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.


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. 


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.

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