I saw a blog attempting to create a Screwtape Letter about these times. It started well, talking about one of the temptations facing our nation. But as it went on, it became apparent that the author (perhaps not intending it) was writing against a politician he or she obviously disliked. The post began attacking Catholics who supported this politician as being guilty of the same temptation and of betraying their faith. There was no attempt to consider other motives for this support, nor any attempt to distinguish between enthusiastic support and reluctant support. It was simply assumed that this politician’s supporters either supported bad policies or did not care about them.
Lest people think I said this because I support this politician (I don’t), I see people on the other side making the same rash judgments. If we don’t support this politician, it means we either support or don’t care about the evils from the other side.
As Catholics fight over this, I see some underlying assumptions:
- The belief that only their own preference is right
- The belief that those who disagree support the perceived opposite view
- The belief that those who disagree must also act out of malice or culpable ignorance
Holding these assumptions can lead to self-righteous outrage. People who hold them not only think their opponents wrong, but also think them morally bad for reaching a different conclusion. However, even if the first assumption is true (the point to be proven), it does not make the second and third assumption true. Those points are rashly assumed because a person is offended others disagree with the way he or she sees it.
Not only a Political Issue, But Hostility over Disagreement
This isn’t just a product of the 2016 elections. This involves any issue where there is a dispute over the morality of an action. For example, when it comes to the decisions of the Pope and bishops in communion with him, some people who assume their own position is right assume culpable wrongdoing or ignorance on the part of the Holy Father. But the whole point to be proven is whether the critic’s position is right in the first place. Everything argued over motive for why a person is “wrong” is a bulverism unless they first proves the person is wrong.
But proving that a person is wrong is the step people don’t take. Some Catholics assume that anybody who voted for Trump knowingly chose to betray the Catholic faith. Some Catholics assume that the Pope’s calling for an investigation into individual culpability is a knowing choice to support divorce/remarriage. In both cases, Catholics think there is only one possible way to apply Catholic teaching, and to reject that particular application is to reject the Catholic faith.
Such arguments start with the fact that some Catholics do support things incompatible with Catholic teaching. The Catholic who supports abortion “rights” or torture is wrong. The Catholic who believes a valid marriage can be broken is wrong. However, just because some Catholics hold positions incompatible with our teaching, it does not mean all do…
Some forget the difference and assume some = all
It is wrong to assume, from the fact that some Catholics act faithlessly, that all Catholics who disagree with our preferred position must act faithlessly. We need to investigate what the person actually holds and see if it is actually wrong. If it is wrong, we need to ask whether the person intends to oppose the Church or not, and what the circumstances are that lead to their position. When we do so, we will often find that the person accepts the Church teaching but disagrees with a certain policy on how to apply it.
If the policy is not the only valid way of following Church teaching, and the person is not trying to evade Church teaching in opposing a policy, we cannot accuse them of willfully rejecting the Church teaching because their politics are different. For example, to accuse a Catholic of “not really being pro-life” on the grounds that they doubt that a certain government policy will actually help defend life is unjust. But, if they merely give lip service to Church teaching while supporting actions that oppose the Catholic teaching, an accusation might be just. That’s what we must discern, and not assume.
We must ask what a person did, what their intentions were, and what the circumstances were that led to the decision. All three must be good to have a good act. But we cannot assume that if one or more were bad that the result is a mortally sinful decision to reject the Church. We need to accept the possibility that we have overlooked other legitimate ways to follow Church teaching, that we misread the person’s intention, or that we were ignorant of circumstances in a person’s life. These factors can lead us to assume guilt where there is not, or mortal sin where it is venial. When we do this, we run afoul of Matthew 7:1, where we’re warned against judging. It’s not opposing evil that is judging in this sense. It’s assuming bad will. It’s taking a “guilty until proven innocent” view of anything that seems “off” to us.
But the Church forbids that attitude. In the Catechism, she writes:
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 594.
If we assume an evil act or an evil intention when there is none, we act unjustly.
When it comes to determining what actions are incompatible with the teaching of Our Lord, we must accept the authority of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. When a Catholic decides his personal reading of Church documents supersedes the magisterium, this is a rejection of authority. When a Catholic decides his confessor has no right to say X is wrong, this is a rejection of authority. That is incredibly dangerous when we realize what Our Lord said about rejecting the authority of the Church:
16 Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Luke 10:16).
17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17).
The person who refuses to listen to the Church will be judged. God is not mocked by those who feign obedience and act against His will. But we are not to assume that a political disagreement is a sign of feigned obedience. The person who knows his position is against Church teaching but justifies it by appealing to a “higher authority” (previous Church teaching, or perhaps rejecting all Church teaching while claiming to do so as being “faithful” to Jesus) does serious wrong. The person who acts against Church teaching out of ignorance or lacking the ability to give full consent (habitual sin formed out of ignorance) does wrong, but culpability is less.
While we must oppose sin, we are not called to do so as some modern day crusader, fighting infidels and vanquishing them. Our task is emulating the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep to bring them back. This requires an attitude of gentleness and patience. If we think something is wrong, we must make certain we properly understand both the Church teaching and what the person intends. If we find that the person has not chosen an intrinsic evil, we must not accuse him of doing so. If the person has done wrong, but not done so out of willful rejection of the Church, we must not treat him as acting that way.
Even if the person has done wrong, we cannot act in a way which will drive the person away from repentance. If, through our actions, we get them so angry that they think our unjust behavior is Christianity so they want nothing to do with it, we have failed in our mission. Yes some will get angry because we say, “X is a sin,” when they are attached to that sin. Some will reject us regardless of how we act. Obviously we can’t help that.
But we can help how we behave. If we’re so outraged at something we dislike that we treat the other person as an enemy to be vanquished instead of a person to be loved, we do wrong, even if we desire to defend Our Lord’s teachings. Let us remember this when we disagree with each other.