Saturday, June 16, 2018

Evading Obedience

Jeff Sessions, facing religious criticism to the Zero Tolerance immigration, responded by invoking Romans 13, the relevant portion being:

(This Scripture cannot be applied in a way that puts the state above the Church)

Of course, this rips Scripture out of context. It is true that, as Christians, we must obey just laws. But it does not mean we blindly follow whatever a state decrees. Otherwise, we would have to obey a pagan state and sacrifice to idols. We would have to obey a National Socialist state in the persecution of Jews. We would have to obey unjust laws on slavery, abortion, same sex “marriage,” the contraception mandate, or violating the seal of confession.

(Anti-Catholic headlines concerning Australian attempts to violate the seal of the confessional)

The tragedy is: some Catholics who opposed all of these examples of injustice by the state and denounced other Catholics who supported those evils are now supporting the state and rejecting the bishops who called this policy morally wrong.

However, lest anyone think only one faction is guilty, it should be noted that other Catholics are using this incident to attack the Church focusing on moral issues that they downplay. I have seen some Catholics argue that if only the Church had taught on immigration instead of abortion, we would not have seen this happening. I find this ludicrous. In my younger days, when I struggled with Church teaching on immigrants, I was quite clear that the teaching on immigration was taught as forcefully as other teachings. I might have wished that the Church focused on different issues rather than jar my conscience on this one, but I knew that the teaching existed. What we’re seeing here is no different. It’s an attempt to get rid of the Church speaking out on issue X by saying that they should be speaking out on issue Y instead... as if the Church can only speak on one evil at a time.

What this all boils down to is evading obedience. When the bishops speak out on a moral issue, they are not being “political.” They are telling us of our moral obligations. We, with our political biases, resent the teachings we find telling us we are wrong. So, when we excuse ourselves and treat this teaching as an uninformed opinion, we are evading the obedience we must give:

When we argue that a teaching is not authentic magisterium and therefore something we are free to write off as an opinion, we are quite literally endangering our souls because of our selective obedience on real moral issues.

This doesn’t mean that to be faithful Catholics, we must all support a specific political platform. We can all have different views on how to best carry out Church teaching. But once we fall into the trap of whether we will obey a Church teaching, we are cafeteria Catholics and our profession of obedience is a sham.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Misrepresenting Conscience

Me, reacting to Catholics who claim that they are free to do what the Church condemns.

After the Supreme Court decision overturning the injustice against a Colorado bakery, I encountered many Catholics on social media who argued that the real Catholic position was in opposing the bakery. The arguments showed a profound confusion about what conscience is, and our obligation to follow it. 

Putting it briefly, when our conscience says we must or must not do something, we must obey it. Doing otherwise is to act in a way we are convinced is morally wrong. Now conscience is not infallible. A person can think that a morally neutral area is evil and refuse to do something that they could morally do. It is even possible that a person who, through ignorance they cannot avoid (i.e. somebody who has no way of learning the truth, but would if they could) feels obligated to do something wrong—like idolatry—because they think they do evil if they don’t do it.

We must not confuse this with a person who deadens their conscience so they do not hear it when they do evil. All of us have the obligation to seek out the truth and follow it—not to just presume that the absence of warning means an act is okay. As Catholics, we profess there is objective morality. Some things we must never do, regardless of circumstances. Other actions can become evil if we do them with an evil intention or under inappropriate circumstances. Again, we have an obligation to learn these things and do right.

Gaudium et Spes #16

Here’s the important thing to remember. Church teaching is how we properly form conscience. If we recognize that the Catholic Church was established by Our Lord and given the authority to bind and loose, then we cannot invoke our conscience as a justification to disobey the Church.

Donum Veritatis #38

It is true that a non-Catholic, not recognizing the authority of the Church, will not realize that the Church is a trustworthy source of learning what we ought to do. But that does not excuse them from failing to seek out and live according to the truth to the best of their ability. So, the state has no right to compel a person to do what they think is evil. But note that this is not the same as the state tolerating things that disrupt the public good. This often gets distorted by people who confuse conscience and preference. The state can forbid the person who thinks abortion is acceptable from performing or acquiring one. After all, thinking something is “okay” does not give one the right to do it. But the state cannot coerce a person who thinks abortion is wrong into performing or acquiring one. The first case is an example of the state promoting the public good. The second violates conscience.

The state can also prevent discrimination against one group of people, but this involves some distinctions. We do not mean that we must accept whatever evil a group might support. What we mean is the state cannot allow one group to be treated as less human than another. So, the state can forbid actions that treat people with same-sex attraction as less than human. It does not mean the state can force people to treat homosexual relationships the same as heterosexual relationships. The state simply has no right to legitimize things that go against objective truth.

So what we had in the Colorado bakery case was not a case that refused to serve people with same sex attraction. We had a baker who refused to participate in certain events: “same sex marriage,” Halloween, and bachelor parties. The Catholic would probably disagree with him on Halloween. Assuming it is not used to celebrate the occult, this is a morally neutral area. I think he makes a good point on bachelors parties. Given how the modern tendency is to use them as an excuse for debauchery, a Christian might decide not to supply those events because of scandal. As for the case of “same sex marriage,” the overlooked issue is that the demand that the baker supply a cake is a demand to recognize “same sex marriage” as being equal to real marriage. No informed Christian can accept that or act in a way that appears to support it.

When it comes to knowing, loving, and serving God, we cannot choose to do wrong or refuse to do good when a properly formed conscience demands it of us. Meanwhile to avoid an improperly formed conscience, we are obligated to constantly seek out and follow what is right to the best of our ability. But feigned ignorance and refusing to learn will lead to judgment.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Thoughts on Assent and Dissent

Lately, the Papacy is either an obstacle or a token in the mind of the factions of the Church. If the Pope is emphasizing teachings that go against the ideology of the faction, then he is seen as an obstacle. But if he says what one happens to agree with, then he is a token to use to claim that one’s own ideology is the true meaning of the Church. Neither faction shows obedience when the Pope says something they dislike. Dissent is justified if a Catholic disagrees and unjustified if the Catholic agrees.

Because of this, it is a mistake to think that faction X is less of a problem than faction Y. When they misrepresent Church teaching, the faction causes harm by misleading others to think that the magisterium is a faction to be swayed. The Church is neither conservative nor liberal, though various Church teachings have superficial similarities to ideologies.

Church teaching is based on the two Greatest Commandments: Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself. Loving God means we cannot live in a way contrary to what God calls us to be. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means we cannot do the evil we do not want others to do with us. And combined they mean we cannot choose a means contrary to God in interacting with our neighbor nor think that mistreating a neighbor is loving God.

Our agendas stand as a stumbling block to these Greatest Comandments. When we try to explain away absolute prohibitations in the name of “love,” we are not loving our neighbor who does those things. When we use God’s commandments as an excuse to hate, we are not loving God. To love God and our neighbor is to do what is objectively right and to show mercy when others fail. It’s not to choose one and neglect the other. It’s not to claim or imply that the Pope, bishop, or priest is neglecting God’s teaching by giving a command to be merciful in application or to defend an objective teaching.

Unfortunately, too many interpret Church teaching according to their ideology, accepting or rejecting a teaching depending on one’s own preferences and claiming obedience is wrong when obedience is against what one wanted to do in the first place. The problem is, the Church is the pillar of truth (1 Timothy 3:15) that binds and looses (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and to reject the Church is to reject God (Luke 10:16). When the Church teaches, we are bound to give submission, even when the teaching is from the ordinary magisterium. We are not the ones who judge the teaching of the Church, saying what we will and will not follow. If we profess to love Jesus, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15) and not find excuses to disobey.

The person who selectively cites the Church in order to defend an agenda does wrong. We profess the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, after all. We profess that God will remain with His Church always (Matthew 28:20). Therefore we must be willing to constantly reassess our preferences compared to how the Church applies her teachings to the needs of this age.

Unfortunately, many think that saying that X is a sin is (or should be) a hatred of people practicing that sin. From this, they justify a behavior at odds to what we believe through either laxity or severity. But this view is refusing the teaching of Christ. It thinks that “I would not act that way if I was God,” and ignore the fact that we are not God. We can strive to understand what God teaches and apply it in each age, but we do not have the authority to turn God’s no into a yes (or vice versa). When there is a conflict, it is the Church that judges our views not us that judges the Church.

So, when I see people treating the Pope like an idiot because he stresses mercy; when I see people treat the bishop as left wing and right wing simultaneously because they teach on how moral teaching is applied, I see a people who have forgotten what the Church teaches, calling evil good. We must avoid this if we would be faithful to God.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Watch Your Footing

When I was young (before the internet), we used to go out to the hills out past the outskirts of town. Climbing up and down them hiking was our activity. Sometimes we would use rocks as places to set our feet to help make the climb easier. Of course you had to be careful. A rock might look solid, but if it wasn’t anchored to the hill, it could shift and lead to a fall. Of course some were obvious. A rock sitting freely could easily shift. Others were harder to spot. A rock might seem deeply embedded in the side of a hill, but loose dirt, cracks, or mud could serve as a warning.

I found myself thinking about that watching the disputes of theologians about what we are called to do to be faithful Christians. Especially when some I once deeply respected took a stance I could not follow in good conscience. If we think of the Hill as symbolizing the teaching of the Church, and the rocks as individual theologians, we can form an analogy. The theologians can help us grasp the teaching of the Church more clearly...if they are firmly anchored to the truth. But if they are not, they will most likely cause a fall.

I think the the “loose dirt, cracks, or mud” to beware of in this case is whether they give the proper “religious submission of the intellect and will” (see Code of Canon Law 752-754) to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. If they start to undermine that authority, beware! They are no longer safe to rely on.

Of course, at this point, usually somebody will point out that we have had heretical bishops and morally bad Popes. I believe that is to fall down a rabbit hole. The heretical bishops are acting against the communion with the Pope. The morally bad Popes are not teaching. They are not “proofs” justifying disobedience to the teaching of any Pope or Bishop.

It’s important to note that the dissent is not limited to one faction. Yes, in the post-Vatican II years, some liberals (political and theological) were (and still are) infamous for rejecting the magisterium when it comes to moral teaching on sexual ethics. But some conservatives (political and theological) are using the same playbook, rejecting the moral teaching on economic and social justice. 

This leads us to another warning of unstable ground: the downplaying of one Church teaching in favor of another—which “coincidentally” matches the dissenter’s political views. Yes, the conservative rightly opposes abortion. Yes, the liberal rightly opposes economic injustice. But the temptation is to limit obedience to the issues one happens to agree with while ignoring the issues one disagrees with, calling them “less important.”

Now, it is true that some sins are graver than others in the eyes of God. Some are intrinsically evil. Others can become wrong because of intentions and circumstances. Yes, the Church recognizes that some sins are worse than others. But to think that because we don’t commit sin X, we are right with God is to reenact the role of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14, forgetting that the deadliest sin is the one that sends us to hell. We might not be murderers or abortionists. But if we commit other mortal sins, we will still be damned if we are unrepentant.

This is warning of unstable ground: the unshakable conviction of being in the right. The saints were humble. They recognized their weaknesses. They knew of their own need for salvation. But if we tend to be proud of our behavior and look to the sins of others as a proof of being in the right, we’ve become arrogant. Instead of leading by the example of repentance, we tend to have a hard “@#$& you!” approach to those who sin in different areas than we do. We’re tempted to think that they must reach our level before they can be forgiven, forgetting the parable of the merciless servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

I think this is the meaning of the oft misinterpreted Matthew 7:1-5. It doesn’t mean we can’t call an action morally wrong. It means we must remember that the same God who judges our enemy also judges us. If we are so focused on the sins of others, we will lose sight of our own sins and need of salvation. We will forget to be penitent and to forgive those who trespass against us—a vital condition for being forgiven ourselves.

This should not be interpreted as a morally lax approach to life. Some things are morally wrong. We may not do them. We must warn others about them. But the Christian life is not one of lording it over others or exalting ourselves. Correction must be done with humility, not arrogance.

This is what we must watch for. No doubt some teachers in the Church will disappoint in their personal life or in administering the Church. But when they teach in communion with the Pope, they have the authority to bind and loose. If we reject that authority, we reject Our Lord (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). If what they teach seems contrary to what the faith seems to mean to us, we must consider the possibility that we have either misunderstood the Church or the Pope accused of heresy. We must recognize that God protects His Church or we will be unable to give the submission required. 

If we will not do this, if theologians will not do this, we become unstable stones that send people falling. Then woe to us (Matthew 18:6).

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Grammar of Dissent: Reflection on Modern Rebellion in the Church

From An Essay in Aid to a Grammar of Assemt (page 240). 
I believe it also applies to “cradle Catholic” dissenters.

The current dissent within the Church today is scandalous. Catholics who were once diehard defenders of the Papacy are now undermining the current Pope, inventing a theology of dissent while pretending to be faithful. At the same time, certain Catholics who rejected previous Popes are now misapplying what Pope Francis says to portray their long-running dissent as being justified.

The only way I can think to explain it: one faction of Catholics merely happened to agree with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and mistook that agreement for obedience. Now that we have Pope Francis, they don’t agree and justify disobedience because they never learned the obedience the Church has always required. Another faction rejected Church teaching under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI and just happen to agree with what they think (inaccurately, in my view) Pope Francis is saying. 

Some confused conservatism with Catholicism. They assumed that because some teachings lined up with their labels, Church teaching was “conservative.” They praised or condemned it based on their ideology. Others confuse Pope Francis’ Catholicism with liberalism. Both factions downplay or attack Catholic teaching that doesn’t match their ideology. None of them consider the possibility that they’re wrong; that they, not the Pope, cause the confusion in the Church by pushing an ideology and calling it “Catholic.”

We must remember we still have the same Church which teaches with the same authority. Discipline has changed in different eras of the Church but it still revolves around gathering people in so they might learn what they must do to be saved (Acts 2:37). An act that is intrinsically evil (always wrong, regardless of circumstances) remains wrong. But how the Church reaches out to the sinners who commit these acts can change depending on the needs of the time.

So, both insistence on changing what the Church cannot change and insisting that the Church remain attached to the discipline, customs, or practices of a certain age are to replace the virtue of obedience with following the Church only to the extent that it supports what we were going to do in the first place. That’s not obedience. That’s just membership in a group.

One of the radical ideas of Catholicism is that Jesus Christ established a Church which He intends to teach with His authority. He made clear that rejection of this Church was a rejection of Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). If this is true, then we must obey the Church when she intends to teach. If it is not true, then there is no real reason to be a Catholic in the first place.

I think we’ve lost this sense today. We think that we are the ones who “know” the truth and we are “cursed” with a Church steeped in “error.” But we forget that in past ages, when we really did have Popes of dubious character, the saints still insisted on obedience, that we trust and obey the Church even if it ran counter to our own perception.

From The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

Note that St. Ignatius does not create exceptions for Popes we dislike. He does not limit this obedience to ex cathedra statements. He affirms that when there is a conflict between ourselves and the Church, we must obey the Church because of we believe God protects and guides her. If we do not believe this then, again, there is no reason to be a Catholic to begin with. If we believe that God can protect the Church from a Benedict IX, John XII, Liberius, or Honorius I, why do we believe that He stopped protecting the Church in 1958 (the beginning of St. John XXIII’s pontificate), 1962 (the beginning of Vatican II), 1970 (the implementation of the Ordinary Form of the Mass), or 2013 (the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate)?

Either we trust the Church because we trust God to protect her, or we lie when we say we have faith in God. The authority of the Church is not in the holiness of her members (we would have been debunked millennia ago if that were the case) but from God. Sometimes, this authority of the Church shocks—remember that members of the Church were shocked when St. Peter baptized the first gentiles (Acts 11:1-3)—but we believe that teaching is binding.

The problem is people confuse things that are not universally binding with teaching. When the Pope has a private conversation or a press conference, this is not teaching. When a Pope promulgates a law for Vatican City (or previously, the Papal States), this is not teaching. But when the Pope published Laudato Si and Amoris Lætitia, he was teaching [†]. For example, he explicitly identified the authority of Laudato Si saying:

We cannot call this an “opinion.” The Code of Canon Law makes clear that when the Pope teaches, we must give our submission—even if the teaching is not ex cathedra.

So, regardless of the faction one comes from, there is no basis for the rejecting the teaching authority of the Pope and there is no basis for trying to deny that a teaching is a teaching. Accepting the authority of the Church comes from putting faith in God protecting His Church. If we won’t do that, we are NOT faithful Catholics. We’re merely dissenting about different things.


[†] It is downright bizarre that critics of Pope Francis reject Amoris Lætitia because it is “only” an Apostolic Exhortation and appeal to Familiaris Consortio—which is also an Apostolic Exhortation.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Context is Key: Thoughts on Misinterpreting the Pope


Another unconfirmed story is going around that the Pope said that God “made” a certain person with a same sex attraction, and that he (the Pope) did not care either. The usual suspects are floating the same stories. Those who believe that the Pope intends to “change Church teaching,” interpret these words according to their narrative. Those who think the Church should change Church teaching are treating this as justifying their stance. Those who think that the Pope supports error also treat this as supporting their stance. Assuming that the reported dialogue took place as claimed, the reported words sound to me like the Pope was saying God loves and calls everyone to turn to Him regardless of their situation.

The Church on Same Sex Attraction

Let’s look at the Catechism:

The “psychological genesis” from the CCC was the first thing I thought of when I heard this story. IF the quotes were accurate and in context, then the most we could say is that the Pope has a private opinion on the origin of these inclinations. We must remember there is a difference between an inclination and an act. The Pope did not say the act was okay. In fact, he’s on record as saying the act is intrinsically wrong. Nor can we accuse the Pope of claiming that God deliberately makes a person with evil inclination. God made us. We are born with original sin. But that doesn’t mean God intends us to live according to original sin. He gives us grace—especially through the sacraments—and calls us to respond. If homosexual inclinations are a part of nature and not nurture (remember, the Church has not defined this), then it’s part of original sin. Each of us struggle with our own sinful inclinations in trying to be faithful to God.

An Example of Context and Meaning

But in the midst of this brawl, nobody is asking whether the Pope said what is claimed. Nobody is asking whether the words were properly understood or relayed by person making the claim. We don’t even know the context of the words—if said and accurately repeated. Without knowing that, we can’t know anything about the real meaning.

Here’s an example. Would you believe that the Pope said that people are less important than material at the service of the rich? Here’s the quote from A Year With Pope Francis:

From A Year With Pope Francis...sort of...

So, an Ayn Rand conservative could argue that the words of the Pope mean “things that provide profit to the wealthy are more important than people.” But context is given by the next line, not listed in this entry: “What point have we come to?” The fact that the book left out that line is baffling. But it is not the fault of the Pope.

The Pope was not praising economic injustice. He was opposing it. A person who took the given quote and interpreted it literally, without checking context, would likely give a false interpretation. However, any person who should take that quote and argue that “the Pope was not speaking clearly” would be wrong. The Pope did speak clearly. The problem is when people see only the soundbite quote, they tend to interpret it according to those words alone without seeing if there are any other words that modify the meaning of those limited words.

We MUST Avoid Rash Judgment!

By relying only on soundbite quotes and not looking for context when something seems unusual, is to risk falling into error. To assume that a soundbite quote “proves” error on the part of the Pope is to commit rash judgment—which the Catechism teaches is a sin:

If we would avoid rash judgment, we must recognize the importance of context and not insert meaning into what we hear. We must verify what is said. If it cannot be verified, we cannot assume a meaning that fits our ideology.

That is what we must remember.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Back to Basics: Reflections on Anti-Catholic Attacks

There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church —which is, of course, quite a different thing. These millions can hardly be blamed for hating Catholics because Catholics “adore statues”; because they “put the Blessed Mother on the same level with God”; because they say “indulgence is a permission to commit sin”; because the Pope “is a Fascist”; because the “Church is the defender of Capitalism.” If the Church taught or believed any one of these things it should be hated, but the fact is that the Church does not believe nor teach any one of them. It follows then that the hatred of the millions is directed against error and not against truth.

—Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (Introduction to Radio Replies)

Preliminary Note: Not all non-Catholics are anti-Catholic. This article does NOT intend to accuse all non-Catholics. Rather this article is focused on those who not only disagree with us, but also accuse us of spreading error through ignorance, corruption, and/or malice. For the non-Catholics reading this who may disagree with us but are not anti-Catholic, I do not intend to lump you in with them.

Also, this article involves anti-Catholicism within Christianity. It will not deal with any non-Christian versions of anti-Catholicism.


I find anti-Catholic attitudes are similar to anti-Francis attitudes. Both rely on a misunderstanding of what we believe and, instead of determining what we really do believe, presume ignorance, corruption, or malice as the reason for “believing” what we never believed in the first place or “rejecting” what we hold was never part of the faith to begin with.

Under this way of thinking, something the Church has long rejected is accepted by a certain group as “true.” Then our rejection is considered “proof” of our “falling into error.” So long as we refuse to accept how they see things, we are accused of error. But this is the begging the question fallacy. What they assume to be proof of our “apostasy” actually has to be proven.

Separating Anti-Catholicism from Mere Disagreement

Non-Catholics who are not anti-Catholic disagree with us on issues of authority. We hold in common with Protestants a belief in the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, but we disagree that authority stops there. We hold in common with the Orthodox a belief in Sacraments, Apostolic Succession, Councils, and Sacred Tradition. But we disagree that authority stops there. We believe that there can be a legitimate development of Church teaching that does not contradict Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

The Catholic and the non-Catholic (assuming them equally educated about their beliefs) will disagree about what Scripture means in some places. They will disagree about the weight and meaning of Sacred Tradition. They will disagree about who has the authority to make binding interpretation. Of course these differences are contrary to each other and they cannot all be true. At least some of them must be false. But the existence of this disagreement does not mean that the person who disagrees must be anti-Catholic.

The anti-Catholic hates what they (wrongly) think the Catholic Church is. Because they think we embrace error, the anti-Catholic believes that the Catholic Church is a force of evil that must be opposed. Those people who are members of the Church are assumed to be “ignorant” about what the Bible says—deceived by “heresy.” Those people who are not ignorant are assumed to be willful heretics doomed to be damned for spreading error. I’ve encountered some anti-Catholic Protestants who accused me of being a “reprobate” (those predestined to damnation). I’ve encountered anti-Catholic Orthodox who called on God to curse me.

If an anti-Catholic member of one of the Orthodox churches accuses us of inventing Papal primacy, or if an anti-Catholic member of a Protestant church who accuses us of inventing teaching contrary to Scripture, the Catholic must respond, “No, we cannot accept that. We believe what you say is at odds with what the first Christians believed and the legitimate development of doctrine.” We cannot hold that the Pope is merely “the first among equals” as the Orthodox claim. We cannot hold “Sola Scriptura” like the Protestants claim. These claims strike me as a reason created to reject the authority that the Church has always held.

Sincere or not, Anti-Catholicism is Bearing False Witness

Aristotle once defined truth as saying of what is that it is and of saying what is not that it is not. In this context, this means that the person who disagrees with what the Catholic Church teaches has an obligation to know what we believe before condemning us. For example, we do not reject the Bible. We do not believe “earning salvation.” We do not “worship” Mary or the Pope. The person who accuses us of doing these things bears false witness against us. They might not do so deliberately—they might sincerely believe we hold these things—but the fact of false witness remains.

We have an obligation to learn what is true instead of assume that what has been told to us is true. Unfortunately, some people who do not know what Catholicism teaches are willing to believe any number of accusations against us. They assume we are ignorant. They assume our Church is willing to do evil if it serves our purpose. So, when someone tells them something false about us, they believe it to be true... sometimes to the extent of assuming the Catholic trying to correct their false understanding is either deceived or lying.

A variant of this is the “horrifying past history” tactic. Let’s face it, by 21st century standards, crime and punishment of past eras was barbaric. Much of it came from the Germanic barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire (trials by ordeal, burning at the stake etc. are Germanic, not Christian in origin), but even the Romans did some pretty barbaric things. The thing to remember is this: The Catholic Church did not invent and impose these barbarisms. It was not a case that some bishop said “Hey, why don’t we set people we dislike on fire?” Rather, it was a case of governments changing but the means of punishment remaining constant. My point here is, when we hear about horrifying things in history, we need to understand why things were done that way without making excuses for it.

This means when someone says a thing about the Church that sounds horrible, people have an obligation to get to the truth of it before spreading it around. Do you hear someone say that we believe that we can earn salvation? Before you spread it around, you have an obligation to find out if it is true—and the truth is we do not believe that.

Does it Cut Both Ways? A Warning to Catholics

Our Lord, teaching the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31) tells us we must do to others what we would have them do to us. If we would have others stop speaking falsely about us, we must be sure we speak truth about others rather than assume the worst is true. For example, I have encountered incredibly vicious members of the Orthodox Church online. But I learned that these individuals generally came from a small faction within the Church. It would be wrong if I portrayed the wrongdoing of this faction as if it was practiced by all members of the Orthodox churches. Likewise, not all Protestants believe in things like the “prosperity Gospel” or “Once Saved, Always Saved.” It would be wrong if I accused all Protestants of believing it. 

It is not intolerance to believe that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Our Lord. It is not intolerance to believe that where non-Catholic churches disagree with the Catholic Church, they are wrong. But it is wrong if we are willing to believe the worst about them without discerning if those accusations are true. It is wrong to act with a lack of charity towards non-Catholics.

Whatever level of culpability those who broke away from or opposed the Catholic Church at the time of a schism may have had (something I will NOT discuss), the modern non-Catholic was not party to those actions and should not be treated as if they shared that guilt. We should avoid debating “body counts” and whether actions done in the brutality of the 16th century were “justified” or proof of the other side’s barbarism today.

In short, we should not use the tactics that offend us when they are used against us. Regardless of how anti-Catholics may act, we have an obligation to respond in charity.


My point on writing this is not to shame non-Catholics or to claim that the Catholic Church is impeccable. Rather I hope people reading this might reflect on their assumptions and ask whether what they think about us is really true. Obviously we can’t hold to a form of relativism that says “what we believe doesn’t matter. But I do hope we can respond to each other in charity while learning what is true.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Different Approach

Benedict XVI, Homily, September 13, 2008
Homily, September 13, 2008

Scripture and Church history remind us that what we think is the reasonable response is not always what God wants us to do. It’s easy for us to focus on justice in the sense of God putting the smackdown on those we think are doing wrong. That’s certainly what the Jews were expecting in a Messiah. They were expecting a king who would drive out the Romans and vindicate them. But Our Lord did not meet their expectations. Instead, He spoke to them about the need for repentance and the rejoicing of the sinner who returns. He not speak about the evil of the Romans. Instead He spoke about mercy and the need to turn back to God—not referring to one faction, but to all. 

In this context, I was reflecting on the words of Our Lord at His crucifixion (Luke 23:34) and the words of His servant, St. Stephen (Acts 7:60). Despite the tremendous injustice done to them, they did not call for vengeance on their persecutors but prayed for God to forgive them. The reason this registered in my mind was because of the latest round of anti-Francis spin. As usual, it was a distortion of the facts and thoroughly unjust. The injustice angered me. I wondered how God would ultimately judge it.

Then it occurred to me that getting angry and wanting the anti-Francis faction defeated and punished did not reflect God’s will. While it is true that people will have to answer for undermining the peace and authority in the Church, our task is not to wait around thinking “they’ll get theirs someday!” Nor does it mean we have to act like the Zealots who were set to attack the enemies of what they saw as right. Our task is to emulate Our Lord and St. Stephen, interceding for those who attack the Church while believing they are defending it. That doesn’t mean we stay silent in the face of wrongdoing. The spiritual works of mercy include admonishing the sinner after all. But it does mean we don’t act like the Boanerges (Luke 9:54-55) when we’re rejected.

Yes, there are entire factions devoted to tearing down the authority of the Church when the Church does not match their visions. There are a lot of bitter, angry sites out there who act unjustly. Yes, it’s natural to want the injustice to be corrected. But Our Lady, at Fatima, said that many go to hell because they have nobody to pray for them. I think that we should keep that in mind: It is better to pray for those who attack and undermine the Church than it is to become as angry and bitter as they are.

Monday, April 30, 2018


For the entire history of the Church, we had an understanding that the Magisterium of the Church—the Pope and bishops in communion with him—are the ones who determine what is orthodox and what is not. They are also the ones to determine whether it is an appropriate time to change the discipline of the Church. That’s not to say we didn’t have disagreement in the Church, or that all of those with authority exercised it in an unblemished manner. But the point is, when the Church taught, orthodox Catholics recognized the obligation to give assent. Those who refused to give assent were recognized as dissenters or possibly even schismatics and heretics.

But in these current times, stretching back to the end of Vatican II, we’ve seen the rise of a new way of thinking, one which claims that a person can be a “good Catholic” while rejecting portions of Church teaching they disliked. Initially, it seemed like this movement was politically “liberal.”  We had people arguing that Humanae Vitae was not binding, or that the teaching on abortion was in error. They appealed to either dissenting theologians like Charles Curran and Hans Küng, or to spurious interpretations of past saints and legitimate theological concepts like double effect. These people argued that anything which was not ex cathedra was not protected. Since it could not be protected, it could be in error. Because it could be in error, it could be rejected.

There was no basis for those claims. It depended on the interpretation of people with no authority to interpret and rejected the authority of those who did have that authority. But people fabricated their own theology to justify what they intended to do anyway. When the Popes and bishops rejected their views, they were seen as trying to “undo” the work of the Council. This movement was, of course, in error. Faithful Catholics flocked to the defense of the Church.

There was a problem though. Because the dissenters of that time tended to be politically liberal, it became easy to confuse the defense of the Church with political conservatism. Some defenders of the Church were actually defending conservative politics—which did not always line up with Catholic teaching. When this happened, it was easy to downplay the teaching that rejected conservative politics... but the fact remained that Church teaching did not line up with one political faction. [†]

St. John Paul II, September 16, 1987
St. John Paul II, September 16, 1987

Advancing to the time of the current pontificate, we see that the current dissenters are behaving just as wrongly as the dissenters of the past. They are again falsely citing the words of the saints and legitimate theological concepts. They are again rejecting those with the authority to teach while promoting those who either have no authority to teach, or are confusing their teaching office with their personal views. When the Pope says X, this countermagisterium argues that the Pope had no right to say X. Like the previous generation of dissent, the current faction is choosing to listen to the countermagisterium while treating the real magisterium as a false opinion.

One of the tragedies here is seeing members of the Church I hitherto respected taking a path I cannot follow if I want to be faithful to the Church. When the Church permits Eucharist in the hand and Mass orientem and a respected churchman is telling us this is diabolical, then I cannot follow that churchman in this matter. When a high ranking member of the Church openly questions the teaching of the Pope, a red flag goes up in my mind. When a theologian starts questioning the orthodoxy of the Pope, I start questioning the orthodoxy of said theologian—did he really understand the teaching of the Church? Or did he confuse orthodoxy with conservatism?

The reason I do this is not because I am a liberal dissenter who wants to undermine the Church [§]. Rather, I think they do not speak rightly about the Pope. While I will not judge their motives [¶], I believe they are reacting to a caricature of the Pope. Therefore when the Pope teaches X and the countermagisterium says the Pope is wrong, I believe that the Pope has the authority while his opponents offer opinions which they confuse with authority. 

For example, reading Amoris Lætitia, I believe that the accusation of “opening up Communion to the divorced and remarried” is a false charge. It is clear that the Pope is asking bishops to apply the determination of culpability to these cases instead of assuming all elements of mortal sin are present. It’s quite possible that the number of cases where culpability is reduced is ZERO. But we can’t presume that. Therefore when I read something that claims that the Pope is “opening up Communion,” I believe we have a false statement—even if sincerely believed to be true—on par with “Catholics worship Mary.”

Some critics reading this far may accuse me of trying to match my theological knowledge against men who served the Church faithfully for decades. That would be false. I don’t presume to challenge them. However, when one considers the words of Our Lord on authority (Matthew 16:19. 18:18, Luke 10:16), I am pitting the authority of the Pope against the opinions of these men. Put that way, I must be obedient to the Pope to be faithful to the Church. Therefore, if the countermagisterium opposes him, I cannot listen to them.


[†] There were warnings of course. The advent of groups like the SSPX were serious threats and the magisterium recognized that. But it was easy for them to be tolerated by conservatives who argued “liberals were greater threats.” In my opinion, the current problems in the Church has that mindset as at least part of the origin.

[§] I have also defended his predecessors from critics on both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals have accused me of being heartless. Conservatives have accused me of being ignorant of Church teaching.

[¶] This is important. The average person who misinterprets the Pope as teaching error can quite easily misinterpret the Priest, Bishop, or Cardinal who expresses concern. We would be wise not to judge them by those anti-Francis Catholics who cite them.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Sinners and the Self Righteous

When Our Lord was teaching here on Earth, two of the things He made clear were:
  1. The salvation of sinners was not unobtainable as they feared
  2. The self-righteous were not as close to salvation as they presumed
When Jesus spoke and dined with sinners, they responded with joy but the self-righteous resented it. They did not recognize their own need for salvation, thinking their beliefs and behavior guaranteed them a place in God’s kingdom. Despite the warnings that all of us needed mercy and, therefore needed to repent, the self-righteous assumed they were good enough but Our Lord must not be from God because He showed mercy to the lowest of the low—the prostitutes and tax collectors.

Flashing forward to 2017, I am inclined to think that Our Lord is permitting His Vicar, the Pope, to experience (in a small way) what He experienced on Earth. The Pope is emulating his Master in offering mercy to the sinners and warning the self-righteous. He is telling both groups to turn back to the Lord. With those who are our lowest of the low: the divorced and remarried, those involved in abortion, those involved in homosexual acts, that mercy is possible to them if they seek it. He has urged the clergy to reach out with compassion to helping them (and the rest of us as well) to return to the faith—or at least start them on their way back to God. He held a Year of Mercy seeking to remove barriers that kept people from seeking forgiveness.

Tragically, the self-righteous treated these acts as laxity, not mercy. His call for bishops and confessors to assess the individual culpability instead of assuming that all the conditions required for mortal sin were present was treated as “opening up the Eucharist to public sinners,” unwittingly echoing the rebuke the Pharisees gave to the Apostles: Why Does Your Master Eat With Tax Collectors and Sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11). They see the Pope washing the feet of convicts, showing mercy to public sinners, and assume that this means sanction of their behavior instead of reaching out the way that Our Lord did.

Of course, we should note that the self-righteous do not exist only in one faction of the Church. The Social Justice Warrior who tolerates some evils while looking disdainfully at other Christians who oppose those evils are just as much a part of the self-righteous as the anti-Francis Catholics. They are simply self-righteous over different causes. The attack of “anti-abortion but not pro-life” is just as much a label of contempt as the Pharisee reserved for the tax collectors, and just as much contempt as the anti-Francis Catholics apply to the sincere divorced and remarried who are trying to find the way home but are finding it difficult to extract themselves from sin.

Any time we are willing to look at others and write them off, while thinking of ourselves as righteous in the eyes of God are greatly deceived. That’s true if one scours the minituæ of ancient Church documents to find ways to condemn others, and it’s true if one assumes that working for social justice makes them superior to their fellow Christians and other sinners. While some sins are greater evils than others, the deadliest sin for each individual is the one that sends them to hell. That may be divorce and remarriage. It may be abortion. It may be homosexual acts. But it may also be refusing to follow the Church teaching on other parts of social justice. Matthew 25:31-46 points out that many will be damned for what they refused to do to help others in need.

The point of this is we need to recognize that all of us are sinners and all of us are in need of mercy. This does not mean we ignore warning a brother or sister in danger of losing their way. But it does mean we must not view ourselves as “better” and others as “worse” in doing so. It especially does not mean that so long as we do not perceive ourselves as bad as others, we are guaranteed a spot in the Kingdom of Heaven. We must constantly turn back to The Lord and away from sin.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Who Are You Listening To?

When it comes to dissent—conservative or liberal—in the Church, I’ve noticed one factor. People quit listening to the Church as Mother and Teacher and instead listen to individuals or groups that say what they want to hear about the Church. This transforms the Magisterium into a group with an opinion and elevates the group with an opinion into the Magisterium. The danger of course is that these individuals or groups do not teach with authority. That falls to the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, as well as those the Pope delegates (See Code of Canon Law 752-754). 

These individuals or groups tend to appeal to a higher cause, overlooking or ignoring the fact that Scripture or prior magisterial teaching is not being questioned. What is being questioned is whether these groups are properly interpreting Scripture and Tradition in arguing that a conflict exists and that they must disobey the Church in order to be faithful to God.

What these people are doing is committing the Begging the Question fallacy. Their claims are what have to be proven. But instead, they act as if their assumptions were true and interpret whatever the Church does through that unproven assumption. The problem is the Magisterium of the current Pope and bishops are the ones who determine how Scripture and Sacred Tradition are to be interpreted and applied to the conditions of this time. So any appeal to the Scripture and Sacred Tradition against the Magisterium has no authority whatsoever.

The arguments some use, appealing to certain bishops, cardinals, or popular theologians in the Church against the Pope is the Appeal to Irrelevant Authority fallacy. These individuals do not have authority to overrule the teaching of the Pope. If they teach in opposition to the Pope, it is a personal opinion without authority [†].

Unfortunately, a theology of dissent is being invented that misinterprets history and the words of the saints. Yes, we’ve had Pope John XXII who held a position that was later defined as an error. But the issue was not defined at the time, and he did not teach. He merely gave a homily. Yes, we’ve had Liberius and Honorius I who were suspected of privately holding heresy. But that is disputed and even if true, it was never taught. Yes, we’ve had morally bad Popes like John XII and Benedict IX. But their wickedness was in their personal behavior and not their teachings. Even citing St. Paul rebuking St. Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) is a case of irrelevant authority because this incident involved personal behavior causing scandal, not teaching.

And teaching is exactly what the issue is with Pope Francis. While there is an attempt to take the various levels of Papal documents and draw a line on where they bind, the anti-Francis faction shows itself to be inconsistent. They reject Amoris Lætitia on the grounds that it is “merely” an Apostolic Exhortation. But they also say that we must obey Familiaris Consortio—which is also an Apostolic Exhortation. By denying (wrongly) the authority of one, they logically must deny the authority of the other. We can likewise point out their (rightful) insistence on obeying encyclicals like Humanae Vitae is inconsistent with their refusal to accept Laudato Si [§].

In addition to the inconsistent obedience that coincides with personal preferences, we have to consider the track record of those who allege the Pope is promoting error or confusion. The fact of the matter is the critics have made many dire predictions that turned out to be false. They claimed that the synod on the family would legitimize homosexual relationships. It did not. They claimed that the Pope would ordain women deacons. But Gaudete et Exsultate shows that he does not view the possibility of deaconesses to be on the same level as ordained deacons. 

The fact is, every “controversy” that arose alleging “error,” was disproven by a reading of a transcript of his actual words. The controversies arose from partial quotes ripped out of context (for example, the “Who am I to judge” comment of 2013). Yet people repeat these debunked claims, and when disproved, argue that the Pope is to blame for “not speaking clearly.”

When it reaches this point, the person of good will must start asking questions about the usual suspects making the same mistakes and the same accusations. Why do we give credibility to the angry bloggers and borderline schismatics (see canon 751) when they allege the Pope is in error instead of the successor of Peter who has been given the authority to bind and loose.

And before one says, “that doesn’t happen if the Pope teaches error,” let me point out that the charge of the Pope teaching “error” is unproven. It’s based on the interpretation of those who do not have the authority to contradict the teaching of the Pope who has power over the entire Church and all parts and whose decisions cannot be appealed (canon 3331404). To make the argument that one can reject a “false teaching” by the Pope is to show that the claimant has a fatally flawed understanding of Church teaching.

Nobody who is informed claims that when the Pope gives a homily or holds.a press conference that he is teaching. A Pope can be mistaken about some details (like St. John Paul II kissing the Qur’an because he mistakenly thought it was a token of respect), or express himself poorly (like Benedict XVI and his unfortunate comment on a “gay male prostitute with AIDS” which many misinterpreted as changing Church teaching. A Pope might be unable to remember the details of a CDF study made decades before (like Pope Francis calling for a study on deaconesses). These were mistakes. They were not teaching error.

Yet the critics of the Pope falsely claim he is teaching error in these situations too. And this leads us to the decision we must make. Will we listen to the Pope and give a “religious submission of the intellect and will” that is even required with the ordinary magisterium? Or will we listen to some angry blogger, or a churchman who rejects what the Pope teaches?

When we think about the religious obligation in place since the first century AD, it would be foolish to listen to those who say we can disobey. So each Catholic needs to stop pretending that their disobedience is really a “higher obedience” to God. Our Lord told us that rejecting the Apostles was rejecting Him (Luke 10:16). Since we profess Apostolic succession, Our Lord’s words must apply to the successors of the Apostles as well. 

For two thousand years, the Pope has been the standard of orthodoxy. In the case of bad Popes, they failed to teach when they should have, but they never taught falsely. We can either continue to believe that, listening to the magisterium that interprets how Church teaching is to be applied. Or we can stop believing that, and choose to follow whoever tells us what we want to hear.

But the person who does that is being deceived.


[†] Given how badly Catholic dissenters on social media misinterpret and misrepresent the Pope, it’s only fair to consider the possibility that they also misinterpret the Churchmen they cite against the Pope and these Churchmen do not approve of it. Hence, I have no intention to name or accuse individuals in this case. I leave it to the magisterium to judge their orthodoxy.

[§] The same can be said for Catholics who accept Laudato Si and reject Humanae Vitae.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Does Our Reaction Show Our Preconceived Notions?

In his Mere Christianity, CS Lewis wrote, “We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort.” Depending on the accent the reader puts on certain words, this can either be interpreted as “God wants us to continually turn to him and not simply check off boxes,” or as “God doesn’t care what you do.” The first interpretation would be theologically correct. The second would be false. But the person who praised or condemned CS Lewis because that person assumed the second interpretation would be wrong. 

That is a problem I constantly see in the attacks on Pope Francis. This week, we had a beautiful Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, which urges the readers to constantly seek a life of holiness and evaluate where one needs to change ways of thinking. The exhortation is inspiring and accessible to the average reader. In my first reading (this is something that rewards repeated reading), I found things that confirmed what I thought the Church thought, and I found things that challenged me to go beyond my previous assumptions. In no way did I feel like I was being unjustly attacked by the Holy Father. 

But some people do. People have accused him of contradicting St. John Paul II on the teaching of the Right to Life. People have accused him of denigrating religious life. People have accused him of being a Marxist. But, when I compare what the Pope actually wrote with what his accusers claimed he said, I found no truth to their claims.

In fact, when one reads St. John Paul II in Christifideles Laici #38, we see that what he said on the right to life gives a definition that goes beyond (but must include) opposing abortion:

38. In effect the acknowledgment of the personal dignity of every human being demands the respect, the defence and the promotion of the rights of the human person. It is a question of inherent, universal and inviolable rights. No one, no individual, no group, no authority, no State, can change—let alone eliminate—them because such rights find their source in God himself.

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.

The Church has never yielded in the face of all the violations that the right to life of every human being has received, and continues to receive, both from individuals and from those in authority. The human being is entitled to such rights, in every phase of development, from conception until natural death; and in every condition, whether healthy or sick, whole or handicapped, rich or poor. The Second Vatican Council openly proclaimed: “All offences against life itself, such as every kind of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures; all offences against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where men are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons; all these and the like are certainly criminal: they poison human society; and they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator”(137).

If, indeed, everyone has the mission and responsibility of acknowledging the personal dignity of every human being and of defending the right to life, some lay faithful are given a particular title to this task: such as parents, teachers, healthworkers and the many who hold economic and political power.

Nor can we say that this is merely an opinion of St. John Paul II. The sacredness of human life has long been taught by the Catholic Church. Take St. John Chrysostom in his Homilies on Matthew (Homily 50, #4):

St. John Chrysostom Homily on Matthew #50, ¶4
The problem is people have preconceived notions on what the Church teaches. If their assumptions are excessive, then they accuse those who do less of laxity. If their assumptions are lax, then they accuse those who do more of being excessive. Moreover—and this is the most dangerous part—if the person is error about what the Church teaches, then they accuse the actual Church teaching of being in error. The liberal dissenter might argue that Church teaching “goes against Jesus.” The conservative dissenter might argue that Church teaching goes against Sacred Tradition. But both are using their erroneous views to judge the Church when they should be listening to the Church in order to judge their own values.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
The Church can teach in an ex cathedra manner. The Church can teach using the ordinary magisterium. But in both cases, we must give obedience to the teaching. Tragically, some in the Church assume that what God intends mirrors their own preferences. The conservative assumes Church teaching must mirror conservative ideology while the liberal assumes the Church must mirror liberal values. The lax assume Jesus was lax while the rigid assume He was rigid.

So, when we see people claiming that the divisions in the Church are the fault of the Pope, we need to realize that these divisions are caused by people who insist on their preconceived notions are “true” and judges whatever a Pope should formally teach according to their notions. The confusion in the Church can be laid at their doorstep.

If we want to be faithful to the Church, and we find a stumbling block, then let us remember the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises:

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises
That does not mean “follow the Church if she teaches error.” It means, “When there is a conflict between your view and the Church, follow the Church as the Pope teaches.” Otherwise, we’re following our preconceived notions into error.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Same God, Same Church, Same Promise of Protection

In the past week we’ve seen more reminders about the dissent in the Church that claims to be faithful in a higher way. Some show outrage that bishops take a stand against moral wrongs done by the government—but cheered them when they happened to agree to their opposition to previous administrations. We’ve seen people cheer princes of the Church when they undermine the authority of the Pope, implying that the Pope is not following Christ. 

What makes this surreal is the fact that these critics celebrate the past Popes and bishops; saints who not only defended the Church against the wrongdoing of Cæsar, but also recognized that the Pope is the head of the Church and opposed those who claimed that being faithful to Christ meant rejecting the authority of the Pope.

These critics recognize that God protected His Church from error during the reigns of undeniably bad Popes in past centuries. But they will not recognize that God continues to protect His Church today. Instead, they claim that a Church teaching they dislike is not a teaching at all yet, at the same time, argue that when the Pope teaches contrary to Christ, he has no authority.

Canon Law 752-753
So... which one is it? Is it not a teaching at all? If so, the issue of teaching does not apply. But if it is a teaching, then why do they argue that the teaching lacks authority? Personally, I think the issue is these critics are realizing that the Pope is teaching but they do not want to accept it. To avoid violating Canon 752, they argue that a Pope’s teaching is not a valid teaching, and therefore not binding. The problem is the Church is quite clear that nobody has authority to act against the Pope:

Canon Law 1404
Yes, St. Paul can rebuke St. Peter for personal wrongdoing. Yes, we can speak of the shameful behavior of Benedict IX, John XII, Liberius, or Honorius I. But we can’t claim their acts of personal wrongdoing as proofs that we can pass judgment over whether.a teaching is a teaching or not. When the Pope exercises his magisterium, even if not ex cathedra, we are bound to give a religious submission of intellect and will.

To believe that the Pope, exercising his teaching office in the ordinary magisterium, can teach in opposition to Christ is to open a Pandora’s Box that undermines the authority of the Church. It’s a claim that God will let His Church teach error and we have to scrutinize everything a Pope says to be clear he is not teaching error. 

I find that a blasphemous claim—it makes Christ a liar when He says He will be with the Church always (Matthew 28:19-20) and will bind and loose what the Church binds and looses (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). Since Our Lord makes clear that to reject the Church is to reject Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16) and that the successor of Peter is the head of the Church (Matthew 16:18), we have a choice. We can either:
  1. Trust that God will not let a Pope bind error or loose truth, OR...
  2. Deny that God protects His Church so she can be the Pillar of Truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and Light of the World (Matthew 5:14-16)
Either we believe that the same God who protected His Church from the beginning protects His Church today, or we have to admit that we cannot know for certain whether God protected His Church in other circumstances. Can we really be certain that the canon of Scripture is correct without the authority of the Church? How about whether we can be sure God protected us in ourTrinitarian belief and that the Church didn’t make a wrong turn in the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) while Arius was right? 

If one wants to claim that God didn’t protect His Church in 1958 (when St. John XXIII became Pope), or in 1963 (when Vatican II began), or in 1970 (When Blessed Paul VI promulgated the new form of the Mass), or in 2013 (when Francis became Pope), then how can you know that God protected His Church in 1570 (when St. Pius V promulgated his Mass) or in 1545 (the beginning of the Council of Trent)?

It is only if we realize that it is the same God, same Church, and same promise of protection that we can trust any teaching of the Church. If one accepts the authority of Pius XII while rejecting the authority of St. John XXIII (or Francis), that person denies God keeps His promise. If one accepts Trent, but not Vatican II as a lawful Council, that person denies God kept His promise. 

Because of my faith in God and His promise, I will trust that when the Church teaches—even when not ex cathedra—she teaches under God’s authority. Because of this, when the Pope teaches one thing and a cardinal, bishop, or priest teaches against him, I will listen to the Pope. I don’t do this out of “papiolatry” or “ultramontanism” that treats the Pope as intrinsically holding inerrancy. I will follow Him because I believe that to do so is to do God’s will.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Marching For Whatever You Already Support

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, "hooray for our side"
(Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth)


This past weekend we saw a March For Our Lives over gun violence in our nation. Youth and their supporters marched for an end to school shootings. Unfortunately, the March and the reactions to it confirm one tragic fact about America—most people have already made up their minds about what it all means and anyone who disagrees is considered a tool or a willing accomplice of all that is evil. Whoever disagrees is a terrible person who doesn’t care about children dying or having a dictatorship (choose whichever fits your own narrative.

I, like everyone else, have opinions about the March and what is right and wrong. But I don’t intend to discuss my views in this blog—I see the purpose of my blogging as urging people to follow the teaching of the Church, not to argue that my preferences are Church teaching. Trying to interject my personal political views into this would be counterproductive.

Three Questions Everyone Must Ask

As I see it, a Catholic view of any political protest requires us to ask three questions:
  1. What is it that is being opposed?
  2. What is proposed to replace it?
  3. Is the assessment of what is condemned and the proposed solution just?
In my experience, people are very vocal about #1, rather vague about #2, and almost never answer #3. It’s easy to rail against what you dislike, but proposals to replace it tend to be reduced to platitudes about previously held beliefs (in this case “ban guns” vs. “right to self defense”). Almost nobody seems to ask whether there are problems with their solutions that must be addressed; almost nobody asks whether their treatment of the other side is calumny or rash judgment.

The result is nobody is dialoguing about what should be done. Where did existing laws fail to work? Where did laws conflict with each other? Where were laws absent? This is where we should start. We should be asking where laws need to be better enforced, reformed, or created. Instead we have people either saying “we need no new laws” or “we must make laws” without showing that the position will actually make a more just society. Each side just assumes their side is reasonable and never addresses concerns. Dialogue is replaced by ad hominem arguments and personal attacks.

Everybody is angry that things are the way they are. Everybody wants things to change. But nobody is willing to ask if they need to change for the good of others.

Now Let’s Apply This Generally

At this point I should reveal my “bait and switch.” I mentioned the March For Our Lives because it is recent and controversial. But every problem I mentioned above is found in every demonstration. It’s hard to see it when it is a demonstration we approve of. For example, as a Catholic I fully support the annual March For Life that happens on the anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade. But I do acknowledge that it’s easy to downplay legitimate fears. We can never compromise on the fact that abortion is intrinsically evil. But I do notice that the articles that address the fears of the other side are fewer than the moral outrage articles [†]. Even though we must reject any solution that accepts abortion as a “right,” we do need to address the fears that lead some to think that they “need” a right to abortion.

In every issue where people are divided, we must ask what is true among the claims and what must be done about the concerns. That doesn’t mean a fallacy of compromise however. If I claim you owe me $50,000 and you say you owe me nothing, the just solution is not you paying me $25,000. If I speak truthfully, then you do owe me $50,000 and splitting it in half is an injustice. But if I speak falsely and you owe me nothing then it would be unjust to make you pay at all.

So we cannot compromise on the Christian obligation to seek out and follow what is true and right. But we cannot ignore legitimate concerns either—even if we cannot accept intrinsically evil or unjustly applied solutions. This means we have to evaluate our political views in light of Church teaching, rejecting whatever contradicts it. But we can’t just write off legitimate concerns that lead people to false conclusions or legitimate conclusions we disagree with.

The Example of Pope Pius XI

For example, in 1937, Pope Pius XI wrote a scathing encyclical on Atheistic Communism (Divini Redemptoris). He showed why it was incompatible with Christianity. But, after doing that, he then said we had to ask why people were turning to it as an option. He wrote:

38. It may be said in all truth that the Church, like Christ, goes through the centuries doing good to all. There would be today neither Socialism nor Communism if the rulers of the nations had not scorned the teachings and maternal warnings of the Church. On the bases of liberalism and laicism they wished to build other social edifices which, powerful and imposing as they seemed at first, all too soon revealed the weakness of their foundations, and today are crumbling one after another before our eyes, as everything must crumble that is not grounded on the one corner stone which is Christ Jesus. 

39. This, Venerable Brethren, is the doctrine of the Church, which alone in the social as in all other fields can offer real light and assure salvation in the face of Communistic ideology. But this doctrine must be consistently reduced to practice in every-day life, according to the admonition of St. .James the Apostle: "Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves."[21] The most urgent need of the present day is therefore the energetic and timely application of remedies which will effectively ward off the catastrophe that daily grows more threatening. We cherish the firm hope that the fanaticism with which the sons of darkness work day and night at their materialistic and atheistic propaganda will at least serve the holy purpose of stimulating the sons of light to a like and even greater zeal for the honor of the Divine Majesty.

In other words, it’s not enough to just point to the Church teaching. It has to be lived. Whether we are heading off useless arguments over the best ways to apply Christian teaching or whether we are opposing error, we have to live out the compassion and love that forms our faith. That means we can’t just say, “I disagree, so to hell with you!” The Church didn’t just condemn communism. She said we must live the truth in response. Likewise, it’s not enough to just condemn abortion. We have to work to make it unnecessary as well as unthinkable. Nor is it enough to merely condemn guns or emphasize the right to self defense. We have to work on identifying and eliminating what makes us unsafe.

Applying Our Faith

Of course the existence of sin and concupiscence means we will never eliminate these things on our own. There will always be someone who chooses to do evil by whatever means he or she can find.  Some of them may even deceive themselves into thinking they are doing good. Others will twist arguments to make it appear they are promoting good. Some may even try to say the Church should keep out of what they label “political issues.” But the Church rejects that view. In Vatican II (Apostolicam Actuositatem), we are told:

5. Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience.

We can’t divide the world into “holy and secular” and treat it as if the Church has no place in the latter. In seeking to make the world a better place, we have to live our Christian beliefs and temper our political views so they are modified by our faith. We can’t just demonize and condemn. Nor can we say “I don’t care about your concerns.” We have to provide Christian solutions to the real fears of others—even if we cannot accept their solutions. And, if we can’t accept their solutions on account of our moral obligations, we must work to show them a better way: in love and not like “Now look you stupid jerk!”

No doubt we will be rejected by many. But we must remember that the saints also encountered such hatred (and, in the case of martyrs, encountered worse) in converting the nations. They didn’t give up, even though conversion of a nation took centuries. We shouldn’t give up either. America needs conversion. But we should make sure that where there is intrinsic evil, we teach in love why we must reject it, and where there is dispute over political solutions we must have the willingness to investigate where the true and just solutions lie, and not just demand that whoever does not embrace our politics embraces evil by default.


[†] It is a lie to say that pro-lifers “don’t care” about these other issues, however.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Thoughts on Letting False Narrative Interpret Facts

Recent events in Church reporting shows that the narrative one subscribes to pushes the misinterpretation of what actually happens. For example, the so-called “Lettergate” involving the Vatican publishing house (LEV). In this case we had a letter from Pope emeritus Benedict XVI which called the reaction against Pope Francis a “foolish prejudice” and affirmed the continuity between the current Pope and his predecessors. This was fact that did not sit well with the anti-Francis Catholics. So they began to look for flaws. 

The flaw they found was the fact that the presentation only quoted excerpts from his letter. One section involving the criticism of one of the authors was omitted. Another section involving the fact that Benedict XVI declined to write an introduction because he wouldn’t have time to read the presented works and only would write an introduction on works he had read thouroughly. This was read aloud but the publicity photograph used by LEV covered one page except for the signature and blurred the final lines on the visible page, making these sections unseen.

In this day and age, where people are willing to make rash judgments, it was foolish of the presenters to do this. They probably should have made clear that they were reading excerpts from the letter and either showed the entire photograph or not at all. But false narrative moved quickly to come up with an wrong interpretation that fit their beliefs.

People who believe that the Vatican is being taken over by dissenters assume that this blurring and selective citation was made from a desire to hide the truth. They claimed that the hidden material “changed the meaning” of what was cited. Some claimed—without any evidence—that the letter was published without permission from Benedict XVI. Others went so far as to call it “elder abuse.” At any rate, the fact that he denounced their criticism of Pope Francis and the idea that Pope Francis’ teachings represented a break (the real news) was forgotten. 

Another example involved the case of Bishop Barrios of Chile. In response to a question, Pope Francis said he received accusations but no proof concerning Bishop Barrios’ involvement. Critics of the Pope promptly came up with.a letter he received in 2015. Because of the narrative they followed, this was interpreted as “proof” that the Pope lied. Except he didn’t. Accusations ≠ proof, and the Catholic Church has always required proof when it comes to accusing bishops. In the past it was clear that sometimes false accusations were made. For example, almost 25 years ago this happened with Cardinal Bernadin being falsely accused.

That’s not to say Bishop Barrios is innocent or guilty. I leave that to those tasked with investigating to decide. Rather I bring this up to point out that what we think happened might not turn out to be true. Sometimes the truth shows that people reacted wrongly.

In both examples, certain groups of people were invested in the narrative that Pope Francis was dishonest and promoting error. From that narrative, they interpreted the news stories in a way that would provide “proof” of their beliefs. The problem is, these stories were not proof. Rather the presupposed narrative was assumed to be true based on the assumption that the narrative was true—which is very much in dispute.

The fact is, a certain faction of Catholics are hostile to Pope Francis and have been since the day he became Pope. From day one they have assumed he was in error and interpreted everything he said or did under the assumption he was in error. Some of these were radical traditionalists who believe he runs roughshod over tradition and rubrics. Others are political conservatives who assume that his affirmation of Church teaching on social justice is a “proof” of being politically liberal. Each faction that dislikes him points to the other factions that dislike him as if their dislike was proof and there is “confusion” in the Church—never mind that these critics are the ones causing it in the first place.

Moreover, critics also use the “guilt by association” fallacy to point out unsavory groups that also use a false narrative to claim that the Church is “finally changing.” Because these groups:
  1. Support error and
  2. Claim the Pope vindicates their errors 
Once again critics of the Pope claim it “proves” the Pope supports error. Never mind everything he says affirming what the Church has already taught. The false narrative insists that all evidence “proves” their claim and any that doesn’t is ignored.

But we’re called to do the opposite. Whatever our preferences in politics, society, and customs, it must be formed by Church teaching and properly evaluating events. We can’t twist an event in the life of the Church into whatever we want it to be. We have to learn the facts about it and apply the Church teaching as interpreted by the magisterium to determine the truth and morality of the act. Our narrative must follow truth, not determine it. Otherwise we are like the blind leading the blind... and we know where that leads.

From the pontificates of Blessed Paul VI through Benedict XVI, we saw the false narrative about the “Spirit of Vatican II,” which claimed the Popes were “betraying” the Council. Less easy to see were the Catholics who misinterpreted the Catholic faith as being politically conservative. Now, things are reversed. We have a false narrative about Pope Francis accused of betraying Church teaching that are easy to see. Less easy to see are the Catholics who misinterpret the Catholic faith as being politically liberal.

In both cases, it’s the same error. But each faction switched sides. Tragically, neither faction asks, “have I gotten it wrong?” Rather than ask, they assume they are right. Assuming they are right, they wander. And wandering, they stray from the right path, the Church, by rejecting her when the Pope and bishops in communion with him teach how to best apply Church teaching.

If we would avoid this error, then let us trust God to keep His promise and protect His Church instead of deceiving ourselves into thinking that the Church can go wrong but we haven’t.