Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dissent is Dissent, Regardless of Faction

The reasoning goes that Republicans oppose the keeping abortion legal. These bishops oppose keeping abortion legal. Republicans oppose “pro-choice” politicians. These bishops oppose “pro-choice” politicians. Therefore, these bishops are partisan Republicans. (Arnobius of Sicca blog, from the “lost years” [Ω], 5/7/2009)

As I see it, it's not wrong to want security from attackers, but in finding the best way to get it, we can't neglect our obligation to the suffering. I think that is the reason the bishops believe they must oppose this policy. (Comment I made on my blog’s Facebook page, 1/30/17)

Back in the lost Xanga years of this blog, I spent time writing about Catholics who supported the Obama administration and attacked the American bishops for opposing some of his positions. The bishops defended the right to life and opposed policies incompatible with Church teaching. They were attacked as “the Republican Party at prayer.” I spent a good deal of time defending the Church from accusations of partisanship. So, moving forward eight years, I find it tragic that the same attacks on bishops exist—just the actors have changed.

In both cases, the assumption is the bishops must either support the other party or are grossly ignorant about what is really going on. Otherwise, they wouldn’t hold that position. But this assumption overlooks the fact that the bishops are speaking out about our moral obligations as Christians—those obligations that bound us before the Democratic and Republican parties existed—and will continue to bind us after these parties go the way of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines and our descendants need to do research to discover what these parties even were. Whether the conflict is about the right to life, or the treatment of refugees, our faith teaches us that we are bound to do certain things and oppose other things. These obligations override our political preferences because we are rendering to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17).

Perhaps we should reflect when we feel tempted to accuse the bishops of “partisanship.” Are they the ones who are “partisan,” or are we the ones who are guilty? Yes, it is possible that a “Fr. Harry Tik” or a “Sr. Mary Moonbeam” can abuse their position and put political values in place of teaching the Catholic faith. But so can a “Fr. H. Ardliner” or a Sr. Mary Mantilla.” If someone says, “People from this party can’t be truly Catholic,” that’s an abuse. But if a bishop teaches, “Catholics must not go against our obligation to defend the unborn or the suffering refugee,” he is not abusing his position, even if he teaches against a politician that an individual Catholic might like.

Throughout history, the Church has had to oppose governments when those governments went against God’s law. Sometimes these governments were dictatorial. At other times, they were democratic in nature. Either way, these governments often accused the bishops of being unpatriotic, or enemies of the state when they stood up and said, “No.” In such cases, people had to decide whether to follow the state or follow the Church.

But Church history has never praised those Catholics who chose to obey the state over the Church when the Church said, “This cannot be done.” Individual regions can fall into error, and the local churches with it (case in point, England in the Reformation), but the churches remaining obedient to the Church in Rome and refusing to accept the error of the state have not done so.

The fact is, when the bishops took Obama to task over abortion, “Same-sex marriage,” and the contraception mandate, they were acting on their Catholic faith, not partisan politics. When the bishops take Trump to task over his policy on refugees, they are acting on their Catholic faith, not partisan politics. If we reject the bishops because what they say is not what we prefer politically, we are rendering unto Caesar what is God’s.



[Ω] From 2007 to late 2009, this blog, under the name Arnobius of Sicca, was on Xanga. While I have the HTML files from those years, these posts are no longer available online.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Partisanship and Moral Obligation

can. 747 §1.† The Church, to which Christ the Lord has entrusted the deposit of faith so that with the assistance of the Holy Spirit it might protect the revealed truth reverently, examine it more closely, and proclaim and expound it faithfully, has the duty and innate right, independent of any human power whatsoever, to preach the gospel to all peoples, also using the means of social communication proper to it.

§2.† It belongs to the Church always and everywhere to announce moral principles, even about the social order, and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it.


 Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 245.

President Trump signed an executive order on blocking refugees from seven nations for a period of 120 days. Not surprisingly, this has set off a lot of political quarrels. The nations he blocked all have a Muslim majority population and Americans are concerned with refugees being brought here and performing terrorist acts. People argue over whether he has the right to do this (if I read US Code 1182 correctly, I suppose it is legal) and over the fact that other Presidents (Carter and Obama) have used the US Code to exclude certain nationalities from entering this country. Unsurprisingly, we see a case where each side justifies their own “tribe” and condemns their enemies even when it means they condemn what they once praised and vice versa.

At the same time, there is a religious debate going on over Trump’s action and whether it is moral. While the American bishops have generally condemned this action, other Catholics point to the fact that the Church recognizes the right of the state to regulate immigration policies, and the need for prudence to avoid causing real harm by overwhelming the system or letting in people with a hostile intent.

This is just one of the issues being fought. Catholics have concerns on how their nation is run, and belong to different political parties based on what they think is the best way to handle it. Since both those Catholics who favor a government action and those who oppose it point to words from the shepherds of the Church, how to we reconcile these claims?

The first thing we have to remember is, regardless of what the government can legally do, Catholics must not support an immoral action. If a government action goes against the dignity of the human person or the natural law of God’s design, then the Catholic must oppose it. For example, abortion is legal in America. But no Catholic can support it. If a President supports the use of torture, we must oppose him. If a Supreme Court ruling legalizes “same sex marriage,” we cannot accept such unions as a valid marriage.

So, Christians who are citizens of a nation must witness to the nation by living out and explaining their beliefs. We can’t just cite the convenient passages that seem to mirror our views. We must strive to know how to know, love and serve God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves. With each action we do, we have to ask whether we act out of love or out of self interest.

That means asking honestly. It’s easy to lie to ourselves and make excuses for what we wanted to do in the first place. But actually asking what Our Lord’s words mean and how the Church calls us to apply them? That’s hard. It can mean we have to set aside a comfortable ideology in order to do right. It’s hard, but it’s not an unreasonable command. If we love Our Lord, we will seek to do His will (John 14:15).

That means when the president does something we dislike, we have to ask ourselves whether we dislike it because it is morally wrong or because it goes against our political preferences. When the president does something we like, we have to ask whether we are in danger of liking something that is incompatible with our Catholic faith. In either case, we must set aside partisan preferences when they clash with the Catholic faith.

Yet, that’s what many people are not doing. Instead they’re bashing the bishops when they speak on the morality of Trump’s actions. They reduce moral concerns to political issues and get angry when the Church teaches in a certain way, as if they invented a teaching in response to Trump, rather than apply a long existing teaching to judge his actions.

When one reduces moral teaching to politics, they lose sight of the reason the Church criticizes the state. It’s not because the Pope or the bishops are left wing or right wing (they’re often accused of both). It’s because they’re concerned with the salvation of souls and warn the faithful that they must do something or must avoid another. If we write these warnings off as “partisan,” we’re ignoring danger to our salvation.

It’s not the purpose of the article to justify or condemn support of Trump. I just ask the reader to consider strongly who to listen to when the Pope and bishops say one thing, and the partisans say another.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Avoiding the Apostolate of the Outraged


I saw a blog attempting to create a Screwtape Letter about these times. It started well, talking about one of the temptations facing our nation. But as it went on, it became apparent that the author (perhaps not intending it) was writing against a politician he or she obviously disliked. The post began attacking Catholics who supported this politician as being guilty of the same temptation and of betraying their faith. There was no attempt to consider other motives for this support, nor any attempt to distinguish between enthusiastic support and reluctant support. It was simply assumed that this politician’s supporters either supported bad policies or did not care about them.

Lest people think I said this because I support this politician (I don’t), I see people on the other side making the same rash judgments. If we don’t support this politician, it means we either support or don’t care about the evils from the other side.

As Catholics fight over this, I see some underlying assumptions:

  1. The belief that only their own preference is right
  2. The belief that those who disagree support the perceived opposite view
  3. The belief that those who disagree must also act out of malice or culpable ignorance

Holding these assumptions can lead to self-righteous outrage. People who hold them not only think their opponents wrong, but also think them morally bad for reaching a different conclusion. However, even if the first assumption is true (the point to be proven), it does not make the second and third assumption true. Those points are rashly assumed because a person is offended others disagree with the way he or she sees it.

Not only a Political Issue, But Hostility over Disagreement

This isn’t just a product of the 2016 elections. This involves any issue where there is a dispute over the morality of an action. For example, when it comes to the decisions of the Pope and bishops in communion with him, some people who assume their own position is right assume culpable wrongdoing or ignorance on the part of the Holy Father. But the whole point to be proven is whether the critic’s position is right in the first place. Everything argued over motive for why a person is “wrong” is a bulverism unless they first proves the person is wrong.

But proving that a person is wrong is the step people don’t take. Some Catholics assume that anybody who voted for Trump knowingly chose to betray the Catholic faith. Some Catholics assume that the Pope’s calling for an investigation into individual culpability is a knowing choice to support divorce/remarriage. In both cases, Catholics think there is only one possible way to apply Catholic teaching, and to reject that particular application is to reject the Catholic faith.

Such arguments start with the fact that some Catholics do support things incompatible with Catholic teaching. The Catholic who supports abortion “rights” or torture is wrong. The Catholic who believes a valid marriage can be broken is wrong. However, just because some Catholics hold positions incompatible with our teaching, it does not mean all do…

Some forget the difference and assume some = all

It is wrong to assume, from the fact that some Catholics act faithlessly, that all Catholics who disagree with our preferred position must act faithlessly. We need to investigate what the person actually holds and see if it is actually wrong. If it is wrong, we need to ask whether the person intends to oppose the Church or not, and what the circumstances are that lead to their position. When we do so, we will often find that the person accepts the Church teaching but disagrees with a certain policy on how to apply it.

If the policy is not the only valid way of following Church teaching, and the person is not trying to evade Church teaching in opposing a policy, we cannot accuse them of willfully rejecting the Church teaching because their politics are different. For example, to accuse a Catholic of “not really being pro-life” on the grounds that they doubt that a certain government policy will actually help defend life is unjust. But, if they merely give lip service to Church teaching while supporting actions that oppose the Catholic teaching, an accusation might be just. That’s what we must discern, and not assume.

Rash Judgment

We must ask what a person did, what their intentions were, and what the circumstances were that led to the decision. All three must be good to have a good act. But we cannot assume that if one or more were bad that the result is a mortally sinful decision to reject the Church. We need to accept the possibility that we have overlooked other legitimate ways to follow Church teaching, that we misread the person’s intention, or that we were ignorant of circumstances in a person’s life. These factors can lead us to assume guilt where there is not, or mortal sin where it is venial. When we do this, we run afoul of Matthew 7:1, where we’re warned against judging. It’s not opposing evil that is judging in this sense. It’s assuming bad will. It’s taking a “guilty until proven innocent” view of anything that seems “off” to us.

But the Church forbids that attitude. In the Catechism, she writes:

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.

If we assume an evil act or an evil intention when there is none, we act unjustly.

Who Determines?

When it comes to determining what actions are incompatible with the teaching of Our Lord, we must accept the authority of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. When a Catholic decides his personal reading of Church documents supersedes the magisterium, this is a rejection of authority. When a Catholic decides his confessor has no right to say X is wrong, this is a rejection of authority. That is incredibly dangerous when we realize what Our Lord said about rejecting the authority of the Church:

16 Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Luke 10:16).

17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17).

The person who refuses to listen to the Church will be judged. God is not mocked by those who feign obedience and act against His will. But we are not to assume that a political disagreement is a sign of feigned obedience. The person who knows his position is against Church teaching but justifies it by appealing to a “higher authority” (previous Church teaching, or perhaps rejecting all Church teaching while claiming to do so as being “faithful” to Jesus) does serious wrong. The person who acts against Church teaching out of ignorance or lacking the ability to give full consent (habitual sin formed out of ignorance) does wrong, but culpability is less.

Our Task

While we must oppose sin, we are not called to do so as some modern day crusader, fighting infidels and vanquishing them. Our task is emulating the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep to bring them back. This requires an attitude of gentleness and patience. If we think something is wrong, we must make certain we properly understand both the Church teaching and what the person intends. If we find that the person has not chosen an intrinsic evil, we must not accuse him of doing so. If the person has done wrong, but not done so out of willful rejection of the Church, we must not treat him as acting that way. 

Even if the person has done wrong, we cannot act in a way which will drive the person away from repentance. If, through our actions, we get them so angry that they think our unjust behavior is Christianity so they want nothing to do with it, we have failed in our mission. Yes some will get angry because we say, “X is a sin,” when they are attached to that sin. Some will reject us regardless of how we act. Obviously we can’t help that.

But we can help how we behave. If we’re so outraged at something we dislike that we treat the other person as an enemy to be vanquished instead of a person to be loved, we do wrong, even if we desire to defend Our Lord’s teachings. Let us remember this when we disagree with each other.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hypocrisy: Thoughts on the Rise of Disrespectful Behavior


I saw a blogger refer to Trump as “Liar-in-Chief.” There’s nothing surprising in that by itself (the internet being what it is). What made it troubling is I’m reasonably sure I saw said blogger castigate people who treated Obama in the same way during the past eight years because it was against Christian charity. That got me thinking about how far we’ve fallen from seeking out the truth and living it in all circumstances, replacing it with the hypocrisy of doing to one’s enemies what one normally thinks is wrong.

This is not a political problem, though politics seem to be the place where it happens most often today. Nor is it a factional problem. This kind of behavior seems to be found across political and religious lines. Where it seems to be rooted is in the belief that when I disagree strongly with someone, whatever I do in response is justified. 

It’s natural to feel strongly about things one thinks is right. It’s natural to feel revulsion towards things one thinks is wrong. But in doing so, we have a moral obligation to treat all persons as children of God, loving them even when they do wrong. Whether it’s a conservative who found Obama’s policies offensive or a liberal who finds Trump’s policies offensive, both are created and loved by God and we have an obligation to treat them accordingly. We don’t have an exemption when it comes to someone whose politics we hate.

This isn’t a call for moral relativism. There are things that are morally wrong and must be opposed. There are things that are morally good and must be done. But there is a difference between doing good and opposing evil on one hand, and hating the person who does wrong on the other. As a Catholic, I find Pope Francis emphasizes this difference in his calls for mercy. He recognizes that people sin, and that sin is wrong. But his position is we must reach out to the sinner with love, trying to bring them back to a right relationship with God.

I believe the remedy is to look at our behavior and see how we would react if someone acted that way towards something we hold important. If we would be angry, we should not do it ourselves. That doesn’t mean we can’t oppose evil—we can and must. However, using evil means to stop evil is forbidden to us as Christians.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Reflections on how Papal Critics can go Wrong


I had a profitable discussion with one of my followers last week. The concern—probably shared by many Catholics—is, what is one to do when a Catholic one respects is at odds with the Pope. Are we to write them all off as schismatic, ignorant, or acting out of bad will? My answer is, No we can’t make a blanket assumption that a respected Catholic who disagrees with the Pope is to be automatically pigeonholed into the category of dissenter or gross ignorance. 

However, that doesn’t make them right either. Regardless of intention, they have gone wrong in their interpretation. They are (knowingly or not) claiming the Pope is supporting or even teaching error in such a way that their accusations contradict previous Church teaching on the authority of the Pope and his protection from error. The problem is, these categories are based in an either-or fallacy. They assume that Pope Francis is contradicting previous Church teaching (unproven) and that therefore either he or his predecessors must be wrong.

I deny that accusation is true. However, it is helpful to look at some of the mindsets of his foes and see how they fall into error. This is by no means a comprehensive list. But it does describe the attitudes I encounter most often on the internet.

In writing this article, I’d like to make clear that I am not accusing any specific member of the clergy or any specific Catholic writer of belonging to these groups. If you look at these groups and think, “Oh, he’s accusing X of this,” then you miss the point. I hope to point out problematic views and leave the judgment of people to their confessors.

Confusing an Agenda with Church Teaching

One category which usually seems to get it wrong are the agenda driven people who believe that the Church needs to follow an agenda or else she is in the wrong. This group views a Pope or bishop favorably only if he happens to agree with how this person thinks it should be done. Often they assume that refusal to do it this way is either a sign of moral laxity (if they want it more rigid) or of moral rigidity (if they want more laxity). So St. John Paul II was accused of rigidity by those who wanted a change to Church teaching on sexual morality. Pope Francis is accused of laxity by those who think the Pope should “crack down” on sin. In other words, this category of people is not limited to one ideology. Conservative Catholics in this group let “conservative” influence their Catholic faith. Liberal Catholics let “liberal” influence “Catholic.” Both are wrong because their Catholic faith should influence their ideology. It’s not just political agendas. It can also involve being either a modernist (willing to compromise the faith to get along with the world) or a radical traditionalist (assuming a change in discipline is a change in teaching).

Many of these people are sincere and can’t imagine how one can be faithfully Catholic without holding to their views. From this they believe that anyone who doesn’t support their perspective is acting against God and what the Church is supposed to be. The problem is, their views are often colored by a certain political or cultural bent, while the Church recognizes that one can favor different ways to carry out Church teaching without being “unfaithful.” 

Focussing on One Part, Missing Another

A second category involves Catholics who focus on one aspect of Church teaching, but miss another. Perhaps they are truly unaware of the other aspects. Perhaps they think they don’t apply. Or (if any of them do act from bad will) perhaps even suppressing mention of something that weakens their argument.

One example of this is the argument that Our Lord condemned adultery. Therefore any consideration of the Eucharist for the divorced/remarried is considered a contradiction of Church teaching. They have all sorts of arguments as to why the Church teaching about intrinsic evil cannot be violated. The problem is, nobody (except, perhaps, certain Agenda Driven Catholics) argues that it can be. Those who think the Church might be able to find cases where one can legitimately distribute the Eucharist to a divorced/remarried person is not denying Our Lord’s words. They’re asking questions about impediments that might limit culpability, such as knowledge and consent.

Church teaching can be very nuanced. It starts with the basic concept, X is intrinsically evil, and then focusses on the circumstances of the person that does X. In some cases, the person is guilty of freely choosing the evil with full knowledge. In other cases, the person who does X may have started in ignorance of Church teaching and has formed a compulsive habit that is very hard for them to break away from. Obviously, the confessor would need to treat the first case differently from the second case.

The person in this category goes wrong by assuming that a merciful approach to the second case is a denial of the intrinsic evil in general. That doesn’t make him ignorant of Church teaching. Such a person might simply be so accustomed to defending the Church teaching from those who reject it, that they begin to lose sight of the conditions that change culpability.

Pointing to Consequences, Without Considering What Really Causes Them

Some Catholics are (rightly) concerned by those who wrongly think the Church can change her doctrinal or moral teachings from saying, “X is true,” to “X is false.” They see how some seize onto whatever statement is made by the Church and use it to claim that they’re not dissenting against the Church. They are correct in believing this has to be opposed. But they are scandalized when Church does not issue a stinging public rebuke or excommunicate these people. Some even go so far as to say that the Pope or bishops must secretly support such behavior or they would have acted publicly and the behavior would have stopped.

The problem with this category is it assumes things as true that need to be proven. For example, it assumes that any action must be public, and must be in the form of a rebuke. It ignores the possibility of quietly contacting the person. It ignores the possibility of ongoing dialogue where the Church has not written the person off. In other words, the individual assumes he knows the whole story, but does not.

The Scandalized

Church history is ugly because the members are sinners, like everyone else. Of course we’re all called to cooperate with God’s grace and strive to do good and reject evil. But every one of us does fall. The category of people I call the scandalized are those who are shocked and horrified by the sins of the members of the magisterium, believing this to be a sign of error, some going so far as to label it heresy or apostasy.

Such people need to remember our belief that God protects His Church from error does not mean that those who lead the Church will never sin, nor make errors of judgment in non-teaching actions. For example, St. John Paul II appointed some bishops that had many of us wondering “Why?” There’s a difference between teaching (which is protected) and administering (which is not).

John paul ii kisses koranRegrettable, but not heretical (The Obstinate Denial of Truth)

So, when the Pope teaches, we’re bound to give assent to his teachings, trusting God to protect him from leading the Church astray. But when he governs the Vatican City, gives a homily or a press conference, or other actions, he’s not protected. What this means is, just because a Pope may do something regrettable when acting as a man or as a ruler, it does not follow that he teaches error.

The Mythic View of the Church

People in this category tend to have a myth about a time when the faith was practiced perfectly. They believe that the Church needs to go back to that time, rejecting what they see as a deviation. So some Catholics think Vatican II destroyed the Church, and we need to turn back the clock to before if the Church is to be saved. Other Catholics view Our Lord as a “nice guy” teacher who taught love, and rules of sexual morality “contradict” Jesus’ teachings. Both are a denial of the belief that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Church.

What the first group has to realize is that there was never a time when the Church was perfect. There were always problems. The problems after Vatican II had origins before Vatican II. The second group has to realize that Our Lord did teach on keeping the commandments and warned us about Hell.  Both need to remember He did give the Church authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and promised to protect His Church (Matthew 16:18, 28:20). The Church has never changed teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin,” but she has changed how to approach sinners and has taken a deeper look into what makes an action a sin. These are not betrayals of past teaching.

The Wrathful Catholics 

Some Catholics have just bought into the idea that the Pope intends to change or destroy the Church. With this assumption, everything that sounds different to them is assumed to be “proof” of the accusation. So they read the Pope’s words with this viewpoint and find malice. At best, this is Rash Judgment. At worst, it is Calumny. The difference is whether they make a false assumption about his intentions or intend to discredit him.

I find these Catholics to be perpetually angry. It may be because they lament the wrongdoing in the Church and are frustrated with the lack of progress in eliminating it. It may be they belong to one of the groups above, and it leads them to think the Pope must support what they oppose. Or they may be influenced by other wrathful Catholics who repeat their accusations over and over. But to assume that the Pope intends evil for the Church is something that corrupts one’s faith in God and the authority He gave the Catholic Church.

Conclusion: The First Two Steps to a Remedy

All of these categories have something in common—a belief that the Pope is in the wrong.  That belief is dangerous because it assumes that while the Pope can err, the individual judging him is not mistaken in his interpretation of the Pope. But each of these categories shows they do make an error in interpreting the Pope, past Church teaching, or both.

The first step is recognizing one can misinterpret Scripture, the current Pope, and past Church teaching—seeing conflict where there is none. Once one realizes they can make a mistake, he or she can begin considering whether they have made a mistake. The next step is realizing that God protects His Church. History shows there have been morally bad popes. There have been Popes who personally held to an error. But no Pope has ever taught error. 

Once we recognize these things, we have to realize that if we think the current Pope is teaching error, we have to consider it more probable that we have misinterpreted him—not because of our being “ultramontane” (a common slur against the Pope’s defenders), or putting too much trust in his personal talents, but because God established the Church on the rock of Peter and promised the gates of hell would not prevail against it. So, if there is a difference between what we think the Pope says and what we think the Church teaches, we need to consider the possibility that we have gone wrong, whether by misreading, or focussing on the wrong issue, or assuming Church teaching limits more than it does.

If we can start by asking “Have I gotten the issue wrong?” then perhaps we can learn. But if we refuse to ask that question, we will not learn, and we will needlessly be in opposition to Our Lord and His Church while thinking of ourselves as defenders.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

God is Not Mocked: Thoughts on the Use and Misuse of Conscience

Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. (Galatians 6:7–8).


A common theme among combox warriors, when it comes to bishops’ conferences issuing guidelines for the divorced and remarried receiving the Eucharist is, “The Floodgates are opened.” The assumption is the Church intends a loophole for Catholics in a state of mortal sin to receive the Eucharist. Now, it’s not my intention to analyze these different guidelines and judge them in terms of fidelity to the Church. Rather, I want to talk about conscience in general.

Some Catholics seem to make the same mistake over the term “conscience,” as they did by equating the term “mercy” with laxity. Now it is true that some Catholics abuse the term “conscience,” treating it as if it meant “do what you will.” But inserting that meaning, where the Church speaks on “conscience,” would be a gross misrepresentation of the term. As Gaudium et Spes #19 points out:

Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame

 Catholic Church, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium Et Spes,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

In other words, the person who thinks of the Eucharist as a “right” without considering where they stand before God will have to answer for an unworthy reception.

Basics of Conscience

Conscience is not a case of “feeling good about something.” Conscience tells us I must do X, or I must not do Y. Nor is conscience an infallible guide. If a person receives false information on right or wrong, their conscience can lead them to doing something objectively wrong while thinking it right, or scrupulously thinking something harmless is wrong. That is why the Church says we must form our consciences in accord with her teaching. If we have doubts on whether something would be morally right, we have the obligation not to act against our doubts until we resolve the issue.

What’s less known however is when conscience tells us we must act in a certain way, to refuse to follow conscience means we are choosing to do what we believe is morally wrong. So a person with a malformed conscience who believes it is morally wrong to do something, he must not do it. This scandalizes some Catholics who see this and thinks it means “justifying” a moral evil. It does not. What it does is reduce the culpability for a person who has no way of knowing better if they should reach a false conclusion in good faith. 

However, people cannot refuse to seek out the truth. Nor can they say their conscience “permits” something if they have merely formed bad habits that deafen them to the truth. Again, Gaudium et Spes points out:

16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. 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).

In other words, if a person is ignorant of the truth through no fault of their own, they are not held accountable for their ignorance. But if they could have learned if they tried or if they deafened themselves to their conscience, they will be judged. 

God is Not Mocked

If the Pope, bishop, or priest insists on dialogue with the sinner so they can learn to do what is right, but the person whom subsidiarity makes responsible fails to do so, it is they who are to blame for the laxity or rigidity which leads the person of good faith astray. Or if this person does meet his responsibility but the sinner refuses to listen, then the sinner is to blame.

This is not some modernist error. This is the teaching of Scripture:

The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, speak to your people and tell them: When I bring the sword against a land, if the people of that land select one of their number as a sentinel for them, and the sentinel sees the sword coming against the land, he should blow the trumpet to warn the people. If they hear the trumpet but do not take the warning and a sword attacks and kills them, their blood will be on their own heads. They heard the trumpet blast but ignored the warning; their blood is on them. If they had heeded the warning, they could have escaped with their lives. If, however, the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the sword attacks and takes someone’s life, his life will be taken for his own sin, but I will hold the sentinel responsible for his blood (Ezekiel 33:1–6).

Since the Pope has routinely called for people to turn back to Our Lord, told bishops and pastors that they are to talk with sinners to help them understand the teaching of the Church and to investigate the individual situations of the person, we cannot say he is silent as a watchman. People may misrepresent him by falsely trying to insist that his conditions, which apply to a limited amount of people, are a universal change in teaching, but these are falsehoods on the part of the person, not the Pope.


And that’s why I have problems with combox warriors treating talk about conscience as if it meant discarding Church teaching. Yes, people can lie to their confessors in order to receive the Eucharist unworthily, but God will not be deceived. Yes, some confessors may fail in their duty to form consciences, but that does not make the duty to obey conscience any less. Those in error through no fault of their own will be treated more mercifully for doing wrong while thinking it right, than those who know they do wrong and do it anyway.

So let’s not assume that when the Pope speaks of mercy and conscience, he means them to justify evasion of doing right. Nor should we assume he approves those who misuse his writings for their own purposes. His teaching is about reconciling sinners with God, not giving people a “Get out of Hell Free” card.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Remembering Forgotten Teaching: Obedience and Docility

Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me. (Luke 10:16)

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:18–19).


If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 k Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:17–18)

Attempts to cast oneself as a faithful Catholic by challenging the shepherds of the Church ultimately turn out to be chasing shadows. Chasing them can lead to our ruin as we follow them over treacherous ground. Our Lord created a visible Church where we can turn to know God’s teaching and how it is applied from generation to generation.

It is not the Pope and bishops endangering the Church, but those who forget this promise, who think the Church—especially her shepherds—must have erred and must be opposed, that deceive and scatter the faithful. Some of these people are clergy, some are laity. But the fact is, they do not have the authority to change what the Church teaches, nor to cite one favored teaching against a despised teaching. They cannot change what we are obligated to be and do. Yet in each age, such false teachers arise. Today, they come from the modern political divide of conservative/liberal, or the modern theological divide of modernist/traditionalist. Of course, these are not the only divides. Church history tells us of many divisions where people scrambled to challenge Church teaching. It would be meaningless to apply our current dichotomies to those factions. But one constant remains despite the divisions of history: these false teachers cannot demand we follow them over the shepherds of the Church.

The problem is, these false teachers try to invoke their personal interpretation on how a teaching should be applied as if it were Church teaching. They tell us that a Pope or bishop is in error if they do not meet the accusers’ ideals.

Of course we can have bad Popes (I deny the current Pope is one) and bishops throughout history. They hinder the mission of the Church by bad personal example. But no Pope has ever taught error (a couple have debatably held to error privately), and while some bishops throughout history have fallen into error, and sometimes heresy, they have not done so when following the teaching of the Pope. I think that’s something we forget. We’re so busy splitting hairs over the limits of an ex cathedra teaching, that we forget that protecting the Church is largely a negative function (preventing error from being taught) and that a formally defined dogma is rare.

Forgetting this creates a bizarre claim—that a disliked Pope is not protected from teaching error as Pope. But if this is true, then we can never know when a Pope taught error. If Blessed Paul VI brought error and spiritual harm to the Church with the Missal of 1970, how can we know St. Pius V didn’t bring error and spiritual harm into the Church with the Missal of 1570? If we will not trust God to protect His Church from error then we become “Cafeteria Catholics,” who pick and choose what we like and deny authority of the rest.

Recognizing both this protection and the fact that the Pope is the successor of Peter, we see the folly of trying to line up people against the Pope as if their opinions outweighed his teaching. A bishop has authority when in communion with the Pope, not in opposition. Otherwise the Old Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops would have authority over faithful Catholics.

If the bishops have no authority when not in communion with the Pope, the laity have even less. The armchair theologian, the blogger (including me), the canon lawyer, the combox warrior, the religion reporter have no authority to bind and loose at all. Their credibility depends on accurately representing the Catholic faith. The layman can do great things for the Church, but he has no right to demand acceptance for his opinion over the magisterium.

Think of it this way. In the legal system, a lawyer can be knowledgable about the law and can make compelling arguments on why it should be applied as he thinks. But neither his knowledge nor his arguments are authority. He argues the case, but the judge decides whether his application is right or wrong. The Church works in a similar way. Yes, each of us can read Church documents, and each of us can form an opinion on what they mean and how they should be applied. But our reading and interpretation are not Church teaching. It is the current magisterium who rules on how we must apply Church teaching for today.

That being said, we need to clear up misconceptions. This isn’t an assertion that the Pope and bishops can do whatever they want The magisterium is the servant, not superior to Scripture and Sacred Tradition. We do not hold some sort of “ultramontanism” (a popular slur against Papal defenders). We are stating the reality of who decides where to draw the line.

This is important when we address concerns and desires. Yes, Canon Law 212 tells us the faithful have the right and sometimes the duty to make their needs known. But the Pope and bishops have the authority to determine what practices should be maintained and which can be changed for the good of the faithful. In past centuries, people used to know this. St. Francis de Sales (made clear that we do not err in obedience to those in rightful authority acting for our spiritual benefit:

If this refers to those who have from God the power and duty to guide your soul and to command you in spiritual things, you are certainly right. In obeying them you cannot err, although they may err and advise you badly, if they look principally to any thing else than your salvation and spiritual progress.


Francis de Sales, Letters to Persons in the World, trans. Henry Benedict Mackey and John Cuthbert Hedley, Second Edition, Library of Francis de Sales (London; New York; Cincinnatti; Chicago: Burns and Oates; Benziger Brothers, 1894), 33.

So, some may want ad orientum, return to the use of Latin, or even a return to the Missal of 1962 for the whole Church. It’s not wrong to prefer these things, but some do wrong by rejecting the decision if the magisterium when it goes against what they want. Charity and docility to legitimate authority means we recognize they receive the power and responsibility to lead the Church from God. Accusing the Pope and bishops of bad will is not being a good Catholic “defending the faith.” It is dissent.

Once we realize this, we see the rebels have no authority to act against the Pope. They can’t treat his teaching as error. Nor can they treat it as opinion. Once the Pope teaches, even if it is not ex cathedra (see Canon Law 751-754), we must give assent. Those who will not may be clamorous and disturb us, but they have no authority to remake the Church to what they want it to be. Their clamor must be dismissed like shadows (Psalm 73:20), not given credibility, while we reach out to the world to bring them to Our Lord (Matthew 28:20).

I’d like to conclude by stressing one point. We’re not expected to be mindless sheep here with a blind obedience. As human beings, we all have our preferences and our dislikes, and we certainly have the right to make a respectful appeal to have these things addressed. However, we also need to remember what the Church knew in past centuries—that the Pope and bishops are given authority to determine what is best for the Church. We cannot rebel against this authority in the name of being “faithful Catholics.” That is simply a contradiction.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Properly Understanding Mercy in a New Year

13 Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:13)


I remember, during my earlier childhood, reading a book on the Second World War. In it, there was a picture of an elderly Jewish man arguing with members of the SS. I recall the caption saying something to the effect of, “An elderly Jewish man argues in vain against being deported.” I also remember being confused because I thought that they should take the opportunity to escape Nazi Germany. It wasn’t until I grew older that I understood what “deported” really meant, and why this man was so desperate to avoid deportation. I can understand why a book in the children’s section of a library would not get so deep into the Holocaust. But, if I had never gone beyond what I thought was meant from these books, I would not be excused as an adult for thinking that the experience of the Jews in the Third Reich was merely “unpleasant,” instead of the horror it really was.

The point of this anecdote is showing how something can originally presented to us in a way which isn’t false, but also overlooks crucial information. This doesn’t have to be a deliberate attempt to mislead. Rather, it can come about if people assume they have the whole story and interpret what they read through that assumption. In doing so, they overlook the possibility that their knowledge may have been a mere summary, or that they missed some pieces that would put things in context and should lead them to a different conclusion.


One of the major examples of “missing pieces” in 2016 was the concept of mercy. The Pope declared a Jubilee Year dedicated to mercy. He gave many addresses encouraging the faithful to seek out confession, and encouraged the clergy to be receptive and merciful in reaching out to the faithful. The Pope desired that the faithful might come and be converted, and that stumbling blocks that might discourage them from conversion should be removed.

Yet, two groups got that Year of Mercy wrong. They equated mercy with saying it was all right to sin. One group thought this was a great idea. The other thought it was a horrible idea. These two groups fed off of each other.  Those who wrongly believed, “Mercy = laxity,” and thought it was a horrible idea pointed to the group who thought it was a great idea as if it were “proof” of  the Holy Father wanting to change Church teaching. Those who wrongly believed, “Mercy = laxity,” and thought it was a good idea pointed to the critics as trying to “block the Pope’s reforms.”

What nobody asked was whether the “Mercy = laxity” claim was even accurate. The debate between these factions was only relevant if their premise was true. If the Pope was not in favor of moral laxity, then their fight was meaningless.

The fact is, the Pope’s call for mercy could be described as reminding the Church that their role is this…

Lost Sheep

And not this…


In other words, the Pope was reminding us that we need to look at sinners as people we’re called to go out to find, not as foes we need to defend the Church against. They’re our patients, not our enemies. No doubt some will despise the Church for what she believes and seek to undermine it. Such people might need to be opposed. But even then, we can’t be harsh about it. That being said, many others simply don’t understand why we believe what we do. Some actually think we’re the enemies of mercy and compassion, and we need to teach them why our teaching is what God wills.

How We Reach Out to Others Matters

That’s not a matter of just throwing a Catechism to them, telling them to read the relevant sections and keeping them away until they get their lives together. It’s a matter of patient charity, working with their desire to do what is right and loving, so they can realize, “Because I love God, I need to change my outlook and ways.” If we drive the sinner away, and that sinner decides “This can’t be God’s Church,” we have failed in our task.

The Pope, in his calls for mercy, calls us to look at every case individually, and not assume all sinners know Church teaching and reject it out of bad will. Some are alienated because they have a wrong idea of what we believe. For example, I’ve encountered some Catholics who were deeply embittered because they (wrongly) believed they could not receive the Eucharist simply because they were divorced, even though they never remarried outside the Church and were living chastely.

The Church is not to blame for this misunderstanding, though it is possible that people within the Church are responsible for this misunderstanding. We should consider this point. Does our behavior drive people away from the Church because we lack mercy or because we have given a distorted view of the Church to others? Perhaps we should think about the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in these terms. If God has entrusted to us the task of bringing people to Him, and we drive these people away, will Our Lord respond to us like the master did to the servant who buried his talent? 

God’s Gift and Our Task

19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)

God gives graces so we might respond to His call, and He makes use of human agents to make His call known, and how we are to respond to the call. Playing “goalie,” trying to keep people out who are less holy than we think we are is not cooperating with His mission. Yes, one of the spiritual works of mercy is to “Admonish the sinner.” But admonish does not mean, “Act like a jerk.” Many people look at the word with a modern meaning of “strongly rebuking.” But actually, the sense of “Warn (someone) of something to be avoided” is what we need to do.

So, yes, we do need to admonish (warn) people about the sins popular with the world. If they reject the Church because of their obstinacy, we will not be held accountable. But if they reject the Church because they think our misbehavior represents what the Church is, we will be held accountable for driving them away.

So when we reach out to the divorced and remarried, when we reach out to those committing homosexual acts, when we reach out to those considering or having committed abortion, or any other sins, we need to make sure that we are not the cause of a hostile reaction. As St. Peter put it:

19 For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering because of consciousness of God, that is a grace. 20 But what credit is there if you are patient when beaten for doing wrong? But if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20)

That’s harder than it might seem. Think about your own interactions on social media (I know I do). How many times have we sought to put the smackdown on someone we’re arguing with instead of patiently putting up with their hostility? What sort of witness have we left? That doesn’t mean we should be a doormat for the abuse of others. Sometimes, when facing an abusive person, we have no choice but to walk away.

But it does mean we can’t write people off as a lost cause. Our Lord told us about forgiving “seventy times seven” when we are wronged. We can’t harbor resentments or think of them as not worth saving. All of us are sinners, and all of us need God’s grace. That doesn’t mean that we decide that since all are sinners, no sin matters. It does mean that our task is a constant reaching out to get them back to a right relationship with Our Lord and the Church.


Some people hate the term, “Accompanying” because they (again, wrongly) interpret it as a Church just letting people do what they want. But that is to miss the point. The Pope has never called for that. He has called for the Church to be present for each member as they are guided back to God, looking at the situation of each person. If they’re not at the level of understanding that they can have proper contrition and firm purpose of amendment, the Church seeks to help them understand. 

But the Church also recognizes that to have a mortal sin, there has to be a gravely sinful act, full knowledge and full consent. Where one of the three is lacking, mortal sin does not exist. Of course things like abortion, divorce/remarriage, and homosexual acts fall under the category of “gravely sinful.” Nobody denies that. But when the person is ignorant of the evil, we help them to understand. When the person has a lack of sufficient consent (for example, a person who is sexually compulsive), it is often a long, difficult task getting the person to a point where he or she is able to control their acts to the point to give sufficient consent before acting.

The person who stops with the fact of grave matter, assuming the rest is not accompanying the sinner on the path back to Our Lord and His Church. If he or she acts like a bouncer trying to “keep out the riffraff,” such a person is like the Pharisee our Lord warns against when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.” (Matthew 23:13).

We don’t ultimately know who will refuse God’s grace and merit hell. That’s the sort of judgment Jesus condemns in Matthew 7:1. We simply can’t give up on anyone, nor assume the worst motives.

That, in a nutshell, is Pope Francis’ call for us in being merciful.