience or fearing the Church can bind us to accept error, is to work to overcome doubts.

We should consider the words of Monsignor Ronald Knox, who pointed out the underlying point that addresses our problems:

Here is another suggestion, which may not be without its value—if you find yourself thus apparently deserted by the light of faith, do not fluster and baffle your imagination by presenting to it all the most difficult doctrines of the Christian religion, those which unbelievers find it easiest to attack; do not be asking yourself, “Can I really believe marriage is indissoluble?  Can I really believe that it is possible to go to hell as the punishment for one mortal sin?"  Keep your attention fixed to the main point, which is a single point – Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth?  If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.

(In Soft Garments, pages 113-114. Emphasis added).

And that is the ultimate question: Can I trust that the Church is this final repository? Can I trust that God will protect the Church, under the current Pope, from teaching error? If we can, we can trust God to protect the Church with each Pope. But if we doubt these things, the rest which we profess to believe is on shaky ground indeed.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Church and the Self-Centered Catholic

Introduction

The Church, over the past two thousand years and including today, has continued her mission of being faithful to Our Lord’s teaching. She evangelizes and she fulfills the commands of love and justice. She cares about the spiritual and physical needs of the people. Sadly, we have some in the faith who assume that if the Church does not explicitly focus on what they care about, or if they focus on what these people don’t care about, then the Church is accused of not being faithful. Depending on the slant of the critic, the same Church is accused of ignoring past teaching and of ignoring Our Lord’s commands to love.

But when we look at the complaints, they have something in common, no matter how vast the ideological divide. That commonality is believing the Church has failed if she does not act as I see best. This is a problem because it makes the individual preference take precedence over the discernment of the magisterium. The decisions of the magisterium on how to apply the teachings of Our Lord as handed on to the Apostles are reduced into an opinion—no more valuable than anybody else’s and often less valuable.

Confusing Preference With Truth

The problem is, we’re tempted to think that we have got things right. If others disagree, it means they are wrong. If problems don’t seem to subside, it means the Church “doesn’t care” or even “supports error.” Such views overlook the possibility of our own error, the possibility of more options than we have considered, or the possibility of people rejecting the Church teaching. In other words, if we think the problems in the Church are because the Church does not handle things as we see best, then we are self-centered Catholics

To head off objections, I want to make clear that I am not saying we should be passive when some Catholics support something morally wrong. As Catholic Christians, we have the right to expect our clergy, religious, and laity to provide the true faith and not their self-imposed opinions (cf. Canon 213). The problem is, self-deception is easy. We can trick ourselves into labeling the warnings of conscience rising from Church teaching as “political” or “heretical.” 

Too often we assume God, previous successors to the Apostles, the saints, etc., think like we do. What we want becomes DEUS VULT! What we don’t like is obviously “error.” But is that the case? If we don’t like Church teaching on contraception, on divorce/remarriage; if we don’t like the Church changing discipline on the Form of the Mass or how to interact with other religions, we accuse the Church of betraying Christ or betraying the past teachings of the Church, depending on what proof-texting we can use to justify ourselves. 

Do We Center Our Preferences on Ignorance about our Ignorance?

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. (Apologia 21)

 

Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, Third Edition, vol. 2 (New York; London: Oxford University Press, 1892), 113–114.

What’s not asked is, Do I properly understand what the Church teaches and accepts as legitimate obedience to those teachings? If we think we know what the Church teaches and think we understand the person we think at odds with the Church, but we actually are mistaken about one or both, we may be condemning what the Church accepts or supporting that which is incompatible with Church teaching—all the while thinking we are doing right.

On one side, I see Catholics dissenting from Pope Francis on the basis of what they think he supports and what they think Church teaching allows. The problem is, a review of their attacks show they neither understand what he actually said, nor understand the Church teaching he references. Many assume his teachings on social justice reflect a “leftist” anti-capitalist political view. I think these critics have never read Pope Pius XI, or St. John Paul II when they wrote on moral obligations in economics. Many assume his position on divorced/remarried Catholics shows moral laxity, ignoring the reality of intrinsic evil. These critics seem to show no recognition about the question of individual culpability. They seem to be unaware that the Pope asks bishops and confessors to investigate the conditions of individual Catholics, not look for loopholes. They seem to confuse discipline, which can be changed, with doctrine, which cannot.

On the other side, I see some Catholics who are proud of their defense of Pope Francis but behaved just as badly towards his predecessors as current dissenters behave towards Pope Francis. They sought to contrast a loving Jesus against a bureaucratic, heartless Church. They showed no understanding on why the Church said something could not be changed. They viewed the male priesthood and the condemnation of abortion and contraception as proof of “patriarchy.” They assumed that any attempt to determine what barred people from the Eucharist as “being obsessed with rules.” 

In both groups, the assumption was that the Church went wrong when she taught differently than the critics wanted—usually when her teaching showed them as being in the wrong. Both groups assume God doesn’t care about what they don’t care about. Yet both groups are willing to point fingers at each other where the other group goes wrong. This finger pointing shows that they are aware that the Church teaches, and that they appeal to it when it suits them. But with this awareness, it shows one has no excuse if we only apply Church teachings to others and never bother to ask if we fail in our own behavior.

Conclusion

Pharisee and Tax collector

I think the temptation to self-centeredness leads us to judge others rather than go through the trouble to investigate ourselves. We think that God cares more about the sins of those we disagree with than ours. We forget that the deadliest sin for each one of us is the one that sends us to hell, not the one we’re not tempted by. So if we can’t be bothered to look at our own sins and repent of them, we might be horrified at the Last Judgment, if Our Lord says to us,‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:23.) St. Paul warned us, Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. (1 Corinthians 10:12).

If we’re so self centered that we think that all flaws are with the “other side,” and that even the magisterium of the Church can be on the “other side” if her stance is against us, we are likely to find, at the Last Judgment, that we were on the wrong side all along.

Friday, April 28, 2017

On the Outside Looking In: Thoughts on Misinterpretation

Introduction

I was reading a book on how Westerners misinterpret the Bible. It made the point that we have cultural blinders which lead us to give meaning to things that were never originally intended. Ironically, the book gave an unintended example of this when talking about the Protestant Reformation trying to recover the original meaning of words:

Viewed from one perspective, the Protestant Reformation began as an effort to correct a mistaken assumption about equivalency in language. Over time, the Roman Catholic church had developed a doctrine of confession that included works of penance, such as reciting a certain number of prayers (think “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers”) and, most disturbing, the purchase of indulgences to assure forgiveness of sins. By the late Middle Ages, church leaders insisted this system is what Jesus had in mind when he called sinners to repent—that do penance was equivalent to (meant the same thing as) repent

 

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 76.

The book went on to argue that this was not what early Christianity meant by repenting. The problem is, this is also not what Catholicism means by repenting. The section started with an error and wrote on what Martin Luther was “saving” people from. Except he didn’t.  The authors wrote about how Catholics in the Middle Ages confused the concept of penance with the Greek word for repenting. Except we didn’t. They wrote about how we created this in medieval times. Except we haven’t. The Orthodox churches also have the concept of the sacrament of penance, and some of them have been separated from us since the 5th century

The problem with the authors is they assumed that the distorted vision of Catholicism they received was true, and created a view of Catholicism which had nothing to do with us. They had cultural blinders that caused them to misread us. Catholics have never believed in indulgences being sold, let alone for the forgiveness of sins! When it comes to the Latin word Paenitentia, the meaning is: regret (for act); change of mind/attitude; repentance/contrition (William Whitaker, Dictionary of Latin Forms). Properly going through the sacrament of confession requires us to regret our actions, change our attitude, and intend to do right in the future. In other words, the same meaning as the Greek metanoia. There was no error of understanding on the part of Catholics. There was an error of understanding on the part of those on the outside looking in because they assumed they knew without investigating whether it was true.

I bring this up not to ridicule these Protestant authors, but to illustrate a point: We too can go wrong if we either assume others think like us, and focus on what we think it means, and we can go wrong if we get so distracted by the differences that we miss the point behind those differences.

Missing the Meaning

The further we are removed from the original meaning, the more likely we are to diverge from what was meant. These can be linguistic, cultural, historical, or many others. Once we include history, we add the difference of time to the difference of language and culture. What people experienced in AD 17, 517, 1017, 1517 and 2017 are widely different. Laws, government, customs and the like would change over time even in one region. Once we go to a different region in a different time where they used a different language, and there are many ways we can go wrong if we forget these differences exist. 

For example, when an English speaking critic reads a transcript of Pope Francis today, there is a difference of language requiring a translator and there is a difference of culture between a member of the clergy who lived in Latin America and a lay blogger living in the United States. If the critic does not take these differences into account, the odds are good that the critic will get things wrong. For example, when the Pope spoke of a large number of marriages possibly being invalid, and of some couples living together being closer to the true meaning of marriage than some married couples, people went berserk. They assumed he was talking about 21st century American marriages and justifying cohabitation. He was not. He was talking about vicious customs in South America where people sometimes face insurmountable difficulties getting married while others treat the sacrament of matrimony as merely part of the celebration.

In other words, people assumed his words against vicious customs which they never witnessed were about marriage in the United States—which has its own set of problems. They forgot about these differences and thought that what he said must be directed at them. They missed the meaning because they were blind to differences facing Catholics in different parts of the world.

We can learn, despite these differences. But we need to learn the intended meaning, and not assume the people of different times, cultures, and languages think like 21st century Americans. Otherwise we risk attacking the Church because we think the Church is “attacking” moral values when she is in fact responding to cultural problems. For example, the radical feminist who sees “patriarchy” everywhere or the radical traditionalist who sees “modernism” everywhere because they assume that their interpretations are the norm, refusing to consider the possibility of their own error.

Missing the Point

On the other hand, we can go wrong by being distracted by differences of cultures. Sometimes these differences involve the existence of things we today know are morally wrong. We’re offended by the fact that a saint from another century speaks about them as if they were normal, and miss the point he was trying to make. 

For example, in reading some of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies, I’ve come across the reference, in one of his homilies, to the slave market. At this time, the Roman Empire was about a thousand years old and had slaves for the entire time. This can be quite jarring. Because of our experience with the ugliness of  slavery, segregation, and racism in the United States, we are rightly appalled at the evils. So, the fact that a Saint talks about slavery in a matter of fact manner can be shocking. But if we stop at the differences, without understanding them, we miss some real insights.

St. John Chrystostom makes reference to Our Lord being a noble at a slave market asking us (the slave) if we will choose to serve Him. In the 21st century, our egalitarian views balk at this image of Our Lord buying slaves. But in doing so, we risk missing the point that would have been clear to 4th century Greeks. St. John Chrysostom was invoking an image the people of Constantinople could understand with the differences of social rank

That Our Lord, in the role of the noble, offers to purchase (redeem) us from the slave market of sin and asks if we are willing to serve Him showed a difference between God and man that our egalitarian views might misunderstand. Recognizing an image of Jesus as a Noble Lord, us as the lowly slave, and the purchase price being His own blood, we can see an image showing how great God’s love for us is when He is so far above us and is willing to pay so great a price for us if only we will serve Him—a choice that is not forced on us.

If we stopped at the level of being offended with the existence and mention of slavery, we’d entirely miss the point of the homily on what Jesus has done for us in relation to what He asks of us.

Yes, sometimes saints in one era say things in a way that seem cringeworthy or excessively harsh in our time. That doesn’t mean the saint was in error or promoting evil. We have to understand the context and meaning if we are to profit from it, rather than be members of the Church of Perpetual Indignation. Otherwise, we risk accusing the Church (falsely) of supporting evils she does not.

Conclusion

The point of both examples is this: If we stop at what we think is meant and don’t actually investigate what the person we were offended with actually intended, then we do wrong. We judge rashly. We accuse them of supporting things they do not. Whether it is accusing the Pope of contradicting Church teaching or accusing a reformation era saint of holding to a heresy, the fault of rash judgment is with us if we do not investigate what the person we think offensive actually means. If we’re scandalized by a Bible verse, a Church teaching, a saint, or a pope, we need to recognize that the Church was not cruising on autopilot, rubber-stamping error when she confirmed the canon, made a teaching or named a saint. 

If we feel like something the Church has affirmed is error, that’s a warning sign that we need to reassess our own interpretation and see what we missed when viewed in context.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Reflections on Regaining a Proper Sense of Ecclesiology

In opposition to the teaching of the Church, I see multiple factions. While these factions oppose each other on what is right, they are united in one way—the belief that the Church has taught error in maintaining a doctrine or changing a discipline while they are in the right. Some think the Church has erred on her teaching on contraception or homosexual acts. Others think she has erred on making changes to the Mass. But these groups don’t consider the possibility that they have gone wrong. They think everybody else has erred, even going so far as to imply that the Pope is a heretic. To such factions, the Church will remain in the wrong until she changes to suit their preferences.

This has never been the way of the saints. Yes, some saints were reformers and, yes, the Church has needed reform. But these saints all respected the binding authority of the Church to teach and to command obedience. That’s something we lost. For a time it was easy to attribute this disobedience to one faction—the rebellion against the authority of the Church involved matters of sexual morality. Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI were attacked as if their affirmation of Church teaching was the invention of petty rules which went against God’s love.

But it wasn’t the only rebellion. While it wasn’t as widely noted, other Catholics opposed Catholic social teaching. They called this a political platform disguised as a Church teaching, or merely an opinion of the Pope. Still others alleged that the Church outright erred in changing disciplines, confusing them with doctrines. Whether political left or right; whether traditionalist or modernist these groups broke with the faith—knowingly or not—that God protects His Church. By breaking with this belief, some Catholics turned things on their heads. Instead of the Church being both mother and teacher, she was now seen as needing guidance. The general assumption was, “If the Church wasn’t in error, she wouldn’t be doing these things.”

To set things aright, we need to go back to the idea that God protects His Church under the headship of the present Pope and the bishops in communion with him. That doesn’t mean we can’t have bad popes or heretical bishops [†]. It means that God prevents the Church from teaching error when we are bound to obey…and we are indeed bound to obey when the magisterium teaches.

Scripturally, we follow a chain of reasoning. We can begin with John 14:15 and Matthew 7:21-23. If we profess to love God, we must keep His commandments. From there, Matthew 16:18 shows us that Our Lord intends to establish a Church with Peter as the rock He builds on. Matthew 16:19, 18:18, and John 20:22-23 show that Our Lord gave this Church His authority to bind and loose. Matthew 28:19 shows that the Church mission is to baptize and to teach them His ways. Matthew 28:20 shows that He will be with His Church always. This mission and authority will not end before the end of the age (i.e., the end of the world). Once we recognize this, Luke 10:16 and Matthew 18:17 show us that obeying His Church is mandatory and disobedience is fatal. To reject the Church teaching is to reject Christ.

Theology justifying dissent comes from the fact that human beings are sinners, and the Pope and bishops are human beings. Therefore the Pope and bishops are sinners. This is true, and we’ve had some sad examples of that through history. But the personal behavior of men who are Popes and bishops do not change the protection God gives His Church. So morally bad Popes like Benedict IX or John XII, theologically bad Popes as some claim for Liberius and Honorius I, and confused Popes like John XXII, do not disprove this protection because these Popes did not teach error as truth binding on the faithful. Yes, some did wrong and some believed wrong. But God prevented them from teaching wrong.

John paul ii kisses koran

That doesn’t mean the Pope is inerrant in his personal behavior. There are times when Popes do regrettable things. St. John Paul II kissed a Quran, which led some to accuse him of religious indifferentism. Benedict XVI invoked the image of a “gay prostitute with AIDS” that led people to think he was giving permission to use condoms.  Then there was the embarrassing case of Assisi in 1986, where Buddhists set up an image on a tabernacle. These things did cause scandal—but what the Popes intended and what the critics/exploiters assumed were vastly different.

Nor does it mean we’re bound to obey a bishop who teaches contrary to the Church in communion with the Pope. Sadly, some bishops have taught error. But they had no authority to do so. In those cases, it was by turning to the Bishop of Rome and following his teaching that people stayed out of error. Church historians are divided over whether Popes Liberius and Honorius I held heresy privately. But these historians are unanimous in stating the Popes in question did not teach error publicly.

This is why it is false to claim that the past bad behavior or mistakes of Popes “proves” Popes can publicly teach heresy. St. Peter withdrew from eating with gentile Christians, and St. Paul rebuked him for it, but there was no teaching of error involved.

With this understanding, we see that Catholics who claim that the Church has been in error ever since X are actually undermining the authority of the parts of the Church they want to defend. If the Pope can teach error on Laudato Si, why not on Humanae Vitae—or vice versa? How can one appeal to Familiaris Consortio while rejecting Amoris Lætitia (again, or vice versa) when both teach with the same level of authority? If Blessed Paul VI erred in establishing the Missal of 1970, then how do we know St. Pius V didn’t err when he established the Missal of 1570?

In all of these cases, the Popes exercised their authority as the Vicar of Christ, binding or loosing as needed to help people follow the teachings Our Lord handed on to His Apostles and their successors. When they bound something, we were required to give assent. When they loosed something, we could not call them faithless to Our Lord. 

Our Lord’s words in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 require us to recognize His protection. If He did not protect the Church, then we would be in the situation where God would bind us to obey the Church in being disobedient to Him—which is absurd. But there is the choice. Either we accept that God will bind error and loose truth in Heaven if the Church does so, or we accept that God will guide those shepherds in the Church from teaching error. In the latter case, we trust the Church because we have faith in God.

I think we who profess to be faithful Catholics will have to show it by our lifestyle. If we want Catholics to be obedient to the Church on matters they find difficult, like sexual morality and social justice, then we have to be faithful in lesser matters. As Our Lord said:

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. 11 If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12 If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? (Luke 16:10–12).

Once we remember that Our Lord established the Church and gave her the authority to teach in His name, then obedience is a necessity for our own salvation and is also a witness to others. If we pick and choose when to obey and when to disobey, the witness we give is that one can pick and choose what to practice and what to reject. But when people follow that example, and are told to depart from Him (Matthew 7:23), we will have to face the judgment of the One who said in Luke 17:1-2, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur.  It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”

But we can’t contrast loving God with obeying the Church. Because Our Lord made clear that obeying Him means keeping His commandments, and keeping His commandments means hearing the Church.

This is the base of ecclesiology we need to remember.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Because Hell is Real: Reflections on Our Lord Establishing a Church

Last time I talked about God ultimately being in charge, so we could trust Him to protect the Church when things grew beyond our control. This time, I want to talk about the other side of that coin—the fact that God established a Church as the ordinary means of bringing His salvation to the world. Unlike Protestants and Orthodox, Catholics hold that Our Lord established His Church on the rock of St. Peter and his successors. We hold that God gave this Church under Peter, the Apostles, and their successors the authority to bind and loose. When the magisterium teaches, we are obligated to give assent—our full acceptance of that teaching.

Remember John 14:15. Loving Him is keeping His commandments. Remember Luke 10:16. Our Lord makes clear that rejecting His Church is rejecting Him. Remember Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18. What His Church binds/looses on Earth is bound/loosed in Heaven. Remember Matthew 18:17. Refusing to hear the Church is a very serious matter. Remember Matthew 7:21-23. If we do not keep His commandments, we will be barred from the Kingdom of Heaven.

I stress this because there is a temptation to separate Our Lord from Church teaching—a claim that Our Lord is merciful but the Church is focussed on “rules.” This temptation claims, “God doesn’t care about X.” It accuses the Church of Pharisaism. But what it tends to mean is, “The Church should not judge my sin.” Let’s be clear here. I’m not equating the Church with individuals who insist you do things according to their preferences, like vote for a certain candidate or you’re damned. I’m talking about the authority of the Pope, as well as the bishop and the priest who properly use their authority in communion with the Pope, to make known how we should live if we would be faithful to Christ, our Lord.

One cannot separate God from the Church, because the Church teaches with God’s authority. It is that simple. So if we dislike what the Church teaches on a subject, our issue is with God. Remember, if we accept the fact that God is in ultimate control, and that He has given the Church the authority to teach in His name, then we must accept what the Church teaches, trusting Him to protect His Church from error.

That doesn’t mean God retroactively turns falsehood into truth. It means God prevents the Church from teaching error. When the Church binds, saying a certain action is gravely sinful, then the person who knows this and freely chooses to do it, commits mortal sin. We do not appeal to God as if He were a higher court. Nor can we use the bad behavior of corrupt Churchmen or harsher methods of law enforcement in harsher times to justify disobedience. If we do, God will no doubt remind us of Matthew 23:2-3. Or as St. John Chrysostom commented on it, 

I mean, that lest any one should say, that because my teacher is bad, therefore am I become more remiss, He takes away even this pretext. So much at any rate did He establish their authority, although they were wicked men, as even after so heavy an accusation to say, “All whatsoever they command you to do, do.” For they speak not their own words, but God’s, what He appointed for laws by Moses.

 

John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 436.

When the Pope and bishops in communion with Him teach, they do not do so from their own authority, but God’s. If some members of the hierarchy behave unjustly, that does not absolve us from being faithful to the Church under the bishop of Rome. So, if we don’t like the fact that the Church teaches that abortion, contraception, divorce/remarriage, or homosexual acts are sinful, we have to remember that when we know the Church calls these things to be gravely sinful, yet we freely choose them, we sin against God, and don’t just “break a rule.”

But what about Pope Francis? But what about mercy? I answer, his stance is not contrary to the teaching about sin and Hell. His Year of Mercy presumes that we are sinners, and we are in need of forgiveness. But his Year of Mercy was not about dispensations permitting sin. They were about reminding us that now is the acceptable time of salvation, and making the Church available to bring God’s mercy to us. This meant if we would receive God’s mercy, we must repent. This isn’t a radical traditionalist screed. This is Our Lord, Himself telling us, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15).

Bishop Robert Barron points out the mistakes some make about the Holy Father:

A good deal of the confusion stems from a misinterpretation of Francis’s stress on mercy. In order to clear things up, a little theologizing is in order. It is not correct to say that God’s essential attribute is mercy. Rather, God’s essential attribute is love, since love is what obtains among the three divine persons from all eternity. Mercy is what love looks like when it turns toward the sinner. To say that mercy belongs to the very nature of God, therefore, would be to imply that sin exists within God himself, which is absurd.

Now this is important, for many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer mattered. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness. Or, to shift to one of the pope’s favorite metaphors, it is to be acutely conscious that one is wounded so severely that one requires not minor treatment but the emergency and radical attention provided in a hospital on the edge of a battlefield. Recall that when Francis was asked in a famous interview to describe himself, he responded, “a sinner.” Then he added, “who has been looked upon by the face of mercy.” That’s getting the relationship right. Remember as well that the teenage Jorge Mario Bergoglio came to a deep and life-changing relationship to Christ precisely through a particularly intense experience in the confessional. As many have indicated, Papa Francesco speaks of the devil more frequently than any of his predecessors of recent memory, and he doesn’t reduce the dark power to a vague abstraction or a harmless symbol. He understands Satan to be a real and very dangerous person.

Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 613-625). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.

Mercy is not about turning a blind eye to sin. Mercy is about sparing the person from the penalty justice demands. See, we deserve damnation for our sins. But God desires our salvation. So He sent His Son to save us. Yet, we can refuse to accept His mercy, and we do when we choose to do what God forbids. During our life on Earth, God gives us every chance to repent and accept His mercy. But if we refuse to do so, we will face His justice. When the Church teaches something is a grave sin, it’s not because she is obsessed with rules and power. it is because she is concerned for our souls, and wants to save us from the fires of Hell.

Remember that while Our Lord spoke of love and mercy, He also spoke of Hell:

13 "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. 14 How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

He’s the one who talked about casting sinners out into the darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). These are not contradictions or additions to Jesus’ message of love and mercy. They’re warnings about what happens if we reject His commandments. Neither God nor His Church are cruel or judgmental for warning about sin and Hell. They don’t make dire threats to cow us into submission. We’re warned about Hell because it is real and we can go there if we refuse to keep Our Lord’s commandments. 

What we need to remember about the difference between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) was not that the Tax Collector was a better person. It was the Tax Collector repented, while the Pharisee did not. But not all tax collectors repented—The publicani (tax collectors under contract) were recognized across the Roman Empire as a scourge because of their rapacious ways that bankrupted entire provinces to boost their profits. Likewise, not all Pharisees were unrepentant. Some became Christians, after all. 

The point is, God loves each one of us, and desires our salvation—but that call requires a response. If we demand the benefits, while refusing the call of Our Lord—Repent, and believe in the gospel—we show we do not love Him, regardless of how we profess it otherwise. Instead, we simply want cheap grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it:

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske et al., trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 44.

We should think of this when we’re inclined to accuse the Church of being in opposition to Christ. Our Lord established the Catholic Church to be His means of bringing His salvation to the whole world through the sacraments and teaching His way (cf. Matthew 28:19). It is true that as missionaries to the world, we must not be harsh. But as sinners in need of salvation, we must not demand that the Church change to suit us. If we do, we are spurning The Lord who desires to save us. If we spurn Him, and do not repent, we risk facing the reality of Hell.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ultimately, God is in Charge

As you may have noticed, I'm frustrated by all the sniping and accusations going on between Catholic factions. I find it demoralizing to orthodox Catholics and likely to lead others to think we don’t have anything better to offer them. I’ve written several articles on that theme. Of course, my blog has a small reach, and even if I had a larger one, words alone cannot persuade people to change. It’s a matter of grace. I have no say over who receives grace, nor who responds or rejects Him. This is the point when you see people going in the wrong way, beyond your control: one can either become bitter or one can turn to God and trust Him.

Blessed John Henry Newman described it well in his Grammar of Assent. In talking about the difference between the Catholic who remains faithful and the Catholic who breaks away from the faith:

The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church’s infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines “which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught,” whereas it really meant “whatever the Church then or at any future time should teach.”

 

John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates, & Co., 1870), 240.

Each person, whether a convert or someone baptized as an infant, must choose to trust the Church is infallible because of God, or else he will lose faith in the Church because they don’t believe God protects the Church. To believe God protects the Church means we must not only believe that God protected the Church from error up to this point, but we must also believe God will continue to protect His Church from teaching error, regardless of who the Pope may be, or what condition the world is in.

Yes, we’ll continue to see problems. Church history tells us of crises far worse than the current one. But we either trust Him to protect His Church built on the rock of Peter and his successors, or we will be building on sand, and our faith will collapse. I think, in the end, we need to follow the example of St. John XXIII as told by Monsignor Loris Capovilla, his private secretary. and related by Cardinal Dolan: Every day, about midnight, there St. John XXIII…

“…would kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. There he would rehearse his problems he had encountered that day: the bishop who came in to tell of his priests massacred and his nuns raped in the Congo; the world leader who came to tell him of his country’s plight in war and asking his help; the sick who came to be blessed; the refugees writing for help; the newest round of oppression behind the Iron Curtain. As Pope John would go over each problem, examining his conscience to see if he had responded to each with effective decisions and appropriate help, he would finally take a deep breath and say, “Well I did the best I could….It’s your Church, Lord. I’m going to bed. Good night.” (Dolan, Cardinal Timothy M. Priests for the Third Millennium.)

This isn’t indifference to problems in the Church. Nor is it abdication of responsibility. It is a recognition that we are limited and need to turn to God, entrusting the Church to Him instead of building up an ulcer worrying about what is beyond our control. Ultimately God is in charge. We can either be faithful and give assent to the teachings of the Church while trusting God when we’re troubled, or we can obsess about what we don’t like, gradually losing faith—first in the Church, and then in God who promised to protect her.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Prudential Judgment? Misunderstanding? Partisanship? Willful Rejection? A Reflection

20 You sit and speak against your brother, 

slandering your mother’s son. 

21 When you do these things should I be silent? 

Do you think that I am like you? 

I accuse you, I lay out the matter before your eyes. (Psalm 50:20–21).

Four Forms of Disagreement

When people disagree on Facebook or other social media, they seem to do so in one of four ways: 

  1. Prudential Judgment recognizes that two Catholics, who both strive follow Catholic teaching, might reach different conclusions on how to best carry out that teaching while living in the world. Provided that neither of these Catholics are seeking to evade Church teaching to justify what they want to do anyway, we have no right accusing one of error. There are different ways of engaging the world, including political approaches, after all. 
  2. A person can be mistaken but in good faith about what Church teaching involves. Such people need to be corrected of course, but they need to be corrected gently (Proverbs 15:1). People recognize when they are being treated unjustly, and resent it. In resenting it, they might turn away from the truth, thinking our bad behavior is a sign of our being in the wrong. That would be false, but many in the world do reason this way. 
  3. There is also the attitude of partisanship, where we treat a disagreement with our political views as if we were rejecting Church teaching on a subject. Under this attitude, a person who votes for X, or disagrees with voting for Y, is considered to be openly rejecting the Catholic faith. But in reality, this person is simply disagreeing with our political views, but not the Church teaching, and we are in the wrong for judging them. 
  4. Finally, we have a case a person rejects the Church teaching in favor of a political teaching, saying if the Church disagrees with them the Church is wrong. In this case, the person is doing wrong, for whatever reason. The Church does have the authority to speak out on matters of faith and morals, and this includes when a nation or a political movement goes wrong. For a person to reject Church teaching as “intruding into politics” would be to give to Caesar what is God’s (cf. Matthew 22:21). 
Or, in short, we can describe these situations as: Neither is wrong, the other is wrong but in good faith, we are wrong, our opponent is wrong.

Discerning Between These Forms to do the Right Thing

Unfortunately, combox warriors have a bad habit of assuming the first three things are actually the fourth. Disagreement must be rejection of Church teaching, because we can’t possibly be wrong. The problem is, this is the kind of judgment our Lord condemned in Matthew 7:1. We’re assuming that any disagreement with how we see the world is rejecting truth itself, and assuming that rejection is done willfully. But in only one of these four cases is this true. That means in three of these cases, we are judging rashly, and committing calumny if we accuse them.

To avoid these sins, we have an obligation to discern what they intend to say, and what the Church herself teaches on the subject. Discernment, in this case, does not mean our personal reading of these things, and judging others in light of our interpretation. It means we make sure we understand what troubles us, and make certain it ought to trouble us before taking action. Then we have to make certain our reaction is just and chartable. As St. Francis de Sales as says:

Although S. Paul calls the Galatians “foolish,” and withstood S. Peter “to the face,” is that any reason why we should sit in judgment on nations, censure and abuse our superiors? We are not so many S. Pauls! But bitter, sharp, hasty men not unfrequently give way to their own tempers and dislikes under the cloak of zeal, and are consumed of their own fire, falsely calling it from heaven. On one side an ambitious man would fain have us believe that he only seeks the mitre out of zeal for souls; on the other a harsh censor bids us accept his slanders and backbiting as the utterance of a zealous mind.

 

Francis de Sales, Of the Love of God, trans. H. L. Sidney Lear (London: Rivingtons, 1888), 351.

This is a reasonable warning. The fact that St. Paul could rebuke the Galatians or offer correction to St. Peter is not permission for us to behave rudely to those we think are doing wrong. More often than not there is a risk of responding in sinful anger, confusing it with virtue. So, we have three obligations:

  1. To make sure we understand the person who offends us
  2. To make sure we understand the teaching we think he/she goes against
  3. To make sure any response we make is compatible with Our Lord’s commandments to show love and mercy

If we fail in any of these obligations, we behave unjustly, quite possibly causing harm. If we’re wrong about what a person holds, or wrong about what the Church holds, or wrong about confusing our ideology with the Catholic obligations, we condemn the other unjustly. If we are right, but react without love or mercy, we have done wrong, and quite possibly driven a person away from accepting grace.

Conclusion

As always, it is not my intent to point fingers at any individual, nor to insinuate their guilt. Rather I hope to point out a dangerous attitude showing up in disputes between Catholics on how we should behave. Yes, we need to correct the sinner. But it seems that lately we are assuming guilt, rather than asking whether our assumptions are correct. Even when we are correct, there is a growing habit to behave in a vicious way. We need to stop falsely judging those who have not done wrong, and when we correct those who do wrong, we must correct in charity. Otherwise, people might be driven away from the Catholic faith because of our own behavior, not that of the person we disagree with.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

When Catholics Judge Each Other With Anti-Catholic Mindsets

A good analysis of what leads anti-Catholics to believe and repeat bizarre and false rumors about the Catholic Church described it as a combination of ignorance about what the Catholic Church actually teaches and did throughout history, and a willingness to believe the Catholic Church was capable and willing to do these terrible things. So long as they have these two traits, they are willing to spread the most vile falsehoods about us.

Unfortunately, that mindset seems present among many Catholics infighting today. It’s not limited to one faction, but it seems to affect Catholics across the spectrum. The mindset leads them to view other Catholics who seek to follow the faith as openly supporting evil because they are ignorant about what Catholics they dislike hold, and believe them capable of supporting terrible things.

So we see radical traditionalists willing to believe the Pope supports heresy when he calls for mercy. We see “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics willing to believe that Catholics who insist on the moral teachings of the Church are merciless. We see anti-Trump Catholics willing to believe that Catholics who voted for him supports his actions that are at odds with the Catholic faith. We see Catholics who voted for Trump assume those who couldn’t vote for him in good conscience must support evils contrary to the teaching of the Church. I could go on with these dualistic examples, but that would get boring—and long.

The point is, in each of these cases, the Catholic infighting involves ignorance of what those they disagree with actually hold, and a belief those they disagree with are willing to support these things. Meanwhile the accused resents the accusation. In many cases they do not support the evils, but instead are either following a Church teaching but have a different view of how to apply it, or are mistaken about what the Church holds and do wrong while thinking it is right.

Yes, people can be in error about what the Church teaches, and need to be corrected. Yes, some Catholics might unfortunately support things contrary to the Catholic faith, and need to be corrected. But if the person who decides to correct does so with the assumption that those who disagree with our prudential judgment or are in error do so out of malice will not bring them out of error. It won’t evangelize them, but we’ll probably lead them to think we’re the one in error

And if they’re not supporting an evil, our accusing them of doing so is rash judgment, or maybe even calumny.

So we have an obligation. We have to understand what they actually hold, to make sure they need correction before we act. If they do, we have to do so in charity and mercy, not harshness. But if they don’t, then we’re just being factional and judgmental, and we will have to answer for that and the harm it caused in the final judgment.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Knowledge and Understanding

[H]e would answer: ‘My good friend, he who would be a harmonist must certainly know this [i.e. how to pitch the highest and lowest note], and yet he may understand nothing of harmony if he has not got beyond your stage of knowledge, for you only know the preliminaries of harmony and not harmony itself.’

 

Plato, Phaedrus. The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, Third Edition, vol. 1 (New York; London: Macmillan and Co., 1892), 477.

A common problem for our times is thinking that because we have some knowledge on a subject, we are qualified to pass judgment on that subject and those who have authority on that subject. The problem is, this is false. A little knowledge of First Aid does not make one qualified to serve as a surgeon. A little knowledge on changing an oil filter does not make one qualified to serve as an auto mechanic. Likewise a little knowledge in theology does not make one qualified to be a theologian. Yes, the surgeon needs that knowledge of First Aid. The mechanic needs that knowledge of changing the oil filter, and the theologian needs that basic knowledge found in the Baltimore Catechism. But, to be qualified in their field, the surgeon, the auto mechanic, and the theologian need to know much more than that.

As the dissenting Catholics (whether radical traditionalist or “Spirit of Vatican II”) grow more defiant against the Church teachings they dislike, we see more clearly their deficient knowledge that leads them to false conclusions. Compassion for the sinner was also taught before Vatican II, while moral obligations were also taught after. Yet the dissenter insists that the Church was/is defective for not teaching those things. But their criticism is based on gaps in their knowledge, while assuming they know enough.

The Saints, the Popes, the Councils, the Theologians have written a great deal on our Catholic faith over the almost 2000 years our Church has existed. One individual Catholic cannot hope to read it all. So, it is not surprising that a Catholic will discover something unfamiliar to them. It may even seem excessive or deficient based on their own experience [†]. But we have to recognize that what seems strange or false to us might actually be due to deficiencies in our knowledge. This is why it is dangerous to quote mine Scripture or Church documents in order to declare something the critic dislikes as being contrary to God’s will or Church teaching. Certainly individuals in the Church can and do go against these things, but it does not follow from the fact that sin exists in the Church that those with the authority to teach are teaching error.

I would say this error revolves around making the wrong choice on how to look at things:

  1. What could the Church mean by this?
  2. What else could the Church mean but this?
The first choice says, “I don’t know what the Church, Pope, Bishop, Council is saying here.” The second is refusing to consider any possible interpretation than the one the critic has drawn. The problem is, if that interpretation is wrong, the conclusion will be as well. Before we conclude that something taught by an authoritative source in the Church is in error, we have to make sure we properly interpret what the person says, and properly understand what the Church teaches on the subject. If we focus on only the absolute teaching while ignoring the circumstances that may reduce culpability, or if we only focus on circumstances without the absolute teaching, we will miss the point that leads the Church to apply teaching one way in one circumstance, and a different way in a different circumstance—without denying either the moral obligations or the personal culpability.
 
So, when the Pope talks about the divorced and remarried, calling for bishops to investigate the culpability of individuals, he is not denying the Church teaching that divorce and remarriage is wrong. He’s talking about assessing where this specific individual stands in terms of culpability, using that assessment to help that individual reconcile with the Church. The critic who thinks that this means ignoring past teaching is overlooking the long held teaching of the Church on the necessary conditions for mortal sin—grave matter, knowledge, and consent. Grave matter is usually straightforward. Determining what the person knew and whether they consented to what they properly understood to be evil is more difficult. If a person got themselves into a grave sin through deficient knowledge or consent, they may have difficulty extracting themselves from their sin. That’s what the confessor needs to evaluate. Is the person trapped in a sin where they did not realize the gravity of their act when they first began?
 
If they did not, then they may not be guilty of a mortal sin, even though they are committing a grave sin. That’s a nuance of Catholic moral theology for confessors to determine culpability. It’s not something Pope Francis or Vatican II invented, and it’s not something that lets sinners go on sinning with permission. It’s something aimed at helping such people escape their sin at a pace they can endure. Can it be abused? Yes, but that can be said about any Church teaching that deals with individual cases. An individual priest, for example, might be too lenient out of pity or too rigid out of legalism. Or a member of the laity might resent being told they are at odds with the Church. But this hypothetical priest does not make Church teaching and practice wrong. Nor does the perceptions of the individual member of the laity mean that the properly applied teaching is unjust.
 
The point is, before we accuse the Pope, bishop, or Council of teaching error, we need to make sure we understand what they actually said and the intention in saying it. We also need to make sure we understand the Church teaching we contrast it with. Because if we are mistaken about either (or both), our accusations would be unjust. I think this is one of the major problems leading to our growing disobedience from those who claim to be “true Catholics” or “true Christians” while being in opposition to the Church.
 

_________________________

[†] Examples might include St. Louis de Montfort, whose writings on the Blessed Virgin Mary can seem to go too far for some, or some medieval teachings on keeping order in society might seem to be deficient in mercy. In both cases, we need to know the context.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

To Know, Love, and Serve God

The infighting in the Church tends to overlook something important. Some stress doctrine. Some stress mercy. People from both tend to stress it as if any acknowledgment of the other side means denying what they think is most important. As a result, some hold to the idea that doctrine must be defended to the extent that comes across like the Pharisees in John 8:1-11. Others stress mercy and love to the extent that they come across like treating God’s teaching as a mere guideline, or even acting as if teachings they dislike were manmade and in opposition to God. Both positions miss the point. The fact is, God has created both the moral law and the call to love and mercy. To focus only on one is failing to obey God.  

Since God designed the universe according to His goodness, how we live will either be in accord with His will or against His will. Since God commanded us to live in accord with His will (John 14:15, Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 10:16), we cannot disobey His commandments and claim we are being faithful to Our Lord. On the other hand, since Our Lord commanded mercy, love, and forgiveness, we cannot treat those who are sinners as if they deserve contempt until such a time that they return to our standard of righteousness.

The term “Pharisee” is unfortunately associated with one type of believer—the religious conservative who focusses on minutiae while ignoring the bigger picture. That’s unfortunate because it leads people to think, “As long as I am not a religious conservative, i cannot be a Pharisee.” That would be a mistake. Our Lord denounced the Pharisees because they put their manmade interpretation of how to be holy above God’s commands, often evading God’s commands. This can be done in all sorts of ways. The obvious example is the Catholic who focuses on one type of the Mass and thinks it makes him holy, even though he ignores other commands. But it is also possible to focus on social justice teachings and the failings of others while ignoring one’s own failings. When we begin thinking that as long as we are not as bad as them we are right in the eyes of God, we are playing the Pharisee—regardless of whether we are a radical traditionalist, Spirit of Vatican II Catholic or somewhere in between.

Unfortunately, it is easy to focus on the sins of others, rather than to seek out knowledge on how we should love and serve God according to His will. The word “His” is important here. It’s easy for everyone to decide for themselves that God wants what we want, and thus sanctify our actions as either good or “something God doesn’t care about.” That’s an attitude of “If I were God I’d be ok with….” But we’re not God. So we can’t argue that what we don’t care about is something God doesn’t care about.

The thing I think people miss is that both obedience and mercy are important. Our Lord wants us to keep His commandments (John 14;15, Matthew 7:21-23) and teach them to others (Matthew 28:19). So the “God doesn’t really care about X” Catholics are wrong to downplay the moral teachings of the Church. But, on the other hand, God also told us to treat the sinner with love and mercy—to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-35) and that we will be judged as we judge others (Matthew 7:2). In other words, we are forbidden a merciless approach to those who do wrong. These are not contradictions. Our Lord stressed love and mercy, but He also was the one who warned us of Hell, stressing the need for repentance (Matthew 4:17).

The danger is we are tempted to think, our own sins don’t matter but those of people we despise matter a great deal. So, one Catholic condemns other Catholics who voted for a pro-abortion Catholic, but treats their own neglect of Catholic social teaching as trivial or not even a sin at all. Another Catholic condemns racism and ignoring social justice but treats sins against sexual morality as trivial or not even a sin at all. Both praise themselves and denounce the other, but both are failing to do God’s will and both will be judged if they fail to repent when they do wrong. There is no, “I do good with X, so God will overlook Y.

All of us must remember that the Christian life isn’t a choice between moral teaching and mercy. Rather we are called to constantly evaluate where we stand in relationship with God, showing love and mercy to bring people back to a right relationship with Him, instead of leading them to despair or rebellion.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Deus Vult Illud? On Selective Obedience

More: Roper, the answer’s ‘no’. (Firmly.) And will be ‘no’ so long as you’re a heretic.

Roper: (firing) That’s a word I don’t like, Sir Thomas!

More: It’s not a likeable word. (Coming to life.) It’s not a likeable thing!

Bolt, Robert (2013-12-04). A Man For All Seasons (Modern Classics) (Kindle Locations 568-570). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Introduction

I had a strange encounter on Twitter with racists who argued that their racism was in keeping with being Christian, and even Catholic. Their arguments involved a superficial understanding of Scripture and history. It misuses the meaning of the Hebrew חָרַם (hārām) to treat God’s sentence carried out on certain cities because of their abominable practices as if they justified racial separation and keeping undesirable races (like Middle Eastern refugees) out of their lands. These people seemed ignorant of the actions of the Church to reach out to people of all races and nations to bring them into the faith. Of course this behavior is disgusting. I really get angered when people misrepresent the Catholic faith to justify their odious views, ignoring what the Church says when it goes against them, and citing things out of context to make it seem like they are being faithful when actually they are seeking to sanctify their own preferences.

But then I thought about something. While racism is the obvious example of misusing Church teaching to justify evil, it is by no means the only example. Whenever we try to portray our own sinful activity as justified—either by misrepresenting Scripture or Church teaching, or by trying to set God against Church teaching—we are still doing the same thing. It’s just that we find our own behavior less odious than theirs. The problem is, they also think of their actions as if nothing was wrong with them. Here’s where we behave just as wrongly as the racists, even though our own sins are not as obviously repugnant as that of the White Separatists. 

Defining the Issue

At this point, I should make clear this is the other side of what I normally talk about. In some past articles, I have warned against accusing people of sins they have no intention of committing, on the basis of assuming that a disagreement on how to be faithful to the Church meant being unfaithful to the Church. In this case, I am talking about those who disagree with a Church teaching and try to portray their disobedience as being faithful to a higher authority. For example, anti-Francis Catholics try to appeal to earlier writings to argue they are being faithful to the Church and the Pope is not. Other Catholics who don’t like Church teaching on issues like contraception, abortion, homosexuality, or divorce/remarriage try to appeal to selective verses in the Bible, arguing that they must dissent from the Church to be faithful to Him.

Obedience and Authority

For a Catholic to take those positions shows ignorance of what we believe the Church is and what her relationship to God is, or refusal to accept that belief. Because we believe Jesus is God, we cannot try to divide Jesus from God in the Old Testament. God is God eternally, and God does not change, which means God is Trinity eternally. So God does not change His mind on what is good and what is evil. We need to recognize that God designed His laws for a purpose. We need to understand the differences between the moral law, dietary law, and cultic law. We also need to understand the concept of Divine Accommodation: God choosing one group of people (the Israelites) gradually moving them away from the barbarism of their neighbors towards holiness in preparation of the salvation of the world through God the Son, Jesus Christ.

We also need to realize that what we know of Hell was taught by Jesus. Yes, God does desire all men to be saved. But He also created man with free will, and with that free will, man could choose to reject God and choose evil. Jesus constantly warned His disciples that it was not just agreeing with God, but doing His will, that was required of us. Jesus’ death and resurrection was what made our salvation possible. However, Catholics also believe Jesus established His Church under Peter and his successors. We believe Jesus gave that Church the authority to bind and loose. We believe that rejecting His Church is rejecting Him (Luke 10:16). We believe that Jesus is with His Church always (Matthew 28:20). 

This means we can’t set Jesus against His Church, or the earlier magisterium against the magisterium today. We believe that God protects His Church from teaching error. When she teaches X is wrong, it is because X is wrong. However, some confuse the teaching of the Church with the behavior of the individual members in the Church, or confuse teachings and disciplines of the Church with the governance of the Papal States. It does no good to point to a tenth century Pope behaving badly when the issue is what the Pope teaches as binding on the faithful. We don’t believe that whatever the Pope happens to do is sanctified simply because the Pope did it. However, when the Pope condemns something as being contrary to the faith, we do need to give assent.

Disobedience and Dissent

Once we grasp that (and if we don’t grasp that, we will make all sorts of errors), we need to realize that when we reject what God teaches, or what the Church teaches with God’s authority, we are rejecting God. That is sin. The Church can decide in different times what is needed to defend the faith. She can speak strictly or gently as needed. When she decides on one way for approaching sinners in a certain era, she is not blocked from taking the opposite tack later if it is needed. We can’t decide for ourselves what the Church should do. We can’t decide for ourselves how important or unimportant a sin is. 

So, if we choose to selectively cite Scripture or Church teaching to justify our disobedience, we are still rejecting the Church, and as Our Lord said, that means we are rejecting Him. While some humans may be deceived by this dishonest application, God is not deceived. The worse behavior of some does not mean our own dissent is ok in God’s eyes. We will still have to answer for our own actions, regardless of how much worse others act.

This is true regardless of whether one is a racist, an abortionist, a radical traditionalist, or a “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholic.