Friday, September 22, 2017

In This I Remain Convinced: A Reflection at the Tenth Anniversary of this Blog

It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this blog for ten years now at this point. When I started it on Xanga, I figured I’d dabble and let it fade away. But every time I was ready to hang it up for good, something came up that led to a post. During the past ten years, the attacks on the Church came and went. The militant atheists, the virulent anti-Catholics, the government, the liberals and conservatives, radical traditionalists and modernists, all had their turn. I’ve even seen some of my views change (For example, to my shame, in 2007, and up until Benedict XVI visited America, I was contemptuous of the bishops). 

But despite the change in attackers, and the changes to this country, one thing has not changed. That is the Catholic Church herself. The Church I defended in 2007 is the same Church I defend in 2017. Yes, Popes, bishops, priests, and theologians leave and are replaced. But the Church has not changed her teachings. The accusations made about Pope Francis were made about his predecessors. There have been moments where the men running the Church have done something I didn’t like at times, but none of those actions were a change of teaching.

I remain convinced that Jesus Christ Himself established the Catholic Church, giving her His authority and protection. I believe this authority and protection has existed unbroken from the time of the Apostles to the present day. Even in the rare occasions when we had bad Popes (and i deny the current Pope is one), God protected them from teaching error.

I remain convinced that Our Lord will continue to keep this promise. That isn’t triumphalism or ultramontanism. I realize each Catholic has his or her task to perform in bringing about the Kingdom of God. But the Rock which Our Lord built His Church on will not collapse. We should remember that when we see things we dislike. I remain convinced that the most immediate danger to Catholics is the attempt to separate them from the Rock of Peter, rejecting the authority of the Pope and believing one can be a faithful Catholic in opposition to him.

I don’t know whether this blog will go on for another 30 years, or whether something will happen tomorrow that prevents me from writing another word. But I do know this blog will continue to defend the Catholic Church under the headship of the Pope and bishops in communion with him for as long as I am writing it. Not because of their personal talents, but because I believe in Our Lord’s promise. I pray I might never reach the state where I think I know better than the magisterium how to run the Church.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Same Church, Same Teaching, Same Authority

St. Gregory Nazianzen tells us (Oratio XLIII, #50) where an official of Emperor Valens ordered St. Basil the Great to comply with an unjust government decree, using threats. When St. Basil refused, vehemently, the exchange went like this:

50. Amazed at this language, the prefect said, “No one has ever yet spoken thus, and with such boldness, to Modestus.” “Why, perhaps,” said Basil, “you have not met with a Bishop, or in his defence of such interests he would have used precisely the same language. For we are modest in general, and submissive to every one, according to the precept of our law. We may not treat with haughtiness even any ordinary person, to say nothing of so great a potentate. But where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object. Fire and sword and wild beasts, and rakes which tear the flesh, we revel in, and fear them not. You may further insult and threaten us, and do whatever you will, to the full extent of your power. The Emperor himself may hear this—that neither by violence nor persuasion will you bring us to make common cause with impiety, not even though your threats become still more terrible.”

 

Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 411.

I think of this exchange in these recent times. Between 2009-2016, when the Obama administration instituted policies contrary to the Church, some Catholics accused the bishops (or even the Pope) of partisan politics when they spoke out, while others rightly pointed out they were exercising their office. Today, we’re seeing the same arguments, but some of the parties involved have changed sides. Those who once accused them of partisanship, champion their stance as long as they politically agree with it. Those who once defended the bishops now accuse them, because they politically disagree with them. In both cases, the rallying cry was the Church should “stay out of politics.”

But neither the teaching nor the authority has changed. The Church has the obligation to speak out against things in opposition to God’s commandments and the natural law. This obligation does not end at the doors of the Church. Nor does it end with the baptized. The fact is, long before the Europeans first encountered America, the Church was standing against the evil of the states, both telling the Christians not to cooperate with evil and telling the rulers they needed to repent. When it comes to rendering to Caesar and to God, the bishops have always spoken out when Caesar intrudes on God’s portion.

Those Catholics who sometimes say, “Hear the Church,” and sometimes, “Ignore the Church,” undermine any profession of faith they might make.  If the Church is right when we agree, and wrong when we disagree, the nominal Catholic or non-Catholic will be led to think that Church teaching is just another advocacy platform which can be changed as needed. But the Church is not an advocacy group with a political slant. She is the same Church which our Lord built on the Rock of Peter (Matthew 16:18). She has the same authority and responsibility that the Apostles had, and the same promise of protection. Yes, Catholics in a region—Bishops, Priests, Laity—might be swept away in error. But the Bishop of Rome and those who kept communion with him have never taught error. Some have lived less than saintly lives, but that does not disprove our Lord’s protection.

This is what makes the current hostility to the Pope and bishops so alarming. If what the critics claim is true, then we must face this reality: Either Jesus made a false promise (meaning He is not God) or the Church erred in how she interpreted that promise (meaning she not only can, but does teach error). In either case, we have no guarantee that even our preferred teachings are true.

But, if Jesus’ promise is true, and the Church does correctly interpret His promise, then we can safely give assent to what the Pope and bishops in communion with him teach, when carrying out their office. As Msgr. Ronald Knox pointed out,

Here is another suggestion, which may not be without its value – if you find yourself thus apparently deserted by the light of faith, do not fluster and baffle your imagination by presenting to it all the most difficult doctrines of the Christian religion, those which unbelievers find it easiest to attack; do not be asking yourself, "Can I really believe marriage is indissoluble?  Can I really believe that it is possible to go to hell as the punishment for one mortal sin?"  Keep your attention fixed to the main point, which is a single point – Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth?  If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.

(In Soft Garments, pages 113-114).

It is not the holiness of the man holding the office which makes the teaching true. It is the authority and protection given by Our Lord. But since it is the authority and protection of Our Lord, then to fight the bishops is to fight God (see Acts 9:4-5). So, to appeal to early Church teaching against later, or to appeal to Jesus against the Church rejects God (Luke 10:16). The person who “compares” the words of the Pope to the words of Christ, or the words of the Pope to the writings of past centuries, confuses their interpretation with what the Church understands it to mean. Remember, while we are called to use our reason in being faithful, we are also to give assent to teaching the Church gives (see Code of Canon Law 752-754).

Are there times when the Pope and bishops don’t teach? Of course. A Papal press conference or interview, or privately written book (for example, the Jesus of Nazareth books of Benedict XVI). But when the Pope or bishop intends to teach using the ordinary magisterium, we are required to give assent. So, whether the Pope and bishops speak out on sexual morality, or whether they speak out on social justice, they are not offering an opinion on Obama or Trump. They are reminding us on what our obligations are before God. Whatever our politics, we cannot act in a way that they say is wrong.

With this in mind, when we face a conflict and are tempted to reject what the Pope and bishops say, we must consider the possibility that we have misinterpreted the Church teaching, what the Pope said, or (very often) both.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Partisan Rebellion

can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.


Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247.

The US Bishops (rightly, in my opinion) took a stand against Trump’s decision to end DACA. In response, one faction of Catholics took a stand against the US bishops. They angrily condemned the bishops for “meddling in politics,” for “picking and choosing what laws to follow,” “for only caring about collections and numbers of people in the pews,” and for “being pro-Democrat.” Ironically, a different faction of Catholics (opposed by the first) made the same arguments when the US bishops opposed Obama’s actions on abortion, the contraception mandate, same sex “marriage,” and (though people forget it), immigration.

In both cases, what we have are Catholics who let their political views influence how they view the Catholic faith—which is a perversion of how it should be. When they do not like what the bishops say, they accuse the bishops of being partisan. It never occurs to these critics that the bishops are taking a stand because Catholic teaching requires it.

The fact is, no political faction is identical with Catholic teaching. Each faction gets something wrong, either in intention or in act. So we must hear the Church and let her teaching shape our political views. Unfortunately, regardless of faction, many Catholics seem willing to put the views of their preferred politicians over the teaching of the successors to the apostles. The bishops’ words are rejected as ignorant opinions, while the politician’s words are accepted as truth. 

The problem is, factional politics tend to create endless varieties of cafeteria Catholicism. Both conservative and liberal Catholics face the temptation to focus on issues they already agree with while downplaying or ignoring what they dislike. When the Church emphasizes what they dislike, it is often portrayed as a partisan betrayal of faith for politics. But it seems to me this is a reversal of the truth: The partisan Catholic is being deceived into thinking their partisan views are true Catholicism.

Like it or not, Catholic teaching focusses on both the moral behavior and the care for people in need. Neither is waived because of our own preferences or our fears that the teaching we prefer might be “undermined.” Yes, there can be a legitimate difference of opinion on how to best follow Catholic teaching. But we can never accept an “opinion” that sets aside Church teaching (cf. Mark 7:11). So, for example, Catholics can disagree on the best way to defend the right to life, but never downplay the right to life. Catholics can disagree on how to best handle illegal immigration, but not to undermine the teaching on how human beings are to be treated regardless of status.

I believe we need to evaluate our anger when the Church takes a position contrary to our politics. We may tell ourselves that we think the Pope or bishop is “betraying” the Church for a partisan reason, but we have to ask whether we’re the ones betraying the Church for a partisan reason. I also believe we need to consider whether our rejection of a bishop when he says something we dislike is a scandal that leads others to sin (Matthew 18:6-7). If we choose to reject a bishop on one topic, we have very little to say when another chooses to reject a bishop on something we think is vitally important.

It is important that we study what the Church teaches on a subject to make sure we have not gone wrong. But we also must recognize that the Church, not us, is the final decision maker on how these teachings are properly understood. For example, I know of some Catholics who claim that it is more “pro-life” to vote for a pro-abortion candidate because their policies will reduce the need for abortions. That interpretation was rejected by St. John Paul II, when he wrote:

[38] The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fĂ­nds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

 

John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

Likewise when it comes to issues we find “hitting too close to home,” we need to make sure that we are not undermining Church teaching by interpreting it in a way that allows us to do as we please when the magisterium says we may not do as we please.

As a final point, it is not for me to judge the conscience of any individual of course—that is a task for the individual’s confessor, and far exceeds the competence of a layman. But I can point out that it is dangerous to use our political views to judge the shepherds of the Church. Before we claim that we can reject their “opinions,” we need to make sure they are in fact opinions, and not a legitimate application of the teaching authority of the Church.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Lack of Reflection

ReturnOfDracula6Like the vampire in a mirror, there is a serious lack of reflection today on what one says…

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen an escalation of attacks on the teachings of the Church by people who think they are defending the Church. I’ve seen a homily accusing the Pope of teaching error and insisting we must be faithful to the Church over the Pope, talking about Matthew 16:18-19, of all things. I’ve seen a Catholic blame the Church for “abandoning” the term “Catholic Christian” in favor of “Catholic.” I’ve seen the ongoing fight between Catholics who claim to be Pro-Life and those who claim to be “really” Pro-life. I’ve seen the usual assortment of attacks on Pope Francis, Vatican II, the Ordinary Form of the Mass, and the ongoing attacks on Church teaching on homosexuality as “needing to change.” These varied arguments seem to have one thing in common: While the attacker seems to have reflected on the fact their action before carrying it out, they do not seem to reflect on the ramifications of what they say. 

First, let me exclude something from the scope of this article. I am not talking about sufficient reflection as one of the requirements of mortal sin. I leave it to the individual’s confessor to decide whether the individual sin mortally or not. The lack of reflection I mean involves a failure to think about the damage one causes, and what truth of the Church they undermine. While such people think they are serving the good, they are actually causing harm.

In all of these cases, there are two major errors: A lack of reflection on what the Church teaching is, and a lack of reflection on the position attacked. While error and injustice exists and must be opposed, some people see error and injustice where there is none. When it comes to the Church, people tend to either dogmatize customs, or they tend to downplay actual teaching authority. When it comes to opposing others, attacks revolve around thinking that disagreement with their own position is endorsement of evil. In both cases, the person does not reflect on whether he is mistaken about his understanding. In fact, regardless of his political views, he assumes he must be right.

If one is mistaken about Church teaching, then they can see an evil where there is none, or they can think something is harmless when it is harmful. On the other hand, if one is mistaken about what another person holds, the individual might falsely accuse the other, when he is innocent of the charge. It is only when one is right about both that one can begin to investigate. So, for example, the Catholic who misuses Pope Francis’ “Who am I to Judge?” comment as supporting homosexuality is wrong regardless of whether he praises or condemns the Pope. The Pope did not support homosexuality. The same applies to the claims that the Pope supports the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried. He does not. He supports having confessors investigate whether all the conditions for mortal sin are present in the individual.

Likewise the bloggers brawling about what it means to be truly pro-life. I find that both sides each think the other side is neglecting Church teaching. But when all is said and done, both sides are confusing their political preferences with Church teaching, and that confusion leads them to think that a rejection of their politics is ignoring Church teaching. The same with the Catholic who thinks Church teachings are founded in bigotry, instead of under the teaching of Our Lord. If Same sex “marriage” goes against God’s will, then the person who opposes the Church is not opposing intolerance, but God Himself.

Don’t confuse this with moral relativism. I’m not saying, “What might be true for you isn’t true for me.” I’m saying, we need to make sure that our conception of what is right and wrong is in line with what the Church teaches—not in the sense of what we think it means, but what she actually means as applied by the Pope and bishops in communion with him. We’re not comparing Pope Francis with Pope Pius X. We’re not comparing Vatican II with Trent. We’re talking about people causing dissension on the basis of their own personal ideas of what Papal utterances or Ecumenical Councils should mean. But individuals don’t have the right to decide for themselves what they should mean. The living magisterium of the Church decides how to apply these teachings.

This is where we have the lack of reflection. People don’t ask if they went wrong somewhere. They assume that if something doesn’t sit well, it must be the other who is at fault. The problem is, every heresy we had in the Church, every schism, they arose from people who thought the Church or person they opposed could err, while they could not. Throughout history, bishops, priests, and laity have fallen away by deciding the Church had gone wrong—but never when they submitted to, and were in communion with, the Holy See. If we’re not careful, we may find that we, like them, have become what we hated and opposed the Church, while thinking we were doing the right thing.