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, fínds 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.

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