Sunday, May 21, 2017

Do We Understand? Or Do We Assume?


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

Assuming the Worst, Without Cause

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

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

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

The Root of the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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