Thursday, April 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ultimately, God is in Charge

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

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

20 You sit and speak against your brother, 

slandering your mother’s son. 

21 When you do these things should I be silent? 

Do you think that I am like you? 

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

Four Forms of Disagreement

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

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

Discerning Between These Forms to do the Right Thing

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

When Catholics Judge Each Other With Anti-Catholic Mindsets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Knowledge and Understanding

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

To Know, Love, and Serve God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Deus Vult Illud? On Selective Obedience

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

Defining the Issue

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

Obedience and Authority

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

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

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

Disobedience and Dissent

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

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

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

Fellow Sinner or Enemy? How Do We View Those in Error?

The internet makes it possible for more people to make their ideas known by allowing them to publish blogs and offer comments on various sites. This opportunity allows Catholics to evangelize through the internet. Unfortunately, it also allows Catholics to savage each other and publish error. There’s no oversight (our bishops have no legal authority to tell a Catholic in error to stop publishing), so anyone who wishes can comment—regardless of their level of theological knowledge and orthodoxy. As a result, there’s a lot of error out there with people wrongly proclaiming their own views to be more faithful than others. The question is what to do about it.

Of course, we can’t accept a moral relativism. Since Catholic teaching involves what we must do to be saved, errors on what the Church teaches involves errors on how we must act and may make a difference between salvation and damnation. Since we’re called to bring the message of salvation to the whole world, we need to correct those in error. The question here, assuming we are correcting actual error and not merely feeling repulsed by an opinion, is the question of tactics.

God’s grace is always involved in a person turning away from evil and towards good. However, God often makes use of human agents to carry out His will. This means how we offer correction can either cooperate with God’s means of turning someone back to Him, or else a stumbling block that acts against God’s will. If we act as a stumbling block through condescending or insulting behavior, we might drive people away from the conversion God desires for them.

Of course free will means that a person might reject our outreach. It might mean they respond abusively. We might even have to walk away instead of continuing to respond. However, we have the obligation to be certain that reaction is not in response to bad behavior on our own part (1 Peter 3:16-17). That means we must be certain our own behavior is exemplary, even when those we try to correct behave rudely. So, we have to investigate our own bad habits and weaknesses to eliminate our own offensive behavior (Proverbs 15:1). Otherwise we guarantee an angry response that is our own fault.

Part of that is remembering who we are. We’re not St. Paul rebuking St. Peter or the foolish Galatians (Galatians 3:1). We’re not the Old Testament prophets rebuking a sinful Israel. For the most part we’re members of the laity with no authority over the people we correct. Yes, the Pope or a bishop can offer a strong rebuke if they think it best. They have that authority. But all we can do is demonstrate what the Church teaching really is and how it ought to be applied. In doing so, we can’t be so offensive that they will not hear us. 

I think the difference is whether we view the erring person as a fellow servant who deserves needs salvation just as much as us, or whether we view him as our enemy who must be vanquished and humiliated, somehow hoping he will be shamed into changing. I think we need to recognize that the second option doesn’t work. If we insult the person we hope to correct, they will probably ignore the truth we might provide and assume we’re the ones in error. We should think about that. Do we really do God’s work when we treat the person we hope to correct as the Pharisees treated the Gentiles? Our Lord dined with tax collectors. We won’t even be civil with that Catholic on Facebook whose politics we find deplorable.

So, maybe we should start to consider what we hope to accomplish and whether our goals and behavior are compatible with what God calls us to be in our mission. What offends us in others, we must not do ourselves (Matthew 7:12). None of us wanted to be insulted or rashly accused. So we should not insult, and we should make certain we fully understand the position of the person in error—not merely assuming that all people who think differently from us, or do wrong, intend to openly defy the Church. Some do. But some are merely mistaken. Others simply do a poor job explaining their position. These people rightly resent being accused of supporting evil.

We should also remember the example of Pope Francis. His Year of Mercy, and continuous calls to remove stumbling blocks are aimed at getting people to think about their relationship with God, and removing the obstacles that discourage them from returning to Him. We should be emulating him. We should also consider the rebukes he issues. It’s easy to think of him just targeting the radical traditionalists, but resistance to the Church teaching comes from all sides. It’s dangerous to our soul to think that so long as we are not sinning like them, we’re doing fine. The deadliest mortal sin is the one that sends us to Hell—we might not be a murderer or a fornicator, but if we calumniate or bear false witness in a mortal way, we will be damned all the same.

We should keep this in mind. We should consider how we behave towards that one “jerk” who comments on Facebook or posts blot posts we don’t like. Do we show mercy and compassion to a fellow sinner? Or do we treat them like they are enemies who can be freely attacked or insulted? Since God has shown mercy to us, we must do the same for others.

21 Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. 23 That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. 25 Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. 26 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ 27 Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. 28 When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. 31 Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. 32 His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. 33 Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ 34 Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. 35 q So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Knowing Your Limitations


If we don’t know our limitations, it might blow up in our faces…

Catholic theology has enormous depth. On one hand, the basic teachings can be grasped even by uneducated people. On the other, what we can learn from the Church can fully occupy the minds of geniuses throughout Church history without reaching the bottom. Of course, such understanding can never lead a person from “X is a sin,” to “X is permissible.” But as the Church refines and defines, our understanding of what X involves can deepen, distinguishing what makes it a sin, and what sort of situations increase or decrease culpability.

A problem arises when an individual defines X in a way where the Church does not concur. If a person defines X broadly, expecting no changes, they might be caught by surprise if the Church defines X more narrowly. Another problem arises if a person defines X in such a way that they think the Church can do away with the teaching on sin. When the Church affirms that X remains a serious matter, these people are likely to feel betrayed.

In both cases, the fault is not with the Church. The fault lies with the individual who confused their personal interpretation with the actual teaching authority of the Church. When the Church binds, we cannot loose. When the Church looses, we cannot bind. This is a limitation we must learn. Otherwise, we risk putting ourselves outside of the Church while thinking we are “true defenders” of the faith.

When you look at schisms and heresies that occurred throughout the history of the Church, none of them arose with the heresiarch thinking, “I am a heretic/schismatic!” No, they all came to be through the person thinking, “The Church went wrong and needs to think this way to get back on track.” In thinking this way, they refused to consider the possibility of being in error themselves, and refused correction. Instead, when rebuked, they resentfully assumed the Church “sided” with those “in error” when issuing a rebuke against them.

We need to remember this: When the individual Catholic encounters something from a Pope, bishop, or Council that seems to be in conflict with the Scriptures, or Sacred Tradition, as they understand it, they have the obligation to investigate whether they have misinterpreted what Scripture or the Church has taught, or whether they have misunderstood what the Pope, bishop, or Council has said. If they fail to do so, they make the error of confusing Church teaching with their personal interpretation of that teaching. It’s a serious distinction. The individual Catholic does not have the authority to decree that Catholics follow their interpretation over that of the Pope. Yes, we might prefer ad orientem, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, or to change Church teaching in any number of ways. But ion the Church teaches one way, we do not have the authority to say, “The Church is wrong.”

Nor can we point to the existence of bad Popes in the past to argue that this Pope is bad. The existence of abuses, or Catholics who fail to do what is right, does not prove the Church today is teaching error. This stance is not ultramontanism. We do not claim that anything a Pope might say in a homily, press conference, interview, or conversation is infallible. Nor do we say anything the Pope does is automatically sanctified by the fact that he is Pope. What we do say is when the Pope intends to teach or govern, we are bound to give assent. The fact of the matter is, the bad Popes never taught their errors, nor attempted to justify their bad behavior. Likewise, when bishops went wrong, they went against, not with, the teaching of the Pope.

In the office of the Pope, a charism exists which prevents him from teaching error in the ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. This is not prophecy. We don’t believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Pope to create new doctrine. Rather we believe that the Holy Spirit prevents him from teaching error. That may involve ensuring the teaching isn’t in error. It may involve guiding a Pope into not teaching at all.

The limitation we have to know is this. All of us are sinners, and can go astray—no matter how holy we desire to be. If we try to match our personal interpretation of what the Church teaches against what the Pope and bishops in communion with him teach, demanding the Church change to match our interpretation, we go beyond our limitations, and it will lead to our ruin.