Friday, September 22, 2017

In This I Remain Convinced: A Reflection at the Tenth Anniversary of this Blog

It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this blog for ten years now at this point. When I started it on Xanga, I figured I’d dabble and let it fade away. But every time I was ready to hang it up for good, something came up that led to a post. During the past ten years, the attacks on the Church came and went. The militant atheists, the virulent anti-Catholics, the government, the liberals and conservatives, radical traditionalists and modernists, all had their turn. I’ve even seen some of my views change (For example, to my shame, in 2007, and up until Benedict XVI visited America, I was contemptuous of the bishops). 

But despite the change in attackers, and the changes to this country, one thing has not changed. That is the Catholic Church herself. The Church I defended in 2007 is the same Church I defend in 2017. Yes, Popes, bishops, priests, and theologians leave and are replaced. But the Church has not changed her teachings. The accusations made about Pope Francis were made about his predecessors. There have been moments where the men running the Church have done something I didn’t like at times, but none of those actions were a change of teaching.

I remain convinced that Jesus Christ Himself established the Catholic Church, giving her His authority and protection. I believe this authority and protection has existed unbroken from the time of the Apostles to the present day. Even in the rare occasions when we had bad Popes (and i deny the current Pope is one), God protected them from teaching error.

I remain convinced that Our Lord will continue to keep this promise. That isn’t triumphalism or ultramontanism. I realize each Catholic has his or her task to perform in bringing about the Kingdom of God. But the Rock which Our Lord built His Church on will not collapse. We should remember that when we see things we dislike. I remain convinced that the most immediate danger to Catholics is the attempt to separate them from the Rock of Peter, rejecting the authority of the Pope and believing one can be a faithful Catholic in opposition to him.

I don’t know whether this blog will go on for another 30 years, or whether something will happen tomorrow that prevents me from writing another word. But I do know this blog will continue to defend the Catholic Church under the headship of the Pope and bishops in communion with him for as long as I am writing it. Not because of their personal talents, but because I believe in Our Lord’s promise. I pray I might never reach the state where I think I know better than the magisterium how to run the Church.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Same Church, Same Teaching, Same Authority

St. Gregory Nazianzen tells us (Oratio XLIII, #50) where an official of Emperor Valens ordered St. Basil the Great to comply with an unjust government decree, using threats. When St. Basil refused, vehemently, the exchange went like this:

50. Amazed at this language, the prefect said, “No one has ever yet spoken thus, and with such boldness, to Modestus.” “Why, perhaps,” said Basil, “you have not met with a Bishop, or in his defence of such interests he would have used precisely the same language. For we are modest in general, and submissive to every one, according to the precept of our law. We may not treat with haughtiness even any ordinary person, to say nothing of so great a potentate. But where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object. Fire and sword and wild beasts, and rakes which tear the flesh, we revel in, and fear them not. You may further insult and threaten us, and do whatever you will, to the full extent of your power. The Emperor himself may hear this—that neither by violence nor persuasion will you bring us to make common cause with impiety, not even though your threats become still more terrible.”

 

Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 411.

I think of this exchange in these recent times. Between 2009-2016, when the Obama administration instituted policies contrary to the Church, some Catholics accused the bishops (or even the Pope) of partisan politics when they spoke out, while others rightly pointed out they were exercising their office. Today, we’re seeing the same arguments, but some of the parties involved have changed sides. Those who once accused them of partisanship, champion their stance as long as they politically agree with it. Those who once defended the bishops now accuse them, because they politically disagree with them. In both cases, the rallying cry was the Church should “stay out of politics.”

But neither the teaching nor the authority has changed. The Church has the obligation to speak out against things in opposition to God’s commandments and the natural law. This obligation does not end at the doors of the Church. Nor does it end with the baptized. The fact is, long before the Europeans first encountered America, the Church was standing against the evil of the states, both telling the Christians not to cooperate with evil and telling the rulers they needed to repent. When it comes to rendering to Caesar and to God, the bishops have always spoken out when Caesar intrudes on God’s portion.

Those Catholics who sometimes say, “Hear the Church,” and sometimes, “Ignore the Church,” undermine any profession of faith they might make.  If the Church is right when we agree, and wrong when we disagree, the nominal Catholic or non-Catholic will be led to think that Church teaching is just another advocacy platform which can be changed as needed. But the Church is not an advocacy group with a political slant. She is the same Church which our Lord built on the Rock of Peter (Matthew 16:18). She has the same authority and responsibility that the Apostles had, and the same promise of protection. Yes, Catholics in a region—Bishops, Priests, Laity—might be swept away in error. But the Bishop of Rome and those who kept communion with him have never taught error. Some have lived less than saintly lives, but that does not disprove our Lord’s protection.

This is what makes the current hostility to the Pope and bishops so alarming. If what the critics claim is true, then we must face this reality: Either Jesus made a false promise (meaning He is not God) or the Church erred in how she interpreted that promise (meaning she not only can, but does teach error). In either case, we have no guarantee that even our preferred teachings are true.

But, if Jesus’ promise is true, and the Church does correctly interpret His promise, then we can safely give assent to what the Pope and bishops in communion with him teach, when carrying out their office. As Msgr. Ronald Knox pointed out,

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).

It is not the holiness of the man holding the office which makes the teaching true. It is the authority and protection given by Our Lord. But since it is the authority and protection of Our Lord, then to fight the bishops is to fight God (see Acts 9:4-5). So, to appeal to early Church teaching against later, or to appeal to Jesus against the Church rejects God (Luke 10:16). The person who “compares” the words of the Pope to the words of Christ, or the words of the Pope to the writings of past centuries, confuses their interpretation with what the Church understands it to mean. Remember, while we are called to use our reason in being faithful, we are also to give assent to teaching the Church gives (see Code of Canon Law 752-754).

Are there times when the Pope and bishops don’t teach? Of course. A Papal press conference or interview, or privately written book (for example, the Jesus of Nazareth books of Benedict XVI). But when the Pope or bishop intends to teach using the ordinary magisterium, we are required to give assent. So, whether the Pope and bishops speak out on sexual morality, or whether they speak out on social justice, they are not offering an opinion on Obama or Trump. They are reminding us on what our obligations are before God. Whatever our politics, we cannot act in a way that they say is wrong.

With this in mind, when we face a conflict and are tempted to reject what the Pope and bishops say, we must consider the possibility that we have misinterpreted the Church teaching, what the Pope said, or (very often) both.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Partisan Rebellion

can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.


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

The US Bishops (rightly, in my opinion) took a stand against Trump’s decision to end DACA. In response, one faction of Catholics took a stand against the US bishops. They angrily condemned the bishops for “meddling in politics,” for “picking and choosing what laws to follow,” “for only caring about collections and numbers of people in the pews,” and for “being pro-Democrat.” Ironically, a different faction of Catholics (opposed by the first) made the same arguments when the US bishops opposed Obama’s actions on abortion, the contraception mandate, same sex “marriage,” and (though people forget it), immigration.

In both cases, what we have are Catholics who let their political views influence how they view the Catholic faith—which is a perversion of how it should be. When they do not like what the bishops say, they accuse the bishops of being partisan. It never occurs to these critics that the bishops are taking a stand because Catholic teaching requires it.

The fact is, no political faction is identical with Catholic teaching. Each faction gets something wrong, either in intention or in act. So we must hear the Church and let her teaching shape our political views. Unfortunately, regardless of faction, many Catholics seem willing to put the views of their preferred politicians over the teaching of the successors to the apostles. The bishops’ words are rejected as ignorant opinions, while the politician’s words are accepted as truth. 

The problem is, factional politics tend to create endless varieties of cafeteria Catholicism. Both conservative and liberal Catholics face the temptation to focus on issues they already agree with while downplaying or ignoring what they dislike. When the Church emphasizes what they dislike, it is often portrayed as a partisan betrayal of faith for politics. But it seems to me this is a reversal of the truth: The partisan Catholic is being deceived into thinking their partisan views are true Catholicism.

Like it or not, Catholic teaching focusses on both the moral behavior and the care for people in need. Neither is waived because of our own preferences or our fears that the teaching we prefer might be “undermined.” Yes, there can be a legitimate difference of opinion on how to best follow Catholic teaching. But we can never accept an “opinion” that sets aside Church teaching (cf. Mark 7:11). So, for example, Catholics can disagree on the best way to defend the right to life, but never downplay the right to life. Catholics can disagree on how to best handle illegal immigration, but not to undermine the teaching on how human beings are to be treated regardless of status.

I believe we need to evaluate our anger when the Church takes a position contrary to our politics. We may tell ourselves that we think the Pope or bishop is “betraying” the Church for a partisan reason, but we have to ask whether we’re the ones betraying the Church for a partisan reason. I also believe we need to consider whether our rejection of a bishop when he says something we dislike is a scandal that leads others to sin (Matthew 18:6-7). If we choose to reject a bishop on one topic, we have very little to say when another chooses to reject a bishop on something we think is vitally important.

It is important that we study what the Church teaches on a subject to make sure we have not gone wrong. But we also must recognize that the Church, not us, is the final decision maker on how these teachings are properly understood. For example, I know of some Catholics who claim that it is more “pro-life” to vote for a pro-abortion candidate because their policies will reduce the need for abortions. That interpretation was rejected by St. John Paul II, when he wrote:

[38] The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

 

John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

Likewise when it comes to issues we find “hitting too close to home,” we need to make sure that we are not undermining Church teaching by interpreting it in a way that allows us to do as we please when the magisterium says we may not do as we please.

As a final point, it is not for me to judge the conscience of any individual of course—that is a task for the individual’s confessor, and far exceeds the competence of a layman. But I can point out that it is dangerous to use our political views to judge the shepherds of the Church. Before we claim that we can reject their “opinions,” we need to make sure they are in fact opinions, and not a legitimate application of the teaching authority of the Church.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Lack of Reflection

ReturnOfDracula6Like the vampire in a mirror, there is a serious lack of reflection today on what one says…

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen an escalation of attacks on the teachings of the Church by people who think they are defending the Church. I’ve seen a homily accusing the Pope of teaching error and insisting we must be faithful to the Church over the Pope, talking about Matthew 16:18-19, of all things. I’ve seen a Catholic blame the Church for “abandoning” the term “Catholic Christian” in favor of “Catholic.” I’ve seen the ongoing fight between Catholics who claim to be Pro-Life and those who claim to be “really” Pro-life. I’ve seen the usual assortment of attacks on Pope Francis, Vatican II, the Ordinary Form of the Mass, and the ongoing attacks on Church teaching on homosexuality as “needing to change.” These varied arguments seem to have one thing in common: While the attacker seems to have reflected on the fact their action before carrying it out, they do not seem to reflect on the ramifications of what they say. 

First, let me exclude something from the scope of this article. I am not talking about sufficient reflection as one of the requirements of mortal sin. I leave it to the individual’s confessor to decide whether the individual sin mortally or not. The lack of reflection I mean involves a failure to think about the damage one causes, and what truth of the Church they undermine. While such people think they are serving the good, they are actually causing harm.

In all of these cases, there are two major errors: A lack of reflection on what the Church teaching is, and a lack of reflection on the position attacked. While error and injustice exists and must be opposed, some people see error and injustice where there is none. When it comes to the Church, people tend to either dogmatize customs, or they tend to downplay actual teaching authority. When it comes to opposing others, attacks revolve around thinking that disagreement with their own position is endorsement of evil. In both cases, the person does not reflect on whether he is mistaken about his understanding. In fact, regardless of his political views, he assumes he must be right.

If one is mistaken about Church teaching, then they can see an evil where there is none, or they can think something is harmless when it is harmful. On the other hand, if one is mistaken about what another person holds, the individual might falsely accuse the other, when he is innocent of the charge. It is only when one is right about both that one can begin to investigate. So, for example, the Catholic who misuses Pope Francis’ “Who am I to Judge?” comment as supporting homosexuality is wrong regardless of whether he praises or condemns the Pope. The Pope did not support homosexuality. The same applies to the claims that the Pope supports the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried. He does not. He supports having confessors investigate whether all the conditions for mortal sin are present in the individual.

Likewise the bloggers brawling about what it means to be truly pro-life. I find that both sides each think the other side is neglecting Church teaching. But when all is said and done, both sides are confusing their political preferences with Church teaching, and that confusion leads them to think that a rejection of their politics is ignoring Church teaching. The same with the Catholic who thinks Church teachings are founded in bigotry, instead of under the teaching of Our Lord. If Same sex “marriage” goes against God’s will, then the person who opposes the Church is not opposing intolerance, but God Himself.

Don’t confuse this with moral relativism. I’m not saying, “What might be true for you isn’t true for me.” I’m saying, we need to make sure that our conception of what is right and wrong is in line with what the Church teaches—not in the sense of what we think it means, but what she actually means as applied by the Pope and bishops in communion with him. We’re not comparing Pope Francis with Pope Pius X. We’re not comparing Vatican II with Trent. We’re talking about people causing dissension on the basis of their own personal ideas of what Papal utterances or Ecumenical Councils should mean. But individuals don’t have the right to decide for themselves what they should mean. The living magisterium of the Church decides how to apply these teachings.

This is where we have the lack of reflection. People don’t ask if they went wrong somewhere. They assume that if something doesn’t sit well, it must be the other who is at fault. The problem is, every heresy we had in the Church, every schism, they arose from people who thought the Church or person they opposed could err, while they could not. Throughout history, bishops, priests, and laity have fallen away by deciding the Church had gone wrong—but never when they submitted to, and were in communion with, the Holy See. If we’re not careful, we may find that we, like them, have become what we hated and opposed the Church, while thinking we were doing the right thing. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Reflections on the Riot Aftermath

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:26–27).

One thing that shouldn’t have to be said (but apparently does) is that even if there had been no attempts to remove statues, provocations, rioting, or deaths, the white supremacists in Charlottesville would have to be condemned. If we want to call God, “Our Father,” we have to accept all the other people whom  God has called to be in that relationship with Him. That would be everyone, because God desires everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). He does not show partiality to some over others (Romans 2:11; Acts 10:34-35). We cannot treat others as less than human because of their ethnicity. Nor can we pretend that our Catholic faith is compatible with such racist views. 

In light of the recent riot, we need to be clear on this. But one thing that troubles me about social media in the aftermath of the Charlottesville riot is the fact that some are turning it into a proxy war for the arguments they were having before the riot. Some believe that those who hold different political views are guilty of supporting or enabling the racists. Others believe that the defense of their beliefs requires downplaying the actions of the racists. Both are wrong, and we should not let either group define the discussion for us.

Racism is morally indefensible. So is rioting, and people across the political spectrum need to condemn it without pointing to the actions of extremists on the “other side” as if they cancelled each other out. We can condemn evil on both sides without turning it into a false equivalency or a tu quoque argument along the lines of, “Yes, this was bad, but so was that…they’re all scum, what can we do about it?” We can focus on one evil without downplaying another. We can ask questions about the second evil without downplaying the first.

But people also need to realize that it is unjust to accuse people of differing political views of supporting racism. If one actually supports racism, that must be opposed. But opposition to racism is not the exclusive property of one political ideology, and we should reject the “guilt by association” fallacy. Offensive radical beliefs do attach themselves, like parasites, to the fringes of political factions. That does not mean that the majority of that political faction approves of the extremists.

We need to break out of the common either-or fallacy. It is false to think that either a person agrees with us or approves of everything we hold evil. It is also false to think that a moral objection to the words of the President is support for the Antifa, or that voicing concern about rhetoric is support for racism. Before we denounce someone of supporting evil, we must make sure they actually support that evil. Different people have different levels of skill in expressing themselves. People who are not skilled in expressing themselves might be unclear, but that lack of clarity does not mean an attempt to conceal support of evil.

As Catholics, we have an obligation to seek out what is true. We cannot simply assume that our personal interpretation is what is meant. Before tearing into another, we need to be sure that our interpretation of the words of that person is accurate. That has been lacking on social media. I have seen moral objections raised to badly expressed assertions—and then others savage these objections savaged as a support of evil. That is unjust.

This leads me to another point: As Catholics, our mission in part of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is to bring people to Christ. This includes the people we disagree with. But how will we bring people to Christ if we have hatred for them? We must show mercy to those in error. Imagine how things might have been if the missionary saints had treated the pagans in the same way that we treat those who disagree with us? Since we are called to bring the evil to repentance, we will answer for the stumbling blocks we put in the way of helping people find their way to God. That doesn’t mean acting so pusillanimous or wishy washy that that we are afraid to speak against evil. But it does mean that our opposing evil must be aimed at saving the evildoer from damnation, not at vanquishing them and sending them to hell.

Yes, there is a lot to be angry about over the White Supremacists and their views. There is a lot to be angry about the deaths and injuries. But as St. Paul said, if we are  to be angry, let it be without sin.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Refusing Obedience is Disobedience

Introduction

In my morning Bible reading, I’m at the point of 2 Chronicles where Asa and Ahab, in two separate incidents, consider the prophets’ speaking a warning from God as treason on the part of the prophet. While Ahab was an evil king, Asa, up to that point was considered a good king who walked with God. It’s a reminder that such behavior is not just from the godless. Despite how we have lived up to this point, we can still fall away from right relation with God if we put our own preferences first. It’s not just this one instance. The New Testament tells us of the Pharisees—Men who desired to live holy lives in the way they thought best—found themselves in opposition to God. Not because they chose to spurn God. Rather, they thought that Jesus had to be wrong because what He taught was in conflict to what they thought it meant to be faithful.

I think these examples should stand as a warning for us. The Old Testament Kings responded to prophets warning them about their wrongdoing by imprisoning the prophets. The Pharisees responded to Jesus warning them about their wrongdoing by plotting to have Him executed. In losing sight of the fact that we can go wrong, we risk being opposed to God while believing we are in the right.

The Danger for Catholics

This is not something limited to Biblical times. Nor is it limited to one faction within the Church. The danger exists when one of us decides that he doesn’t like how the Church handles something. It might be a dissent associated with “liberalism” like sexual moral teachings. It might be a dissent associated with “conservatism” like social justice teachings. In both cases, the person believes the Church has gone wrong, and will remain wrong until she agrees with them.

Blessed John Henry Newman saw the danger, and described it this way [†]:

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.

We believe the Church is infallible because we believe she was established by Our Lord, given authority by Our Lord, and protected from error by Our Lord. The individual Churchman or layman can be sinful and be led into error. So, when the Pope teaches, we must decide. Do we believe that God protects him from teaching error? Or do we merely happen to agree with the Church up to a certain point and then reject whatever seems different?
 
Unfortunately, the lack of certitude seems to be growing. People who assumed that their personal view of the Church was all the Church could be, grew angry when the Church affirmed something they viewed as a political view or error. But, when the Church teaches, we are obliged to recognize her authority as from God. Dr. Peter Kreeft points out:
 

A “cafeteria Catholic” or a half Catholic or a 95 percent Catholic is a contradiction in terms. If the Catholic Church does not have the divine authority and infallibility she claims, then she is not half right or 95 percent right, but the most arrogant and blasphemous of all churches, a false prophet claiming “thus says the Lord” for mere human opinions. It must be either / or, as with Christ himself: if Christ is not God, as he claims, then he is not 95 percent right or half right or merely one of many good human prophets or teachers, but the most arrogant and blasphemous false prophet who ever lived. Just as a mere man who claims to be God is not a fairly good man but a very bad man, a merely human church that claims divine authority and infallibility is not a fairly good church but a very bad church.

 

The only honest reason to be a Christian is because you believe Christ’s claim to be God incarnate. The only honest reason to be a Catholic is because you believe the Church’s claim to be the divinely authorized Body of this Christ.

 

Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 105.


If the Church was created by Our Lord and given the authority to teach with His authority, then we must obey the Church teaching if we would obey Him (John 14:15, Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17). If one rejects Humanae Vitae while accepting Laudato Si, or if one rejects Laudato Si while accepting Humanae Vitae, one is a cafeteria Catholic.
 
Refusing Obedience is Disobedience
 
But, instead of accepting the authority of the Church to teach, people prefer to attack. They might attack the entire Church as “being against God,” invoking “mercy” and saying the Church is “judgmental.” Or, they might accuse the Pope and bishops of being in error. In both examples, the assumption is whatever they dislike is error to be rejected. Such a view makes the individual the judge of the Church—changing the Church from Mother and Teacher to Child and Student who must be taught by us.
 
But under such a view, it makes no sense to be a Catholic because it rejects (overtly, or through failing to think things through) what the Church professes to be. As Dr. Kreeft pointed out, if the Church claims to be what she is not, then the anti-Catholics are right and the Church is a monstrosity. But if the Church is what she claims to be, then we must give assent when she teaches, not offer explanations as to why we can ignore a teaching we dislike.
 
Be aware that this is not the fault of one faction. During the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it was easier to see this disobedience among “liberal Catholics.” Under the pontificate of Pope Francis, the dissent of “conservative Catholics” is more obvious. But both kinds of dissent were present in both cases—it was just harder to notice the dissent of conservatives against Popes before 2013, while after 2013 liberal dissent against the Pope does not get reported.
 
The thing to remember is, while some sins are more deadly than others, the deadliest sin is the one which sends an individual to hell. For the person who has no intention to use the “right” to abortion available in our country, the sin of abortion is not likely to damn him. But another sin could very well condemn him to hell. This is especially true if we try to hide our dissent by pretending the Church must be wrong.
 
Conclusion
 
If we do this, we are doing the same thing to the Church that the Old Testament kings did with the prophets and the Pharisees did with Our Lord. Instead of considering and obeying the source of authority, we get angry and attack the Church for not saying what we want to hear, or saying what we don’t want to hear. We can pretend that our disobedience is really obedience to a higher source, but Our Lord does not permit this. He said that the one who rejects the Church rejects Him, and the One who sent Him (Luke 10:16). 
 
People can try to muddy the waters and try to argue that they can ignore the Pope when He doesn’t teach infallibly (ex cathedra), but that ignores the fact that the binding ex cathedra definition grows out of the binding teaching of the ordinary magisterium. Our Lord has commanded us to obey His Church. This means we trust Him to protect His Church from error. If we refuse to trust the Church and her visible head, the Pope, it means we refuse to trust the Head of the Church—Our Lord. No matter how we twist history to make a private error or band behavior of a medieval Pope justify disobedience of a Pope who does none of that, Our Lord’s command cannot be evaded. If we think otherwise, we will answer for it.
 
____________________
 
[†] The problem seems to fit “cradle Catholics” as well, and should not be seen as a “convert only” problem. Blessed John Henry Newman’s observation should not be seen as indicting all converts, or only converts.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Avoiding the Jonah Type Catholicism

Jonahs Anger

Most people, when you mention Jonah, think of the story of Jonah and the whale. That is indeed part of the story. But I don’t think it is the most important part of the story. I think the crucial part begins when the people of Nineveh repent and God decides not to destroy the city. Angered, Jonah has this interchange with God:

But this greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first toward Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment. So now, Lord, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord asked, “Are you right to be angry?” 

Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it, where he built himself a hut and waited under it in the shade, to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a gourd plant. And when it grew up over Jonah’s head, giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort, Jonah was greatly delighted with the plant. But the next morning at dawn God provided a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. And when the sun arose, God provided a scorching east wind; and the sun beat upon Jonah’s head till he became faint. Then he wished for death, saying, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry over the gourd plant?” Jonah answered, “I have a right to be angry—angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned over the gourd plant which cost you no effort and which you did not grow; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. 11 And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?” (Jonah 4:1–11).

Jonah was angry because God chose not to punish Nineveh, and also because God allowed the gourd plant to wither. He believed God wronged him in both cases. He was angry because God was merciful, and he was angry because God allowed him to experience discomfort. But Jonah should have been more concerned with the 120,000 people of Nineveh than the gourd plant. He should have realized that God sent him to urge repentance, not to taunt them before their inevitable doom.

I think there’s a similar type of error that Catholics are tempted to direct against the Church. When we strive to live faithfully, and see others do wrong, we want to be vindicated. We want the Pope to issue excommunications around every sinner. But when the Church shows mercy and outreach to these sinners, we’re tempted to act betrayed—as if the failure to punish is an error.

But the use of punishment, like the use of mercy, is a tool with the end of bringing people back to God. If punishment would cause obstinacy, then it might not be the best tool to use at this time. Or, if mercy would lead people to laxity, then it might not be the best tool either. But God gave this decision making power to the Pope and bishops. They have the authority to determine the best means for each case. To be angry at them for choosing what we think is the “wrong choice,” is to miss the point about the reason God established a Church in the first place: To make known and bring God’s salvation to the world.

So, when the Pope says to investigate individual cases of the divorced/remarried instead of assuming the worst intentions, that is the Church applying mercy as the best tool for the circumstance. When a bishop rules that people who openly reject Church teaching are to be denied a Christian burial, he is using sternness as the best tool for the circumstances. These two views are not in conflict.

If we demand that the Church should be all mercy or all sternness, we’re no longer carrying out the mission of the Church. Instead, we’re demanding that the Church follow our preferences. That’s not seeking what is right. That is seeking self-satisfaction.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Hudge and Gudge Report

G.K. Chesterton, in his book What’s Wrong With the World (Chapter IX), offers an account of two men—Hudge and Gudge—who desire to help the poverty stricken. Hudge sets out to build massive housing blocks that meet the physical shelter needs but are deeply oppressive. Gudge objects to the oppressive nature of these apartments and says they lack the character of the former homes. As time progresses, Hudge begins to defend the worst parts of the apartments as good, while Gudge begins to proclaim that people were better off living in the slums. Finally they reach the extremes where Hudge thinks all people should be living in these apartments and Gudge believes that poverty is good for people.

I find the account to be useful in examining the growing divisions and rigidity of factions. But, there is always the danger of thinking that “the other guy” behaves like Hudge and Gudge while we are defenders of truth and right. The problem is, Hudge and Gudge also think the problem is with “the other guy,” while they have the real solution. If we’re blind to our own rigidity, refusing to consider where we go wrong, we are in danger of corrupting our ideals.

This is especially true when Christianity intersects with determining moral state policies. Because the major political factions tend to be right on some issues and wrong on others, we tend to gravitate towards those factions that agree with what we think are the most important issues. But as factions get more extreme, it is easier to downplay the issues where the other party is right.

For example, I know some Catholics who are appalled with life issues besides abortion and euthanasia. They insist that all Catholics recognize these issues as important. But growing more rigid, they begin to downplay the actual issues of abortion and euthanasia. Some have gotten to the point of being more outraged at Catholics who are “anti-abortion but not pro-life” than by Catholics who are literally pro-abortion. But, on the other side of that fight, Catholics who recognize the evil of abortion and euthanasia fall into the trap of going from recognizing that those two issues are the worst evils to thinking other life issues are “not important.” Both of them are wrong when they go from promoting some issues they feel are neglected to neglecting the issues they think are less important. It becomes dangerous for the soul if it leads these people to think that others who oppose a moral evil are partisan.

It doesn’t have to be about morality vs. politics either. It can also be, for example, the cause of liturgical wars. The Ordinary vs. Extraordinary form of Mass is a common battleground where some Catholics have become so involved in defending their own position that they refuse to consider the good from the other position. The defender of the Extraordinary Form is tempted to treat the Ordinary Form of the Mass as “clown masses” and other liturgical abuses. The defender of the Ordinary Form is tempted to view the Extraordinary Form as the haven for schismatics.

We need to realize that both of our major political factions are a mixture of some good and some evil. We need to realize that both forms of the Mass have good to offer the Church, and some weaknesses that need to be overcome. If we solidify to the point where we think that good is only found in our faction, but not the other, we risk embracing the evil of our own faction and rejecting the good in the other:  once we reach that stage, we’re giving assent to—or at least tolerating—evil in our faction, and rejecting good when it comes from another faction. That is incompatible with God’s teaching, but we will have blinded ourselves to our disobedience. It saddens me, for example, when I see some Catholics say, “We’ll never eliminate abortion so we should focus on other issues,” or that “pro-abortion politicians support policies that reduce the need for abortion.” This is Hudge and Gudge thinking. But so is thinking that says that “so long as abortion is legal, we can’t worry about other issues.”

The only way to escape this is to get rid of our Hudge and Gudge thinking. We need to recognize that our factions must be judged by Church teaching, and not that Church teaching is judged by our factions. If we believe that the Church stance on abortion and “same sex marriage” is proof the bishops are “Republican,” we’ve fallen into the Hudge and Gudge trap. If we think the Church opposition to the government position on immigrants is “liberal,” we have fallen into the Hudge and Gudge trap. 

If we profess to be faithful Catholics, the Church must be our guide into right and wrong, because we believe that God gave the Church His authority and protects her from error. If we consider the Church teaching as the way to form our political judgments, we might be able to support the good in our preferred political factions while opposing the evil. We might also seek to reform the system rather than to just tolerate the least possible evil as the best we can hope for.

This means we must reject our partisan rigidity and be always open to the Church calling us to a firm standard of good and evil, while also being open to different ideas of carrying them out. We never compromise on doing what is right or being faithful to the Church. But we can consider whether our factional preferences are in the wrong. If they are, we must choose the Church over our preferences or factional beliefs. And if our factional opponents are not wrong, we must stop treating them as if they were.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thoughts on Interpretation: How We Go Wrong if we Confuse True and Perceived Meaning

HumptyThe Internet in a nutshell…

Introduction

One of the more disruptive things between Catholics on the internet is the argument over meaning. When a member of the Church speaks, people argue over meaning. Sometimes it is over whether a teaching really justifies sin. At other times, it is over whether the Pope emeritus really intended to condemn the Pope. Catholics who seek a desired meaning, regardless of faction, are likely to latch onto an interpretation that justifies what they have been fighting for. The problem is, unless they understand the words as intended by the speaker, such misinterpretations have no value. Consider the words of Dr. Peter Kreeft:

Socrates: I think you are confusing belief with interpretation.

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

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

Flatland: Why not?

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

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

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

Flatland: Of course not. That's misinterpretation.

Socrates: Even if it were my honest belief?

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

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

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

If we try to interpret the teachings of the Church through what we think they should be, we are doing it wrong. What we must do is interpret the words of Church teaching and the words of members of the Church as they are intended. Otherwise, we are only imposing our views on the Church, the Pope, the bishops, the saints, and so on. These misinterpretations appear in the form of several logical fallacies. These fallacies tend to be interlocked, so a critic of the Church might use several without realizing it.

1) Begging the Question [†]

The problem is, too many (wrongly) assume that they properly understand the meaning of a statement, and base their argument on that wrong assumption. What they don’t realize is that their assertion needs to be proven. By assuming their assumption is true, the “evidence” they gather for their position is not evidence at all. It’s merely part of the challenged assertion. As Aristotle points out,

[W]henever a man tries to prove what is not self-evident by means of itself, then he begs the original question. This may be done by assuming what is in question at once; it is also possible to make a transition to [40] other things which would naturally be proved through the [65a] thesis proposed, and demonstrate it through them, e.g. if A should be proved through B, and B through C, though it was natural that C should be proved through A: for it turns out that those who reason thus are proving A by means of itself. This is what those persons do who suppose [5] that they are constructing parallel straight lines: for they fail to see that they are assuming facts which it is impossible to demonstrate unless the parallels exist. So it turns out that those who reason thus merely say a particular thing is, if it is: in this way everything will be self-evident. But that is impossible. [Aristot., Pr. and Post. Anal. 64.2.35–65.1.9]

Aristotle, “ANALYTICA PRIORA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. A. J. Jenkinson, vol. 1 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1928).

It’s a good point. If I assume my belief is self-evident when it is not, then the things I claim are “proofs” will depend on others accepting my claim as self-evident. But when the claim is based on a misinterpretation, then these things are not proofs at all—merely further misinterpretation.
 
2) Ipse Dixit [§]
 
Ipse Dixit is another fallacy that goes around. It essentially is a bare assertion that something is so, but gives no evidence that it is so. The Catholic who alleges that a Church teaching is “opposed to Christ,” or the Catholic who claims that a statement by the current Pope contradicts the past statements of the Church is committing the ipse dixit fallacy. There is no proof to the statement. The person may be bluffing, or may be sincere. But merely asserting a thing is so is no proof. So, whether a dissenter argues that the Church is wrong in condemning homosexual acts, or whether the dissenter argues that the Pope is wrong in emphasizing mercy, there is no authority to their claims. They are merely asserting that whatever text they cite means what they say it means.
 
The fact of the matter is, the Church possesses the authority, given by Christ, to determine how to best interpret God’s teaching. A claim that the Church got teaching X wrong is based on an individual’s assertion. But the individual assertion has neither the authority nor the protection promised by Christ. Our task is to study what the Church teaches and understand it, so we might follow it and teach others to do the same. But we must do so in docility, recognizing that the Church can change disciplines for the good of souls. We must not become so attached to our personal reading that we assert it is doctrine in opposition to the Church.
 
3) Either-Or

We have a tendency to divide everything into two factions: Conservative vs. Liberal, Democrat vs. Republican, Capitalism vs. Socialism, Modernist vs. Traditionalist, and so on. Moreover, we view those factions in terms of Right vs. Wrong. Whoever is not in our faction is assumed to belong to the other faction and supporting all the evils belonging to the opposing faction. The problem is, in many cases, we have more than two sides. Moreover, while these factions are in opposition to each other, the fact that one is wrong does not make the other right. 
 
People are confusing contraries with contradictories. Positions that are contrary are positions where both cannot be right, but both can be wrong. For example, atheism and polytheism are contrary to each other on the existence of some form of divinity. But, if monotheism is true, both atheism and polytheism are wrong. Positions that are contradictory cannot both be right, but one is right and one is wrong. For example, it is either raining or not raining. It’s impossible for it to be both in the same place and the same time. One contradicts the other.
 
I think of this when I see critics of the Pope accuse his defenders of supporting divorce and remarriage or other positions contrary to what the Church teaches. Such accusers assume their position on what the Church teaching should be is true, and any disagreement shows that the other side supports error. But what they overlook is the possibility that the Pope’s defenders do not champion error at all, but instead reject the accusations as false (See how this ties in with Begging the Question and Ipse Dixit).
 
If the situation is different than the accuser claims, then the division into two factions is false. A person can say, “I reject both A and B.” A person can say, “I support some elements of both A and B.” A person can say, “I support C.” In all of these cases the either-or claim is false. So, before we can divide up people into preconceived notions of A vs. B, we have to make sure that only those two factions exist and that one of them must be true.
 
4) The Strawman

The Strawman fallacy misrepresents an argument and then treats the refutation of the misrepresentation as a refutation of the argument. But if the individual does not hold the position of the strawman, then he has not been refuted. This may happen, for example, if a person truly misunderstands the point, or it may happen if a person wants to discredit a position without going through the trouble of refuting it. (These are not the only two of course, as our discussion of either-or above pointed out).
 
There are a lot of crass misrepresentations out there. One popular one is to allege that Pope Francis endorses Cardinal Kasper’s claims on divorce and remarriage. But comparing Amoris Lætitia [¶] with Cardinal Kasper’s position shows that while the Pope approves of the concept of reaching out to the divorced/remarried to reconcile them with God and the Church, he did not accept the Cardinal’s position on emulating the Eastern Orthodox churches on the matter. So, to refute Cardinal Kasper’s opinion as not being compatible with Catholic teaching (I too reject the cardinal’s position) is not to refute Pope Francis on reaching out to these people.
 
Conclusion
 
These are not the only fallacies committed. But they are common and interlocked. They have a common flaw in assuming one has properly understood Church teaching and the position of those one disagrees with. But their interpretation is disputed, and if they have gotten one or both wrong, then their arguments are without value. We are required to make sure we understand both, in the light of the Church teaching (which the current Pope and bishops in communion with him have the authority to determine) and in what the person intended by his words. We cannot assume that what we think is meant is correct, and if that differs from what the Church says, that the Church is in error.
 
I’d recommend keeping the logical fallacies, listed above, in mind. Once you recognize them, the perceived legitimacy of the claims used to undermine the authority of the Church, the Pope, and the bishops in communion with him vanishes like smoke.
 
 
______________________
 
[†] Contemporary English misuses the term. Often people use the term “That begs the question of…” where they really mean “that brings up another question.” But the proper use of the term is assuming as true what needs to be proven true.
 
[§] Ipse Dixit (Latin for He himself said it) is simply an assertion with no proof given. 
 
[¶] I’ve read Amoris Lætitia five times to investigate all the accusations against it. I suspect that is five times more than the average anti-Francis critic on Facebook has read it.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

It's Time to Take Back the Faithful Catholic Label (and the means are different than one might think)

Introduction

On the internet, a battle rages over what image the Catholic Church should take. Some are all about changing Church teaching. Others are about preferring the older way to do things. But whether these factions are politically conservative or liberal; whether they are modernist or radical traditionalist, or some other faction, they assume they are the ones really being faithful to the Church, and that those who think the preferred faction are wrong are accused of not being faithful. The problem is, this decree is not a decision of the Pope and bishops issuing a teaching. This is the claim of factions that are in opposition to the Pope and bishops. In other words, the Catholics who claim they are really being faithful are the ones who are refusing to assent to the teachings they dislike, and claim that their disobedience is really some sort of higher obedience.

The problem with this claim is: Church history has never recognized the actions of such dissenters as being “truly faithful.” The saints who reformed the Church gave obedience to the successors of the apostles, even when the men who held the office did not personally behave in a manner worthy of it. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story of St. Francis of Assisi meeting Pope Innocent III. Disgusted with the saint’s appearance, he reportedly said to go and roll with the pigs. St. Francis obeyed, impressing the Pope with his obedience and humility. Our 21st century sensibilities rebel against this, but St. Francis, recognized as one of the saints that reformed a Church in danger of becoming worldly showed that one cannot claim to be a faithful Catholic while refusing obedience to the Pope.

There is a vast difference between the saints who showed obedience to the Church out of love of God and the dissenters who declare themselves superior to the shepherds in the Church, and we need to take back the label of “faithful Catholic” from these counterfeits.

The First Steps

You might think the first step is to denounce the dissenters. But that would actually be following into their error—putting confidence in their own holiness. We should consider well the words of St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on the Gospel of Matthew:

Nay, if thou wilt accuse, accuse thyself. If thou wilt whet and sharpen thy tongue, let it be against thine own sins. And tell not what evil another hath done to thee, but what thou hast done to thyself; for this is most truly an evil; since no other will really be able to injure thee, unless thou injure thyself. Wherefore, if thou desire to be against them that wrong thee, approach as against thyself first; there is no one to hinder; since by coming into court against another, thou hast but the greater injury to go away with. (Homily LI, #5)

 

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), 320.

Our first thought should not be on the injuries others have inflicted on us, nor on “getting our own back.” Our first thought should be on where we ourselves stand before God. Because we are sinners, we cannot think of ourselves to be righteous before God. But because of God’s love for us, we cannot of others as being less deserving of His forgiveness. If we forget this, we become like those who misuse the term “faithful Catholic.”

We must also seek to learn as much as we can about the faith. Now the writings of the Saints, the Popes, the Councils and the Bishops  are vast. No one person could read them all—and that’s something we need to learn: That we do not know everything. We can always learn, and our teachers must be those who have the authority to bind and loose—not bloggers or academics who disagree with them. 

Knowing that we do not know everything does not mean that it is possible that Church teaching can justify something we thought was a sin. What it means is we need to recognize we can be led astray by laxity or rigorism if we do not understand that the Pope and bishops teach with the same authority that Our Lord gave the apostles.  They have the authority to teach and govern the Church. When they do, we must assent to their teachings. Refusal to do so is schism:

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

 

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

If we would be faithful Catholics, we must realize our own sinfulness and our own limits to knowledge. Knowing this, we can turn to God for His grace and forgiveness. Knowing this, we can turn to His Church to learn what we must do to be faithful.”

But What About the Internet Brawls?

Speaking personally, I’d be happy if I never had to take part in another one. But we will encounter some who are either mistaken about the faith or are misrepresenting it. When these situations arise, we should remember 1 Peter 3:15-16:

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. 

If someone’s going to act like a jerk, strive to make sure it isn’t us. If we want to put a verbal smackdown on our opponents, we risk leaving the audience thinking we’re both jerks.

When we encounter those dissenters who claim to be the “true” faithful, the temptation exists to “put those jerks in their place.” But we must not take that attitude. This is partially because we risk being overcome by pride, thinking we are fine as long as we are not like “them.” But also because we risk alienating the people we hope to help. Now, being sinners, we’ll always have problems. I can describe these dangers because I have fallen into them myself. 

So, when someone decides to attack the Church, or the Pope, we must not allow ourselves to flail wildly, or speak viciously. We may have to tell a critic, “We do not believe what you accuse us of believing.” We may have to explain the truth. This may not be effective with the person we are arguing with. But that person is not the only person involved. On the internet, there are more lurkers than commenters. Even if our adversary is not willing to listen to us, the lurkers might—if we give them a reason to. But if we’re rude and abusive, we might win some points with people who already agree with us for doing a stylish smackdown, but we won’t convince others.

Conclusion

How do we take back the label of “faithful Catholic” from those dissenters who claim to be in the right while the Church is in the wrong? As I see it, we have to act like faithful Catholics. That means following the example of the saints in their obedience and humility. If we want to convince people to be faithful Catholics, we have to give them a living example.

That means, turning to the Lord with the desire to repent and follow Him anew, seeking to know and do His will as taught by the Church. Not by what we think the Church taught at a time we think most pleasing to follow.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Assumptions: Winding Up in the Ditch (Luke 6:39)

When it comes to hostility or suspicion towards the Church, regardless of what side it comes from, it is rooted in assumptions, not fact. People assume they understand what the Catholic Church holds, or assume they understand the words of a member of the Church that they oppose. Such people assume that not seeing other possible meanings means there are none. They assume that the Church/Pope/Council must be in error if they don’t match what the critics think should be. But, what they fail to consider is whether their own understanding about what should be is correct. For example, if Martin Luther was wrong (and I believe he was) about what God intended the Church to be, then the way he went around attempting reforms was fatally flawed, even if he meant well.

I believe the same is the case with the modernist Catholic who believes Church teaching on things that are intrinsically evil can be changed and the radical traditionalist who believes that the Pope is a heretic. They start with the assumption that what they think about God and what His Church should be is true, and assume that, if the Church is not what they think it should be, the Church has “fallen into error.” But, as with my above example with Luther, if the critic’s conception of what the Church should be is false, then their ideas are also fatally flawed.

These critics do not have to be malicious. They can be quite sincere. But if they are mistaken, unwilling to consider the possibility of being in error, they will be like the blind guides Our Lord warned against. They will lead the other blind man into a pit (Luke 6:39). Not because they wish to do harm, but because they wrongly think they know the way when they need help themselves.

I find that when it comes to disputes of this kind, we don’t have two errors. We have one: but the people in error simply disagree over whether that mistaken view they think true is a good thing or a bad thing. If the view is mistaken, then these people are worked up over nothing. I believe that the case of Vatican II and Pope Francis illustrate this point. Some Catholics wrongly believe that the Council intended to change everything, but Popes Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI “betrayed” the Council. Others believe that the Council not only intended but did change everything, and blame Popes Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI for helping aid the “destruction” of the Church [†].

Needless to say, they can’t both be right. But they overlook the possibility that neither can be right. Since both believe that Vatican II was a radical break, both are in error if Vatican II was not a radical break. Since both believe Pope Francis intends to change Church teaching, both are in error if he does not intend to change Church teaching. The assumption is that these things are so, but that assumption is the point that has to be proven. We cannot conclude that the conclusions drawn from those assumptions are true when they are unproven.

But instead of proof, we get fallacious arguments. For example, “Well, if the Council didn’t mean that, why did this rebellion happen?” That’s the point to be investigated, to see why and how it happened. Invoking Vatican II as the cause of rebellion is meaningless if it never intended what people claim. The point is, it is not what people think the meaning is. It is what the intended meaning is. If people are wrong about the intended meaning, their conclusion is wrong too.

The point of all this is, if we place ourselves in opposition to the Church, and assume we are in the right, we will go wrong. The Church is given the task of preaching the kingdom to the world, and is given the promise of Our Lord’s protection. To accuse the Church of teaching error is to deny Our Lord’s power to keep the promise, and I find that blasphemous. That’s the case if the accuser is saying the Church is wrong on sexual morality, or if the accuser is saying the Church is wrong on Vatican II.

The only way we can avoid winding up falling into the ditch is to stop assuming we are a better guide to salvation than the Church. This means we stop assuming we know better than those chosen to shepherd on how to interpret what the Church has always taught and how to apply it in our own age. The Church has been given this task, and the Church has been given the protection to carry it out. Following any source in opposition to the Church is to follow a blind guide.

It really is that straightforward.

 

_____________________________

[†] Oh yes, people forget it, but these critics savaged Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI just as much as they savaged Pope Francis.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Do You Really Believe in the Power of God?

Pietro Perugino 034The Promise and the Authority was from Christ, Our Lord

On social media, one of the more vocal opinions is the one claiming the Church either has or is in danger of falling into error. It’s not tied to one faction. The liberal who believes the Church is in error on matters of sexual morality and the conservative who believes that Pope Francis/Vatican II is an error are both of the same position—they merely dispute what the Church is in error about

If the Church were merely a human organization, their fears would be warranted. History is full of groups and nations that have been corrupted, becoming something the founders would have hated. But one of the beliefs of the Catholic faith is that the Church is not merely a human institution. We believe that Our Lord intended to establish a Church, built on the rock of the Apostle Peter (Matthew 16:18-19), teaching with His authority (Matthew 18:17-18, Luke 10:16) with the promise that He would be with the Church always until the end of the world (Matthew 28:18-20). This promise did not depend on the worthiness of His ministers. Peter denied. Judas betrayed. All of the disciples ran away. If the personal behavior of the apostles or their successors implied that the Church could teach error, claiming it to be truth, then the promise of Our Lord would have been proven false as soon as the Church began. If this is true, then we can stop fighting over the different topics we like to attack each other over, because it means the Church we are fighting over is a lie.

I personally will not stand for that blasphemy. If Jesus is God (true), and God does not lie (true, see Numbers 23:19), then when He says something, we can rely on His word. That doesn’t mean that there will be no knaves or cowards in the Church. What it means is the actions of sinful man will not prevail over the power of God. We have indeed had some knaves as popes. Benedict IX and John XII come to mind. We’ve had Popes who may have privately held error, like Liberius and Honorius I. John XXII is sometimes put in this list, but I think this is not accurate. He held a private opinion on a disputed subject which the Church had not defined an answer. He was later convinced that this private opinion was not right and changed his mind. But it wasn’t until after his death that his successor formally defined the teaching. But in all of these cases, the problematic popes did wrong in their behavior and personal views. But they never actually taught that error was binding on the faithful. 

But the critics of the Church allege that certain popes or councils they dislike are teaching error as if it was truth. That is something different from our bad popes who were merely in personal error. While I suspect many of the critics did not think it through, they are effectively denying that Our Lord is protecting His Church when they allege the popes and councils they dislike were in error. So, in the name of defending what they think the Church is supposed to be, they undermine the rock on which Our Lord built His Church. They deny that an authoritative teaching is authoritative. Through distortions of Church teaching, they claim that when a Church teaching is not made ex cathedra it can be in error and ignored.

Unfortunately, such a view overlooks the fact that each infallible definition had its roots in the ordinary magisterium. The Church did not define Transubstantiation until AD 1215. But it was true nonetheless. It was not invented. It is what happens to the bread and wine at the moment of consecration. The person who argued before 1215 that, because it was not defined ex cathedra it was not binding, was still a heretic. The difference between Berengarius of Tours and John XXII is this: Berengarius denied what the Church had always taught, even though it was not defined. John XXII held something there was disputed views over and the Church had not settled the matter.

When the Church teaches, even when it is not a formal ex cathedra statement, we are obliged to give assent. When we try to make a teaching into an “opinion” [†], we are being disobedient to the Church, and Our Lord made clear that rejecting the Church is rejecting Him, as cited above.

This brings us to our problem. Why is it that people who invoke being faithful to the words of Christ ignore the words in which he makes known who teaches with His authority? If we profess to believe in God, we must believe in His promises. So, if God promises to protect His Church under the headship of Peter always, we cannot pretend we are being faithful to God by being disobedient to the successor of Peter, even with his human frailties.

When we start undermining the shepherds of the Church when they do not go the way we like, we are rebels. No matter how hard we try, we cannot pretend rebellion is being faithful to God. Scripture and Church teaching do not allow us to get away with it. If we insist, we are only deceiving ourselves about our obedience to God…and, if we are honest with ourselves, we might find that we don’t really believe in our belief in His power either.

____________________________

[†] For example, Pope Francis clearly identifies Laudato Si as “now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching” (#15) but some of his critics try to portray it as an opinion, and not binding.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

It is Easy to Be Faithful When You Happen to Agree With the Church

One of the comments I often see in social media is the claim that confusion in the Church is unprecedented, and the fault of the Pope. I don’t believe either statement is true. I think the chaos is caused by the fact that Catholics under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, thinking it was easy to be faithful to Church teaching they never had any intention of violating, suddenly found Pope Francis reminding them that it was not enough to say they opposed wrongdoing. Pope Francis reminded them that the true interpretation of his predecessors required going out and bringing those wrongdoers back. What this reaction did was show us that some Catholics were not so much faithful to the Church, as they were in agreement over some issues—but once that agreement ended, so did the obedience. 

The Church exists as the means Our Lord established to bring the Good News to the world, teaching them to live according to His teaching (Matthew 28:19-20). That teaching will always obligate us to choose between God and our own desires. If we reject Church teaching because we think it too liberal or too conservative, we are placing our political beliefs above the Church. If we reject Church teaching because it prohibits us from doing something we want to do, we are placing our desires above the Church. But since God made obedience to the Church necessary (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17), rejecting the Church is necessarily rejecting Him.

The pontificate of Pope Francis seems to bring out what was less visible under his predecessors. With St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it was easy to focus on their teachings on sexual morality. Catholics who were enthusiastic about the sanctity of marriage and either intended to live according to Church teaching once they did marry, or intended to continue living according to Church teaching if they were already married. But when they spoke about other issues—social justice, the environment, etc., things were different.  Often these views went against the preferred political platforms. In such cases, Catholics tended to downplay what they taught as “opinion” or worried that perhaps these Popes were softening. 

Of course things cut both ways, and the Catholic who is enthusiastic about social justice and the environment while downplaying the Right to Life and sexual morality is behaving in the same way. While the conservative Catholic might misapply “prudential judgment” to downplay a teaching as optional, the liberal might misapply “who am I to judge?” to claim Church teaching was being changed. Indeed, when the Pope affirmed traditional teaching on morality, these Catholics complained he was “moving to the right.”

In both cases, the obedience or disobedience to a Pope exists only as long as the Pope appears in relationship to what they like. Once he steps outside of their view of what the Pope and the Church should be, the obedience vanishes, and undermining begins. People previously supporting a Pope begin to complain that he’s moving to the left/right, while those who were disobedient before think he is finally moving in the right direction.

It is not my intent to say all Catholics behave this way, and do so out of bad will. Rather I hope to warn people that this is a temptation all Catholics will face. We all have preferences on the way things should be. But being a Catholic requires that we listen to the Church and amend out behavior when we run afoul of her teachings. If we think that the Pope’s reminder is moving from/towards error, that’s a sign that we let our preferences interfere with hearing the Church.

If we accept that, when the Church teaches, we must give our assent, and if we trust God will protect His Church from falling into error, then we can trust that a Pope who reminds us that our moral obligation goes beyond our preferred topics of morality is not pushing from error.

This means giving up the left/right political spectrum of judging the Church, and turning to a right/wrong system of judging the world. We tend to view the Life issues as conservative and the social justice and environmental issues as liberal. Viewed that way, the Church appears to veer off in random directions. But when we think of it as having obligations in both issues, we can see that the Church does not change. Her positions are consistent. Rather it is our political theories which are not consistent with our Christian calling.

Usually, at this point, someone wonders if this is a call for a “seamless garment” where all issues are given equal weight. No, I don’t hold to that. What I hold is we cannot sacrifice one Church teaching, as if it were of no consequence, in the hopes that another might be promoted. If we say the Church should stop “obsessing” over immigrants while abortion is legal, that is sacrificing our moral obligation on how to treat the sojourner in our midst. If we are the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16), we are supposed to influence the people of the world to turn to Christ, and change society so it points in the way we must go.

If we would do this, we must be pointing in that direction ourselves. Otherwise we are blind guides (Matthew 15:14), leading others into a pit. So, we must accept the authority of the Church to bind and loose, and stop judging the Church by what we think best, being faithful when we agree and unfaithful when we disagree. Otherwise, we fail in our task and calling as Christians.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Knowing, Not Knowing, and Knowing You Do Not Know

Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: 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.

Introduction

When it comes to the ongoing faction wars in the Church, I suspect many of the participants who attack the Church today as being in error never intend to reject the Church. Instead, they act as they do because they think it is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, what one thinks is the right thing, and what the right thing actually is are often two different things. I think this is an example of the situation described by Socrates’ Apology above—that the person does not know the truth, but does not know about this lack. That is a problem because, if a person does not know that they do not know the truth, they will remain in error while thinking themselves defenders of the faith. 

Unfortunately, one of the problems with social media discussions today is nobody wants to admit that they don’t know something. In fact, implying someone doesn’t know something usually results in an angry response. Bring up the Argument from Ignorance fallacy [†] and people think you’re calling them an idiot. This defensive attitude is unfortunate because every person has a lack of knowledge in some part of their life. The question is, do we recognize this lack and try to learn? Or do we think that what we think we know is all that needs to be known? 

Being Faithfully Catholic Means Constantly Growing

If we are in the latter state, this is harmful for our spiritual health. The Catholic faith requires us to know, love and serve God. That goes back at least to the Baltimore Catechism, and it’s a good summation. We need to know what God revealed, the natural law with which He created the universe, and make use of our natural reason to apply that revelation and knowledge to our personal lives. Being finite beings, afflicted with concupiscence, we do make mistakes in judgment. We do choose the wrong thing. We do miss crucial facts that would change our outlook. And, finally, we do fail to comprehend complex ideas that go beyond our knowledge. There’s no shame in that limitation. But we cannot live that way. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes puts it:

[16] In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

 

Catholic Church, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium Et Spes,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

If we refuse to learn, refuse to form our conscience, we have no excuse when we do wrong. And, since Our Lord gave us the Church to guide us, we have no excuse for going astray if we should ignore the Church. As Lumen Gentium puts it:

[14] They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

 

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

In short, we can’t stop with what we think we know on how to live the Christian life. Growing closer to God means learning how to live as He calls us to live. Can you imagine a marriage where one of the spouses couldn’t be bothered to learn about his partner? Not caring what the other thought or felt about things? The successful marriage requires a constant change for the better. Our relationship with God requires the same.

Knowing and Learning

Of course the Church goes back to Our Lord Himself, and the writings of the members of the Church, the Councils and so on is massive. One person cannot hope to learn and master it all, even if they had no demands on their time but this study. So one average Catholic may view the encouragement to learn as an impossible demand and give up hope of understanding. Meanwhile another average Catholic might just decide that what he knows is good enough to pass judgment on Popes.

Both views should be avoided. In the first case, the equivalent of a Ph.D is not necessary for salvation. People with the ability and time to study theology can indeed lend their talents to the Church, but this is not the only way a Catholic can be holy and serve the Church. Each one of us has a calling regardless of education and status in life (1 Corinthians 12:15-26). In the second case, assuming one knows enough is to give up learning about Our Lord and growing in relationship with Him. When such a person encounters something within the Church, new to them, they might assume the idea is heretical without considering the possibility of their lack of knowledge making them misinterpret the issue.

To avoid this state, we need to start with the step of realizing the possibility of our not knowing something, considering the possibility that there is more to the situation than we are aware of. We need to realize that, just because we might think, “I can’t think of any reason why the Pope does/doesn’t do X,” does not mean there is no reason that justifies his actions.

Example—The Pope, Divorce, and Remarriage.

One of the problems I see in the social media debates is confusing the intrinsic evil with the actual responsibility of the person. Intrinsic evil means that some act is always wrong regardless of intention or circumstances. One can never have a just abortion or a just rape for example. But one can have a just war if proper conditions are met.

What some Catholics seem to forget (or perhaps did not know), and what the Pope wants us to remember, is that it is not enough to speak against intrinsic evil. Determining the culpability (responsibility) of the person who acts is part of the confessor’s task.  Certain circumstances can reduce the level of individual guilt (but not the fact that an intrinsic evil is done). Confessors have to assess the knowledge and circumstances that led to the action in determining how serious the sin is. For example, masturbation is an intrinsic evil. One must never do it. But some people have formed compulsive habits that are hard to break. In some circumstances, this compulsion reduces the personal responsibility so the person lacks the consent necessary for a mortal sin. The act is still intrinsically evil, and the person is obliged to work at overcoming this compulsion in cooperation with God’s grace. But this reduced culpability does not mean the Church is calling evil “permissible.”

Some critics of the Pope (including a few I ordinarily respect) say they can’t envision a circumstance where culpability can be reduced. But that is an argument from ignorance fallacy. We need to consider the possibility of things being different from what we think, based on our own experience. 

I believe that some Catholics forget this when it comes to the fight over Chapter 8 of Amoris Lætitia involving the divorced and remarried. Contrary to his critics’ claims, the Pope has not denied that divorce and remarriage is never permissible as long as the legitimate spouse lives. What he calls for is that confessors assess the knowledge and circumstances of each person, in this situation. Contrary to the claims of anti-Francis Catholics, the Pope is not seeking to legitimize divorce/remarriage. He is seeking to restore each person to a right relationship with God and His Church. If [§] it turns out that a Catholic in this situation lacks the conditions that make a mortal sin [∞], then the confessor can encourage the reception of the Eucharist while also guiding the sinner to turn away from sin and return to God. He is not a “liberal” or a “modernist” when he properly applies this.

Is it possible that a confessor can act wrongly, or err in their assessment? Yes, because we are all sinners. But the wrongful action of some confessors or some bishops does not mean that the Pope promotes or supports those things. 

Example—Knowing that differences exist in other nations.

Another thing that people may not know that the situation in Western Europe and the United States is not universal. For example, during the Year of Mercy, the Pope declared that all priests would be granted the facility to absolve abortion [¶]. This did not affect the United States, where the bishops already gave their priests the facility to act in their name, but it did affect other parts of the world. In interviews and press conferences, the Pope has discussed all sorts of different abuses and obstacles to marriage that we in the West have never experienced, but people in other countries have to deal with.

Likewise, things we take for granted, like tribunals, do not exist in some Catholic countries. An open and shut annulment case might take 90 days in the US, but might take years in another country. Other countries might have vicious customs that discourage seeking annulment. In such cases, people might feel trapped into doing things that the Church teaches is wrong. As I pointed out above, this does not change the fact that what they do is wrong. But it might (and might ≠ must) mean that some (and some ≠ all) cases involve reduced culpability. If we do not know these things, we run into the danger of thinking the entire world is like the US, and that his actions are nothing more than laxity. But this is false.

Blind Guides who do not know that they do not know.

4. The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".(5)

 

But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.(6)

 

 John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei 

So far, I have talked about people who are unaware of differences, or what the Pope actually said, and simply assume conditions are the same everywhere in the Church. But there is another group of Catholics who are truly dangerous to souls. These are the Catholics who, out of ignorance, assume that differences between their own misunderstanding and what the Pope says to be “proof” that the Pope is in error. They stir up confusion, and then argue that the existence of that confusion is the fault of the Pope they attack. 

This group of Catholics seem intimidating because they pull quotes from obscure Church documents the average Catholic has never heard of. But they sound knowledgable, and the average Catholic, insecure in their own knowledge, thinks their inability to think of a response means it must be true. It is important to remember that their behavior is like the anti-Catholic who distorts a Catholic teaching, and then cites a Bible verse they claim “contradicts” it. But the issue is not the Bible verse, but whether they use it properly. Likewise, the anti-Francis Catholic who cites a quote from Church teaching and contrasts it with something the Pope says has always either misquoted or taken the quote out of context. Often they have never actually read these documents, though they may try to feign otherwise. They often get isolated quotes from websites that argue the Church today is in error. Once countered, they ignore that argument and move on to the next [∑] or ignore that refutation.

For example, when they cite St. Robert Bellarmine on a “heretic Pope,” they make it sound like this is an official Church document. It is not. It is one opinion he lists in a work defending the authority of the Pope (I discuss this HERE). They often misrepresent history of the Church, making it sound like we have had openly heretical Popes in the past, and Pope Francis is merely one more of them. But this too is false. We have three Popes who may have privately held error [£], but never taught it. Since Pope Francis is teaching, if he taught error, it would mean that what the Church believes about being protected from teaching error in faith and morals was false. And once we see that, we realize we can never know if the Church was not in error.

What the average Catholic needs to know about not knowing in this case is, the issue in question is not the Bible or Church documents. It is their interpretation of the documents that are being judged. The authority to interpret how the timeless truths of the Church are applied in each time period fall to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. One judges the dissenter’s claims by how they line up with what the Pope and bishops in communion with him say. When the Pope teaches, even when that teaching is not ex cathedra, it must be obeyed:

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

 

Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 236.

So, even if you are an average Catholic who has not had the opportunity or time to study all the tomes the Church has produced, here is something important to know—you cannot have authentic Catholic faith in opposition to the Pope and bishops of this generation. Once you know that, you know that despite all the quotes they may produce, these dissenters have no authority to defy the Church today in the name of being faithful to what they think the Church meant in the past. 

Conclusion

To tie all this together, we need to avoid being like the politician who neither knew the truth nor knew he did not know it. We need to know our limitations and if we do not know something, we must recognize this lack and try to learn the truth. You wouldn’t trust a person who claimed to read a medical textbook and rejecting the findings of the AMA to do surgery on you. You shouldn’t trust a person who claimed to read Church documents and rejected the Pope and bishops guide you spiritually either.

We do have a Church, established by God. God promises to protect this Church. In this Church we have a guide to show us how to live. But the dissenter—whether he says the Church is too strict or too lax—is no guide. He is simply someone who does not know of his own ignorance. If you know you do not know, but know the dissenter does not know either and does not know they are ignorant, you are not as bad off as he is.

But knowing is better than not knowing. So it is always good for Catholics, regardless of their state in life and education, to learn more of their faith—always with the Church, and never apart from it.

_______________________

[†] Briefly explained: Just because a person doesn’t know of a reason disproving their position, it doesn’t prove there isn’t one.

[§] What critics forget is the possibility of a diocese investigating and finding zero cases that meet the Pope’s criteria. That’s why I, unlike some Catholics, don’t see Archbishop Chaput’s statement that he’s not changing diocesan policies to be a rejection of the Pope. If a diocese already does these things the Pope calls for, there’s no need to change.

[∞] Intrinsic evil, full knowledge, deliberate consent

[¶] Normally only the bishop, and those priests he permits, can absolve in this case.

[∑] My favorite “war story” of this type was the anti-Francis Catholic who cited one of the sessions of the Council of Trent to try claiming that after Vatican II, the Church was in error. Unfortunately for him, I had read the sessions of Trent (it’s amazing how much of a Catholic library one can acquire electronically) and cited another portion of that same session that contradicted his interpretation. His response was he didn’t have time to “reread” that document. But if he had read it at all, it was quite clear.

[£] Liberius, Honorius I, John XXII. Of these: Liberius’ error is widely debated; Honorius I probably held error but never said anything public; John XXII offered an opinion on a subject not yet defined—and was only defined by his successor.