Thursday, June 15, 2017

Thoughts on the Emily Litella Catholics and Other Dissenters


Back in the 1970s, Gilda Radner played a character on Saturday Night Live called Emily Litella. The premise of her character was she was called to give an opposing opinion to the hot topics of the time. However, she constantly misunderstood the real issue, and went on a tirade about something that had nothing to do with the issue at hand. So, when the topic was “violence on television,” she thought it was about banning violins on television. When the topic was “endangered species,” she went on a rant about endangered feces. [†] Then, when the news anchor (Chevy Chase or Jane Curtin) pointed out that the topic was entirely different, she would conclude with, “Never Mind.”

Those clips were hilarious. Unfortunately, today, we seem to have an unfunny version where a subset of Catholics angrily react to what they think is going on in the Church, denouncing a legitimate application of magisterial authority because they believe their misinterpretation is what the Church intends. Unfortunately, when they are showed their error, they definitely do not respond with “Never Mind.” Usually, they double down instead in insisting the Church is wrong, or else say that any misunderstanding on their part is the fault of the Church.

The Importance of Understanding

The problem is, a subset of Catholics confuse their own understanding and preference on how they think the Church should work is the doctrine of the Church. So, when the Pope and bishops take action which goes against this understanding, they see this as a betrayal of the Church. Now, it is not for me to assess their culpability. Some may have vincible ignorance, putting too much trust in their own knowledge and ideologically oriented sites. Others may have invincible ignorance. That assessment is for God and the individual’s confessor to determine. But regardless of culpability, the fact remains they are wrong about what the issue is, and their anger is misdirected.

What we need to realize is this: It’s not enough to rely on our own personal interpretation. We have to understand what the intended meaning is. If our personal interpretation is not equal to the intended meaning, then we err in our judgment. This isn’t some idealistic, but impossible to keep standard. The Church obliges us to determine the truth before judging another. If we don’t, we commit the sin of Rash Judgment. As the Catechism tells us:

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.

Unfortunately, many people want to ignore it. Look on Facebook or Twitter. How many people seem to be unwilling to give a favorable interpretation? To ask the other how they understand it? To show correction with love? Not too many, it seems. Instead, we see the person who is willing to give a favorable interpretation and objecting to accusations savaged as either supporting error or being willfully blind to it.

The Authority We Must All Reference

Such Catholics make appeal to their own reading of Scripture, statements of the saints, Popes, and councils to judge those they disagree with. The problem is not with treating the words of these as important. The problem is confusing one’s personal reading with what the Church intends to teach. So, where do we go to determine the proper reading? We go to the Magisterium made up of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. They have the authority to determine how the timeless teachings of the Church must be applied to the current problems of our own time. This is not just limited to the ex cathedra teachings they make. It also applies to the ordinary teaching methods of the Church. As the Catechism says:

889 In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.” (92)

890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms: (851; 1785)

891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.… The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

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), 235–236.

If we insist on putting our own interpretation first, we are refusing to give the religious assent we are required to give. Whether it is a political liberal refusing assent on abortion and contraception, or the political conservative refusing assent on social justice, both are disobedient. No matter what sort of appeal gets made to refuse assent, this is never justified. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith puts it: 

38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.

The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised.


Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (Donum Veritatis) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1990).

Because the Church is given the authority and protection from error from Our Lord, she is the reference to which we must form our beliefs. Because the Pope and bishops are the ones given the authority and protection from error in this current age, we cannot be faithfully Catholic in opposition to them. Individual bishops, and even whole regions can fall into error. Popes can be morally bad, and even privately hold error (but have never publicly taught error). But these facts do not release us from our obligation to obey when the Church teaches.

To argue that one can be a good Catholic while rejecting the Magisterium today shows a dangerous doublethink—holding two contradictory positions at the same time—by pretending that they are faithful because of their dissent. In the past, I’ve seen Catholics argue that supporting abortion rights and same sex “marriage” is closer to being faithful than what the Church teaches. In the present, I see Catholics argue that the rejection of Church teaching on refugees and social justice is being closer to what the Church teaches. The only difference is the political slant of these Catholics. Both downplay their own dissent and point to the dissent of the others. Both are wrong.

Conclusion: Regaining Focus on the True Authority

We have to realize that the Church, under the Pope and bishops today, teaches with authority, and we are bound to obey. When we think the Church has “gone wrong,” our obligation is to investigate where we went wrong. Since Our Lord promised to be with and to protect his Church always, we can be sure the Church is not teaching us error. If we think the Pope is justifying sin or denigrating virtue, we have an obligation to make sure we know both what the Church teaches and what the Pope intends to say. It is those sites who foment disobedience in the name of being “true Catholics” that we must reject, not the Pope.

If we fail to do this, we merely become an unfunny version of Emily Litella—clueless to the last, and unwilling to say, “Never Mind.”



[†] Unfortunately, due to copyrights, there are no clips available on YouTube. Here’s a transcript of one of her rants:

Emily Litella: What is all this fuss I hear about the Supreme Court’s decision on a DEAF penalty? It’s terrible! Deaf people have enough problems as it is! I know I myself occasionally have difficulty with my hearing—but that doesn’t mean I want to be punished for it! And what do they do to them, anyway? Shout nasty things at them behind their back? You mark my words: If we start punishing deaf people, they’ll get back at us! They’ll close their eyes when we talk to them and they won’t be able to see a thing we’re saying!! I say, instead of making deafness a penalty, we ought to start doing NICE things for them. Like talking louder. [ shouting ] YOU HEAR ME? CAN ANYBODY HEAR ME OUT THERE?
Chevy Chase: I’m sorry, Miss Litella. That’s death penalty. Death penalty.
Emily Litella: [ confused ] What?
Chevy Chase: The editorial was about the Supreme Court’s decision on the death penalty—not deaf penalty. Death penalty.
Emily Litella: Oh. Well, that’s very different.
Chevy Chase: Yes.
Emily Litella: [ she smiles ] Never mind!

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