Saturday, March 18, 2017

Do Not the Tax Collectors Do the Same? Reflections on Partisan Judgment

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? (Matthew 5:43–46).

Doubling down on my previous article, I want to talk more about how we treat those we consider our foes in political or religious debates. This is not a matter of being “nice” to the point of not speaking against evils, or how to be effective in outreach to others. It is about following Our Lord’s commandments to love our enemies. This means we cannot treat those we morally oppose abusively. God sent us to bring all people to salvation, and that includes the people we consider our nemesis. We do not do good if we seek to defend the people we sympathize with, while driving a person from salvation through our abusive attacks. If someone’s soul is at risk, and we do not try to bring them back to Our Lord, we risk judgment on ourselves. As God the Father told Ezekiel:

You, son of man—I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel; when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them for me. When I say to the wicked, “You wicked, you must die,” and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life. (Ezekiel 33:7–9).

We cannot pretend that God intended that message only for Ezekiel, and not for ourselves. Nor can we pretend that speaking to others in an abusive way qualifies as warning them. As Pope Francis told us, if we behave in such a way that our Christian witness leads people to say it would be better to be an atheist than a Christian, things will not go well for us at the final judgment. The Church teaches that there is nobody that Our Lord did not die for (CCC #605). We also must remember Our Lord warned us about the sin of scandal: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:6–7).

318 [DS 623] Chap. 3. Omnipotent God wishes all men without exception to be saved [1 Tim. 2:4] although not all will be saved. However, that certain ones are saved, is the [gift] of the one who saves; that certain ones perish, however, is the deserved punishment of those who perish.

 

319 [DS 624] Chap. 4. Christ Jesus our Lord, as no man who is or has been or ever will be whose nature will not have been assumed in Him, so there is, has been, or will be no man, for whom He has not suffered; although not all will be saved by the mystery of His passion. But because all are not redeemed by the mystery of His passion, He does not regard the greatness and the fullness of the price, but He regards the part of the unfaithful ones and those not believing in faith those things which He has worked through love [Gal. 5:6], because the drink of human safety, which has been prepared by our infirmity and by divine strength, has indeed in itself that it may be beneficial to all; but if it is not drunk, it does not heal. [Council of Quiercy (AD 853)]

 

 Henry Denzinger and Karl Rahner, eds., The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1954), 127.

If we drive people away from salvation, making the “drink of human safety” seem repulsive, by allowing those we hate to believe our hateful behavior is what Christianity is all about, we are causing scandal. Whoever we find offensive—radical traditionalists, Trump supporters, Obama supporters, the divorced/remarried, homosexuals, etc., are still children of God, whom God desires to be saved. We must make known to them the way they must live of course, but through the commandment to love our enemies. If we want to understand the anger the Pharisees felt in Matthew 21:31, consider how we would feel if Our Lord told us “The Trump Supporters and Divorced/Remarried are entering the Kingdom of Heaven before you”? (These are two of the groups social media attack violently depending on their views). Our Lord did not say this because the tax collectors and prostitutes were morally better people. He said this because they were the ones seeking to repent. (Cf. Matthew 23:13)

We especially do wrong when we accuse our opponents falsely, assuming that all of them share in willful support of evils found only in the worst among them. Contrary to rhetoric, not all people who like the Extraordinary form of the Mass hate the Pope. Not all people who voted for Donald Trump are bigots. Not all people who oppose the current immigration laws support amnesty for felons. When an action is not intrinsically evil, when the acting person does not have a bad intention and when circumstances do not make their act bad—then they do not do evil, and we have no right to lump them in with the people who actually do support evil. If we accuse them of supporting the evil they actually reject then at best we are guilty of rash judgment, at worst, we commit calumny. Both are sins in God’s eyes.

We need to beware the ideology trap that makes the one who thinks like us a neighbor and the one who disagrees to be an enemy. If we fall into this trap, we do what Our Lord warned against—love our neighbors and hate our enemies. No matter how effective we are in loving our neighbors, we still fail to do God’s will. If we fail to love our enemies, what we do counts for nothing:

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1–3).

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) tells us to go out to all the world, not just those we happen to agree with or find their sins less offensive. Those who refuse to listen may be damned, but what will happen to us if we drive them away, because we’ve made Our Lord’s message seem hateful because of our own hatefulness?

No. Watching how we behave is not a behavior of “Kumbaya” Catholicism. It is a matter of loving our enemies and realizing that God does not desire the damnation of anyone—even our personal enemies.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Thoughts on Going Beyond Self-Imposed Limits

The Pope has inspired many to rethink mercy. Where once they might have spoke in terms of sharp denunciations, they now try to show compassion and understanding. However, this behavior often seems limited to people who do wrong they can deal with, but not a wrong which so grossly offends that particular Christian. What I mean by this is each of us seems to have a limit where we think, “There’s no valid reason anybody could reach this position in good faith, so that person must be acting as an enemy to the faith.” 

For example, I’m tempted with this way of thinking when I encounter the radical traditionalist. I believe that God’s promises and Church teaching reject the view that a Pope or approved Council can teach error, and the accusations against the Church in the name of “faithfulness” are nothing more than dissent. As a result, I find it more challenging to respond in patience to the Catholic who attacks the Church in the name of being a “faithful Catholic.” But since God does not desire the death of the sinner, but his salvation (Ezekiel 18:23), so I recognize that my own desires that they be punished are not compatible with God’s desires. Such people may face God's judgment if they do not repent, but I am not permitted to write them off.

Others may have different limits. I have seen some deal with patience and compassion when it comes to people who have trouble with or reject Church teaching on sexual morality, but show none to people who have trouble with or reject Church teaching on social justice. I’ve seen others show patience with people who have trouble with social justice, but none with people who have trouble with the teachings of sexual morality. In both cases, people are willing to accuse each other of hypocrisy.

But look at what passes for dialogue: Snowflake. Anti-abortion but not pro-life. Ultramontane. Schismatic. Trumpkin. Hillary Supporter. These are not the words of reaching out with compassion to those in need of salvation. These are words condemning those who go beyond the sins we are willing to tolerate. Our Lord issued stinging rebukes at times. St. Paul strongly rebuked St. Peter. The Pope issues strong critiques at times. But these were done out of love, not hatred. In comparison, for most of us, our “strong critiques” are little more than a verbal raised middle finger directed at our foes.

The temptation is to think of ourselves as emulating the prophets or St. Paul in rebuking the sinner but, if we look deeper into our own hearts, we might find this is a case of being angry at a person who does wrong in an area we are unwilling to forgive. When that happens, perhaps it is time to look at what makes us angry, and whether our offense at sin has reached the level of sinful anger (Ephesians 4:26).

It is true there are obstinate, abusive people. Sometimes we do have to walk away from insulting attacks, block people on social media who only insult, and so on. But remember this. St. Paul did shake out the dust from his garments on some occasions (Acts 18:6), but he also expressed a desire that his people be saved, almost to the point of being cut off himself for them (Romans 9:3). That shows great love for those who have gone wrong. Yet, how many of us feel that way for those who oppose us? How many are all too quick to respond in hostility, giving no witness to the words we profess to believe?

I believe the Holy Father is showing us Our Lord’s way when we have forgotten it. We’ve misapplied the teachings of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI as a laundry list of who we can shun. But Pope Francis reminds us that these teachings on what we must not do shows us who we must reach out to, bringing them back to Our Lord. So long as we have self-imposed limits on where our outreach stops, we’ve failed in our evangelizing.

Obviously, we can’t turn off our animosities like a switch. I suspect many of us got to where we are because of years of conflicts, dealing with abusive attacks against us. But we need to reach out to all with compassion. We can’t respond in kind to those we think deserve it.

So, maybe as a first step, we need to pray for the grace to love those we think are our worst enemies.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

On Toxic Rhetoric and Self-Imposed Lines

Over the past four years, we’ve had a relentless drumbeat from the anti-Francis Catholics, telling us that this Pope is a “disaster” and that people who disagree are either ignorant or heretics themselves. Unfortunately, this group has gone from a small body of radical traditionalists to even absorbing some orthodox Catholics who were determined to be faithful to the Church at all costs. Those who made the switch will no doubt say that they don’t accept the radical traditionalist ideology—and I believe them. But I think these hitherto orthodox Catholics have been poisoned by the toxic rhetoric spewing forth from the beginning, so that while they are not radical traditionalists themselves, they have been taken in by the same error of assuming that what they don’t like is also contrary to the Catholic faith.

I think the built in error is a self-imposed line that the individual Catholic thinks cannot be crossed without the Church betraying God. That’s not to say there are not lines we cannot cross. Rather that the lines causing trouble are self-imposed. They generally involve disciplines that the Church can change, but the individual treats them as doctrines. Thus they feel betrayed when the Church crosses one of their self-imposed lines.

The problem is, we are constantly bombarded on social media with the claim that the Pope is the worst ever, and intends to water down the faith until nothing is left. While we probably won’t accept their claims until our own self-imposed line is crossed, these things do start to get under our skin. The Pope gets misquoted and everyone assume it is true. The Pope makes a small reform which sparks an angry response. When we’re barraged by a constant anti-Francis message, these things start to bother us. So once our own self-imposed line gets crossed, we start to believe the accusations. We start to resent the Pope and blame him for the unrest caused by others.

Then we forget the other side of all this. There are some misled Catholics (like the Spirit of Vatican II Catholics) who believe the Church is in error and will remain in error until she changes her teachings. That is their self-imposed line. But both they and the critics of the Pope make the same error—their self-imposed lines are a judgment on the Church, promising or withholding obedience depending on whether the Church does what they like.

The way to avoid this is to stop making self-imposed lines that actually judge the Church. We need to realize our own limitations. The Church will never go from saying “X is a sin” to saying “X is permitted.”[*] However, the Church can make changes on how to best apply her teachings, or how to perform them. For example, the Church has decided to respond to the divorced and remarried now in an individual investigation, rather than a blanket assumption. But a change in approach is not a change of doctrine. For example, 40 years ago, Blessed Paul VI reversed the discipline that the divorced/remarried were automatically excommunicated. Such rulings do not give the divorced/remarried sanction to sin, though some probably thought that was a line in the sand.

People have established a number of self-imposed lines over the years. They think the Church will never change the form of the Mass, never allow reception of the Eucharist in the hand, allow the laity reception of the chalice, never allow female altar servers, etc. When the Church makes the change they assumed would never be made, they assume the Church is “faithless” rather than consider the possibility of their own error. Likewise the Catholic who thinks the Church must change her moral teachings, they will not consider the possibility of their own error.

As a final point, please keep in mind I am speaking of the Church in her teaching role. We’re not talking about the pastor, sister or DRE who abuse their position to implement whatever they please. The parish that permitted female altar servers before the Church permitted it did wrong. The lay parish director who said it was ok for the divorced/remarried to receive the Eucharist on their own say so did wrong. Their disobedience was not changed to good when the Church announced a change. Rather we are talking about the fact that when the Church binds, we have no authority to loose. When the Church looses, we have no authority to bind. 

It’s only when we recognize this that we’ll perhaps inoculate ourselves from the toxic rhetoric that leads people into believing the Church can and does err when she acts against what we would desire the Church to be.

_______________________

[*] Some might argue the Church changed her position on usury. That’s not the case. Pope Benedict XIV, in the 18th century, called for the Church to investigate whether there was a difference between charging interest to people in need and investing in a venture, expecting a return. Usury is still a sin, but investing is not charging interest to those in need. 

Others might point to the fact that eating meat on Fridays used to be a sin, but now is not. What they overlook is that meat itself is not evil. Rather the Church imposed a uniform Friday penance for all to follow. The sin was in refusing to follow the teaching of the Church. When the Church made a change to allow for other penances (how much of a penance is it to go meatless if you’re a vegan?), this was not a change of doctrine or morals.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Everybody is Sure They Are Right, Even If They're Not

Introduction

One of the stranger items I have in my Verbum library is the address of a Presbyterian minister made during the Civil War. In it, he urges young men to take up arms against a threat, saying:

In the first place we must shake off all apathy, and become fully alive to the magnitude of the crisis. We must look the danger in the face, and comprehend the real grandeur of the issue. We shall not exert ourselves until we are sensible of the need of effort. As long as we cherish a vague hope that help may come from abroad, or that there is something in our past history, or the genins of our institutions, to protect us from overthrow, we are hugging a fatal delusion to our bosoms.

 

James Henley Thornwell, Our Danger and Our Duty (Columbia, SC: Southern Guardian, 1862), 5–6.

The words he used could have been used today speaking about a crisis in the Church or about the state of our nation. But no, Thornwell was a clergyman who believed slavery was justified and was writing to encourage people to fight for the Confederate States. What we have is a case of a Christian minister who was entirely convinced his cause was just and needing to be defended, but in retrospect, we know that his cause was unjust and needing to be opposed. In other words, Thornwell’s perception was not reality, no matter how sincere he might have been.

The Problem May Be Closer Than We Think…

Nobody wants to be compared with an apologist for slavery of course, and such a comparison is not my intent. But there do seem to be similar attitudes of self-assured assessments of situations. Lately everyone seems to know what is wrong with the Church—that which goes against how the critic thinks the Church should be acting and teaching. However, those tasked with leading the Church never get consulted on if this perception is actually correct. Everybody assumes Our Lord agrees with them, but when the Pope or the bishops in communion with him object to a view, or propose a different way of handling a situation, people assume these shepherds are acting “contrary” to Church teaching or even God Himself. So liberal Catholics accuse St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI of “betraying the Council” or Jesus’ teachings on love and judgment. Meanwhile, conservative Catholics accuse Pope Francis of “betraying past councils” or Jesus’ teachings on obedience.

What they don’t ask is whether their division against the Pope and bishops is a sign of their own error. They appeal to the “true Church,” but that Church is nothing more than their own interpretations and preferences. They give obedience to the actual Church only to the point that they happen to agree. When they don’t, the Pope or the bishop is “betraying” Our Lord and the Church.

Personal Sin and Bad Decisions are not Signs of Teaching Error…

That’s not to say that the Pope and bishops are impeccable (a common straw man fallacy). They are human beings like the rest of us. They can sin and make bad decisions like the rest of us. But the difference between them and us is that they, as successors to the apostles, are tasked with leading the Church: The Pope as the visible head of the entire Church; the bishop (when in communion with the Pope) as the head of the diocese. When the Pope teaches, or when the bishop teaches in line with the Pope, we are required to give assent.

can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

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.

can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.

 

 Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247–248.

That’s pretty cut and dried. If God requires us to obey the Church (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16), then we have to choose. Neither Scripture nor Church teaching allow us to disobey the Pope when he binds or looses. So, we can either trust God to protect His Church from teaching error, or we can hold the absurdity that God requires us to obey error and disregard truth if the Pope decrees it.

The Common Challenges Don’t Work… 

Critics try to evade this by pointing to some of our less illustrious popes, Liberius, Honorius I, and John XXII. The problem with citing them is they made no attempt to teach error as Pope. They certainly made no demand that the Church embrace their views. Historians dispute over whether Liberius and Honorius even privately held heresy, or whether this was the propaganda of their enemies. In the case of John XXII, the matter under discussion was not yet defined.

To put the case of John XXII in context, a hypothetical example would be if the Pope preached one way or the other on whether Our Lady died before she was assumed into Heaven, and then some members of the Church discussed it with him and convinced him the other way was better. Since whether Our Lady died before her Assumption has not been defined one way or the other, the Pope in this example would not be in error—even if a later Pope should define it differently [†].

But, unlike the above Popes, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis did teach. Even if they did not teach ex cathedra, their teachings are binding (see canon 752 above). So these comparisons are false analogies. If his critics are right (Pro tip—they’re not), then we have a contradiction. We must give assent to these teachings, but, according to his critics, he can teach error in these things we have to give assent to! It’s absurd, but that’s what logically follows from trying to reconcile authentic Church teaching with the claims of anti-Francis Catholics!

To Be On God’s Side, We Have to Be in Accord With the Magisterium

Both Scripture and Church teaching have consistently taught that, while we do not emulate the bad behavior of some Popes or bishops, we do have to give assent when they teach. There’s never been a case where a member of the Church has been right in rejecting the magisterium. Rejecting that authority is not something new in Church history, but in the past we called it what it was—heresy and schism. Now, certain Catholics use the special pleading fallacy to refuse applying this teaching to themselves. When those they disagree with dissent from the Church, they accuse them of faithlessness. But when it comes to their own dissent, they justify it as behaving rightly—ignoring the fact that those they condemn also justify themselves.

Not all of the magisterial issues involve faith and morals. Nor is our obedience limited to those areas. As the Vatican I document Pastor Æternus points out:

[Chapter III] Hence We teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a sovereignty of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatsoever rite and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world; so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme Pastor, through the preservation of unity, both of communion and of profession of the same faith, with the Roman Pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and of salvation. 

 

Vincent McNabb, ed., The Decrees of the Vatican Council (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907), 40.

So when a Pope decides certain changes need to be made for the discipline and governance of the Church, the Pope does have the authority to make these decisions, and we do not have the right to reject them. Do we have the right to make our concerns known? Yes, but respectfully (Canon 212 §3). I would argue that today’s behavior is anything but respectful. 

not Bend the Magisterium to Our Preferences

In addition, we have to beware selective citation of Scripture and Church teaching to condemn those we dislike while ignoring those parts which indict us. Regardless of the topic, some Catholics cite only those parts of Scripture to support themselves and discredit those who take a different view. The problem is, people often confuse either-or with both-and. 

It’s like this: There are some areas where the Church teaches, “X is a grave sin.” In such cases, no faithful Catholic can say, “X is not a sin,” or, “X doesn’t matter.” So the Catholic who supports abortion rights or the use of torture goes against Catholic teaching. However, not all issues involve contradictions. There is the possibility of two Catholics accepting Catholic teaching but preferring different ways of carrying it out—especially when society is so dismal that the probable options are both deeply flawed. Provided that they are not feigning obedience, it is possible for them to reach different conclusions on how to best be faithful, and in that case it is unjust for one to accuse the other of being faithless. However, ultimately it is the Pope or bishop who has the final say as to whether one or both of the conclusions are false.

Conclusion

In each of the examples above, people refused to consider whether they might be wrong, or whether they misunderstood the teaching which led them to error. While I certainly pray no Catholic would be as wrong as James Henley Thornwell was about his defense of slavery and the Confederate States, each one of us does have to constantly ask whether we are in error—especially when we find ourselves at odds with the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with Him.

Our faith is that God protects His Church from error. Yet nowadays, people from all factions assume the magisterium must be wrong when there is a conflict, arguing that these shepherds must be in error. That is a practice contrary to our professed faith. If we would avoid the “loss of faith and of salvation” (as the First Vatican Council put it), we must start considering whether it is more plausible that we err when we dissent. We must ask whether we really know, or only think we know.

After all, if we only think we know, and never bother to learn, that is vincible ignorance—which is not an excuse for doing wrong.

 

_____________________

[†] People forget that St. Thomas Aquinas held some opinions on unresolved issues (such as on the Immaculate Conception) which the Church later defined differently after his death. We do not consider him a heretic because of those views, because he did not take an obstinate stance against the Church. He merely offered his opinion on something yet undefined.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Are We Going to be Widowers in the Next Age?

There’s an old adage out there that, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” I remember it being cited back in my Steubenville days when professors used it to demonstrate how Christians who compromised and tried to match the values of today would be left bereft when the values of the world changed. That’s quite true, but I find myself wondering whether it could be applied to more than the values of the world.

As I was praying this morning, I thought of the conflicts out there within the Church. People who grew so accustomed to how the Church operated in one time became alienated when the Church decided changes were necessary. Catholics “married” to the disciplines and policies of the Church before Vatican II were alienated by the disciplines and policies of the Church after Vatican II. Some of those who “married” the approach of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI felt “widowed” under the pontificate of Pope Francis. And then I thought of the future of the Church. I watched the usual suspects battle on Facebook and Twitter. There were the usual knee jerk comments of “#answerthedubia” and “Cardinal Burke is a traitor.” And I wondered—how wedded to a certain mindset might we be without realizing it? 

For example, let us imagine a time when Pope Francis’ pontificate ends (whether by death or by renouncing his office). Let’s imagine the conclave selects Cardinal Burke or a likeminded cardinal to be the next Pope. Some of my readers will no doubt think, “Please God, let this happen!” Others will think, “God Forbid!” The problem is, both reactions are wedded to preferring a certain age. The Church can change disciplines and practices for the good of the Church as a Pope sees fit. So it is possible that the successor of Pope Francis will make some changes to the way Pope Francis does things now. The question each Catholic needs to ask is, Will I respond to these changes with obedience?

To give a personal example, I prefer the Ordinary Form of the Mass properly celebrated, and I don’t think the Extraordinary Form is as wonderful as its proponents claim. But, if the next Pope were to decide, “The Latin Rite will go back to the 1962 Order of the Mass,” I would do my best to accept it. I might grumble over getting used to the changes, but I recognize the Pope has the right to make such a decision. This would not be a mindless acceptance of whatever the Pope said. This would be a recognition of what the Church teaches about the authority of the Pope, trusting God to protect the Church from error. I certainly pray I would accept the authority of such a Pope without attacking him or trying to undermine him.

I think this is what we all need to consider. Will we be faithful to the Church, no matter who leads it? Will we be obedient to the Pope, even if he deems that a discipline or practice we are comfortable with needs to change? If we will not, we’re not faithful to Christ and His Church, but wedded to a preferred age in the Church. In that case we will be widowed when that preference changes.