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.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Voice of the Stranger

That the confusion exists is not disputed. The question is who determines what causes it and leads us out of it. Many Catholics argue that to end confusion, we should listen to what they say, and not listening to them is seen as “proof” that the one opposed is causing the confusion. But we would be foolish to accept the word of just any individual—no matter how appealing their words might seem to us.

If we would be faithful Catholics, we need to recognize that we do have designated shepherds who lead the flock. Jesus, of course, is the Good Shepherd who leads us. But He has made clear that certain people have authority to teach in His name (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and has made clear that rejecting them is rejecting Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). When there is a conflict between what the Church says and what critics of the Church say, the voice to follow is the voice of the magisterium, not the voice of the critic.

This sounds alien to 21st century sensibilities. We pride ourselves on being rational individuals and what we see must be true. From that, whatever does not match our perception must be wrong. We then argue that when the Church does not match our views, the Church must be in error. But that view is incompatible with what we must believe.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola listed some attitudes faithful Catholics must have. One of them is vital, but easily misinterpreted in modern times:

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises
The modern misinterpretation thinks this means that even if the Church should teach error, we need to follow it—and it offends people. But this isn’t what it means. What this means is: If we think something is “white” but the Church says it is “black,” we must trust the Church and realize that our own perception must be false. If we rely on our perception and deny the statement of the Church, then we are in error, no matter how sure of our senses we are. Unfortunately, people tend to confuse the teaching of the Popes with things that do not involve Papal authority. So, when a Pope gives an interview or a homily, there can be imprecision. There can be things where a Pope thinks he remembers something but has to go back later and check. These are not teachings. A Pope can make a mistake here and not be heterodox

The magisterium determines what is the proper interpretation of Scripture and Tradition and applies them to the needs of the time. The needs of the time may require a greater emphasis on mercy or a greater emphasis on discipline. But we don’t have one without the other, and an increased emphasis on one is not a contradiction or a betrayal.

This is why, when I encounter those who claim that a Pope is in error, or heretical or some sort of lost shepherd, I keep away. They claim to know the real truth about what the Church is supposed to believe. But in showing a (probably unintended) rejection of God protecting His Church, I can see that they do not speak with the voice of the Shepherd not His vicar. So I flee their voice as the sheep flee the voice of the stranger. No matter what the past reputation of the critic in defending the Church, the fact that they are questioning that teaching authority now shows that we cannot use them as helps to understanding the faith until they abandon the view that their perception takes precedence over what the Church says.

The teaching authority of the Church is the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. It is not the individual blogger, priest, bishop, or cardinal who chooses to take a position apart from that teaching authority. Whether it’s the language of worship, how we receive the Eucharist, how we interpret Amoris Lætitia, or other topics, the one who tries to downplay or undermine what the magisterium today teaches is the one who is the stranger’s voice.

Our Lord tells us that the one who does not go through the gate is a robber (John 10:1) and He is the gate (John 10:7). It seems to me reasonable to conclude that the one who seeks to teach the faithful to oppose those in authority (the magisterium) is that robber. They might be malicious or they might have good intentions. But if they reject what the Pope does instead of accepting the Church saying something is “black” where they think they see “white,” they cannot be considered speaking with the Shepherd’s voice

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Masquerading as an Angel of Light

(From The Spiritual Exercises)

With the rejection of the Pope almost reaching the level of overt schism, it is time to look at a forgotten tactic used by the devil—the appearance as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). The words of St. Paul and St. Ignatius of Loyola remind us that our desires to be holy can be corrupted and lead us to deceive ourselves and be deceived by others so we wind up actually doing the work of the devil while we think we are doing the work of the Lord.

Unfortunately, the temptation is being so focused on the evil things we expect those we oppose to do that we miss the devil deceiving us by appealing to our desire to be holy while actually urging us to follow our sinful habits. If the devil can get us to believe our disobedience is not really wrong, then it doesn’t matter how many rosaries we pray or what form of Mass we attend—for we are working against God and His Church.

I believe that the rise of anti-Francis websites and books are a sign of this corruption. I have no doubt that these people are sincere in their desire to defend the Church. But I believe the devil is whispering in their ear, emphasizing the things that anger them, stirring up their suspicions and listening to only those things that reinforce their preconceived notions.

“The Preaching of the Antichrist”
(It’s always wise to ask where the whispers come from...)

In the current time of the Church, I believe we are seeing the devil as an angel of light whispering in our ears and telling us that when the Church does not go the way we want, it is “proof” that the Church has gone wrong. But obedience to the Church is something Our Lord requires (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). To protect the Church from error in this obedience, Our Lord gives the Pope and the bishops in communion with Him—as successors to the apostles—the authority to bind and loose. Yes, we’ve had morally bad Popes, we’ve had cowardly Popes and we’ve had Popes with questionable orthodoxy personally. But we’ve never had a Pope who used his teaching office to teach error.

When Catholics claim the right to pass judgment on which teachings they will accept as binding, they would be wise to ask whether what is urging them on is really God. Since Our Lord gives His authority to the Church, it seems more likely that the angel of light that we think we see is nothing more than the devil seeking to deceive us into rebelling against the Church. Remember, if the devil can lead us to hell, it doesn’t matter to him if we’re pious in doing so.

Whether one is opposed to Pope Francis but loved his predecessors or loves Pope Francis while hating his predecessors, it is a rejection of the same authority given by God to the successor of St. Peter when one rejects the teaching of the Pope (see Canon 752).

And when you feel angry at the Church, thinking there’s no way that God would want you to listen to His vicar, just ask yourself whether that’s really from God or whether it’s a counterfeit, a devil masquerading as an angel of Light

Monday, March 5, 2018

False Narratives: Garbage In, Garbage Out

One temptation in life is to replace seeking and finding the truth with attaching ourselves to a narrative and following it—even if it leads to error. I suspect that the reader immediately thought of people they disagree with (I did, and I’m writing it). But the problem is, it is difficult to look at one’s own narrative with the same scrutiny. If our assumptions are false, the way we interpret events and motives will be useless and probably harmful.

We see these false narratives everywhere. Whether in religion or politics (and, tragically, we tend to confuse the two), we are tempted to take our preferences on how the world should work and treat any deviation from that preference as a proof that the person we disagree with is in error—and probably maliciously so.

For example, in the 2016 elections, we saw Catholics struggling over which candidate would do the least harm. Disagreement over this issue led to accusations that the person with a different view was openly supporting the evils of that candidate. Or, after the Parkland shooting, we saw Catholics accusing each other of willingness to let innocents die or willingness to let people become victims.

Or, in terms of the Catholic faith, we see people assume that their personal views on what Church teaching means are true, and whoever takes a different view—even if it is the Pope—must knowingly support error.

In each case the assumptions ran:

1. My views are correct
2. This person disagrees with me
3. Therefore, this person willingly supports error.

But the first premise must always be investigated. Even if we desire to be faithful to the Church, it does not follow that the interpretation we give is correct. The magisterium, led by the Pope and bishops in communion with him, determines the correct interpretation. To go against that interpretation is to show that one’s assumption is false.

The second premise’s relevance then depends on whether the first premise is true. If my views are objectively true, then disagreement is a concern: For example, because abortion is an intrinsic evil, a person who disagrees with Church teaching is doing wrong.  But if the person disagrees with the view that opposing abortion means supporting political platform X, that disagreement is not necessarily wrong.

The conclusion is only true if the person has accurately interpreted Church teaching and the opponent has knowingly rejected Church teaching. If the person has misinterpreted Church teaching or confused Church teaching with an opinion on interpretation then the first premise is false. If the person has wrongly confused disagreement with rejection of truth, then the second premise is irrelevant. In either case, the conclusion is unproven. (Remember, it’s possible that both opinions can be in error).

To avoid a false narrative, we constantly investigate whether our assumptions are true and whether there are other ways moral obligation can be legitimately applied. As Catholics, we believe—or are supposed to believe—that the Church authentically guides us on how we must live. But there are different ways we can legitimately apply Church teaching. If the person we disagree with uses one of those different ways (as opposed to trying to evade Church teaching), we cannot accuse them of error.

From “Dogma and Preaching”
[From “Dogma and Preaching”]

The false narrative we must reject is that our preferences are truth and that to reject our preference is to reject the truth. We can be mistaken about things: Whether about how Church teaching works [†] or about the motives of the person we disagree with. To avoid this, we must constantly seek the truth about what Church teaching means and what those we disagree with really hold.

Otherwise, we are the blind trying to lead the blind (Matthew 15:14) because we cannot see past the view that we might err. The old computer programming maxim applies here: Garbage In, Garbage Out. If we assume error to be true, or truth to be error, the conclusions we draw will be worthless, if not harmful.


[†] I reject the notion that the Church teaches error. While she can change disciplines, she will never go from teaching X is evil to X is allowed. Many critics of the Church confuse discipline with doctrine with disastrous results.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Proxy Wars: Replacing Moral Belief with Ideology

Whenever America is involved in a moral debate, whether a national tragedy or change in leadership, her people get into a dispute about what we must do. The goal we should strive for is to consider what we want to change and what needs to be done to achieve it. But instead of doing this, our tendency is to pick the “sacred cow” of of our preferred ideology and substitute it for this investigation. Then, if anyone should disagree with our solution, we accuse them of “not caring” and being willing to let the evil continue.

But this is unjust. The person who rejects an ideological solution might simply disagree with the means put forward and think another solution is superior. In that case, the infighting is counterproductive. It leads to nothing being done on the grounds that each thinks that the other solution has no value.

The other side of the coin is when a proposed solution is just, but threatens something else we support, the temptation is to downplay the value of that solution, claiming that it will not help us and might cause extra harm. 

These two things combined make finding the truth difficult. A legitimate solution can be attacked by those who don’t want to follow it, while supporters of an illegitimate solution can savage those with reasonable objections.

If we want to find a real solution, we have to be willing to set aside our ideological preferences and search for the truth about a situation. Once we find the truth, we can see what needs to be done in response. But if we start with our own preconceived notions on what must be done, more often than not our “one size fits all” solution won’t fit at all.

As Catholics must be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the city of the world (Matthew 5:13-16), we have no excuse for adding to this confusion. We believe that God forbade bearing false witness. This means we cannot demonize those who have a different idea on how to best carry out Church teaching [†]. Because we believe we have a Church established by Our Lord, given His authority, and protected from teaching error, we must listen to what the Church teaches and base our political views on that teaching.

Tragically, we tend to label those teachings we dislike as “prudential judgment” as if a prohibition against doing X was a mere opinion and we were free to do X. This negates our witness that we have the truth for the whole world. If we denounce others for rejecting Church teaching that we happen to agree with while ignoring Church teaching we are at odds with, we are hypocrites. While the world may not be very good at picking up truth, it’s uncomfortably good in spotting when we don’t practice what we preach.

So, when there is a tragedy, when there is an election, when there is some sort of national crisis, Catholics need to stop confusing their ideological preferences with seeking out and doing what is right. We can’t replace that with scapegoating and assuming that whoever does not support our ideological ideas must be acting out of bad will. We need to be willing to sacrifice our political preferences in favor of doing what is right if our political preferences are wrong.

Unfortunately, it is easy to fall into the temptation of immediately thinking of the “other side” being guilty while never thinking that we might be guilty of the same fault. I’m not talking about moral relativism here. If something is objectively wrong, we have to reject that wrong even if it means incrementally taking it down when outright overturning is impossible. No, I’m talking about our tendency to sneer at the wrongdoing of others but ignoring our own failures and refusing to amend them. When we do this, we are no longer defending what is morally right. Instead, we are fighting a proxy war over ideology while pretending to be morally virtuous. And then we wonder why Christian belief is rejected.

So let’s stop using the moral teaching of the Church as a camouflage for our political battles. Let’s make sure our faith shapes our ideology and not the reverse. 


[†] Of course we must make sure that our “different idea” is not an attempt to evade Church teaching. God is not deceived.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Isn’t it Time to Go Beyond the Usual Arguments?

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.
(Apostolicam actuositatem)

With yet another mass shooting and the inevitable arguments over whether laws should be passed, I think there’s one thing that never gets discussed: whether the 2nd Amendment itself needs to be amended. By this I mean it seems like proponents of gun control want to pass laws as if it did not exist and opponents of gun control want to use it to block any meaningful restrictions.

I think proponents of gun control need to offer ideas on how it should be reasonably be amended. I think opponents of gun control need to propose solutions on how to prevent mass shootings. But instead, people on both sides offer their same arguments that bring up the same counter-arguments and nothing gets done.

From a Catholic perspective, I think we need to move beyond partisan divisions and start *talking* to each other if we are to find a just solution that serves the public good. I would urge all sides to look at the situation without partisan lenses so we can find that just solution. But if we just point fingers and refuse to question ourselves, will that ever happen? Or will we just continue the circle of Shootings—Outrage—Forgetting?

As a Catholic, I think we need to break that circle and try to find just solutions, even at the cost of our political views.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Danger in Being Unable to See We Might Be the Ones in Error

Putting the common “Church is in error” claim into a syllogism [†], it would look something like this:

1. [My interpretation] is [True] (A = B) [§]
2. [Church Teaching X] does not hold [My Interpretation] (C is not A)
3. Therefore, [Church Teaching X] is not [True] (Therefore C is not B)

The syllogism is logically valid [*]. But that does not make the argument true. We must also investigate whether the premises are true. In this case, the problem is in the first premise (antecedent). The history of heresy shows that no matter how sincere a person is in their belief being true, that does not make the belief true. The antecedent is a begging the question fallacy. The person accusing the Church of error has to prove that his interpretation is true. 

The problem is, the Church has a magisterium which has the authority and responsibility on how to interpret and apply Church teaching (doctrine or discipline) [∞]. Whatever goes against the magisterium is error. If obstinately held, that error is heresy. If one refuses to assent to the magisterium, that error becomes schism (See canon 751). So, the antecedent being true requires (A = C). But the consequent (second premise) denies that. Therefore the conclusion is false.

What we have to remember is, when a member of the Church—even if he be a priest, bishop, or cardinal—teaches in opposition to the Pope, his words lack authority. Canon 752 reminds us that even if the Pope does not teach in an ex cathedra manner, if he teaches, we must give “a religious submission of the intellect and will.”

Some may bring up the cases of Popes Liberius, Honorius I, and John XXII to argue that Popes can teach error. But the problem is these cases did not involve Popes teaching, but Popes privately held opinions [•]. But the teachings of Amoris Lætitia are not opinions. They are teachings, taught with the same level of authority as St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (both are Apostolic Exhortations). They are disciplinary teachings—which means a later Pope can legitimately change Pope Francis’ disciplines if he sees it as necessary without that “proving” that Pope Francis was in error [º].

So, the fact that the person opposing the Pope is a priest blogger, concerned bishop, or dubia cardinal, that rank does not give his opposition authority. It’s not for me to judge the state of their souls or their intentions. So I won’t accuse them of malice, heresy, or schism. Rather their words must be judged by whether they match up with the authoritative teaching of the Pope (See canon 750). If they don’t match, it is the critics’ words that must be found wanting—not the Pope’s words.

But if we insist on our own interpretation over the magisterium, then we’re no better than previous members of the Church who rejected authority. Church opposed the error of Hippolytus, Arius, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Matthew Fox, or Hans Küng—all of whom believed themselves to be right in rejecting a Church teaching.

All of us should strive to be faithful to the magisterium under the current Pope and bishops… lest, in the future, the Church should talk about our errors.


[†] Ethically, we’re required to put an opponent’s argument into a valid logical form if possible—we can’t create an illogical straw man to make it look bad.
[§] This premise is usually assumed, but not stated. The technical term is enthymeme
[*] In classical logic, this is an AOO syllogism. But if the person was not making a universal claim, the argument would be IOO, and logically invalid.
[∞] This is not an ipse dixit fallacy here. The Pope and bishops in communion with him IS the valid authority and not an opinion.
[•] Scholars disagree over whether Liberius and Honorius I actually held error privately. In the case of John XXII, the issue was not yet defined. So while Church teaching later declared his opinion to be error, he did not reject established Church teaching.
[º] I fully expect that clarifications will come either during this pontificate or from his successor.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Catholics and Partisan Excuses

There is a dangerous attitude today which is willing to assume that a person belonging to an ideology we oppose can do no right, while one we approve of can do no wrong—even if both people happen to do the same act. Take for example, the case of the news story about Trump paying off a porn star. The Washington Post wrote an article about Evangelical leaders giving him a pass when they were outraged with Clinton. Now the point is valid. But what the article doesn’t mention, however, is that those criticizing Trump were the ones wanting to give Clinton a free pass.

I don’t bring this up to say “we should ignore both” or say “there is wrongdoing on both sides” in a sense that negates wrongdoing. Nor am I trying to make a tu quoque argument. Rather, I think we need to practice consistency. If an action is morally wrong and needs to be publicly denounced, then we need to speak out consistently, and not give the person we agree with a “free pass.”

By the same token, when a public person does something right, we should not praise only when it when done by someone we approve of while committing the “moving the goalposts” fallacy when it comes to someone we dislike. If we complain that politician X doesn’t do “enough” on a subject, and we constantly redefine what “enough” is so that the disliked person never quite reaches it, we’re not making a stand for the Church teaching. We’re making our moral stand seem like a partisan bias.

If a politician is wrong on an issue in light of the Catholic teaching we hold, we cannot downplay that issue. I’ve seen Trump supporters downplay Church teaching on social justice. I’ve seen Trump opponents downplay Church teaching on the right to life. In such cases (and it is not just something that happens with Trump), whatever Catholic Moral Teaching does not square with the supported politician is denigrated as a “lesser issue.” The politician is given a free pass on that issue so long as he does other things the partisan Catholic already agrees with.

We can’t bear proper witness to what we believe if we show the world that our morals flex when it suits us, and only hold firm when we want to denounce someone. The non-Catholic will then see social justice as proof of “liberal bias” and the moral issues as proof of “conservative bias.” They won’t see our stands as testifying on how all of us are called to live. They’ll see it as just one more political squabble.

Nor can we take this and point to the “other” side while refusing to examine our own behavior. This is an example of Our Lord’s warning about the splinter in a brother’s eye and a log in our own. If we loudly denounce others while doing the same thing, we make Our Lord’s Church look like nothing more than partisan hypocrisy. Such behavior would be a scandal, turning away people who need to hear the teaching of the Church.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Mistaken Papal Critics and History We Forget

Preliminary Note

I have no intention of passing judgment on successors of the apostles like the "dubia cardinals" led by Cardinal Burke, or the Kazakh bishops. Just as anti-Francis Catholics have misrepresented the Holy Father to support their narrative of a "heretical" Pope, I find that these cardinals and bishops were also misrepresented, with anti-Francis critics making it sound as if these cardinals and bishops "supported" their schismatic behavior.

This article does not claim to say that these churchmen are guilty of the same wrongs Sts. Cyprian and Hippolytus committed. I merely write this article to show that misinterpretation and attacks on Popes were not limited to the pontificate of Pope Francis. Rather, I wish to point out these two cases where the Popes were misrepresented and attacked as a reminder that even men known for their holiness can go wrong if they put themselves in opposition to Popes using their teaching office.


One of the popular narratives in opposing Pope Francis is to point out some of his predecessors—such as Liberius, Honorius I, and John XXII who were suspected of privately holding error. The anti-Francis Catholics point out that these Popes are proof that a Pope can err. From that, we have a string of tortured logic arguing that because those Popes privately erred [a claim disputed among Church historians], Pope Francis can publicly err in his words and actions that sound unfamiliar to our own understanding of Church teaching.

These critics overlook a different part of Church teaching—where Popes have taught and certain bishops of the Church mistakenly thought the Popes were teaching error and publicly took a stand in denouncing them.  I would like to briefly discuss the case of two papal critics from the Third Century AD.

Pope St. Stephen I vs. St. Cyprian

One example of this took place in the Third Century AD. St. Cyprian held that the baptism of heretics was invalid, and if any of these heretics should convert to the Catholic Church, they needed to be rebaptized. 

However, St. Stephen I taught differently. He held that if the heretic was baptized in the proper formula, the baptism was valid. If this heretic turned/returned to the Catholic faith, he did not need to be rebaptized, but merely perform penance. Instead of realizing he had misunderstood the nature of baptism and changing his views, St. Cyprian accused St. Stephen I of promoting heresy in a series of letters to his fellow African bishops. For example, in his Epistle LXXIII, to Pompey:

2. He [Pope Stephen I] forbade one coming from any heresy to be baptized in the Church; that is, he judged the baptism of all heretics to be just and lawful. And although special heresies have special baptisms and different sins, he, holding communion with the baptism of all, gathered up the sins of all, heaped together into his own bosom. And he charged that nothing should be innovated except what had been handed down; as if he were an innovator, who, holding the unity, claims for the one Church one baptism; and not manifestly he who, forgetful of unity, adopts the lies and the contagions of a profane washing.
Cyprian of Carthage, “The Epistles of Cyprian,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 386.

But the fact is, the Catholic Church followed the teaching of St. Stephen, not St. Cyprian. If a person who was validly baptized by a non-Catholic intending to do what the Church intends, we hold that baptism to be valid. Even an atheist can validly baptize. The Catholic Church holds it is wrong to rebaptize. If a person was never validly baptized, we baptize. If there is a question about whether a person was validly baptized, we give conditional baptism. 

St. Cyprian’s error was in assuming that his position was correct and that the Pope must be wrong. From that assumption, he drew the false conclusion that the Pope was doing damage to the Church from his “error,” and had to be opposed. But since St. Cyprian was in the wrong about baptism, his condemnation of the Pope was simply wrong.

Pope St. Callistus [†] vs. St. Hippolytus 

Another example of a bishop wrongly accusing a Pope involved Pope Callistus. In a time when the Roman Empire held that slaves could not marry free citizens, the Pope decreed that such a marriage was valid. 

St. Hippolytus thought the Pope was in error. In a denunciation, he declared that the Pope’s action would lead to divorce, use of contraception, and attempted abortion on the part of a free woman who married a slave, writing [§]:

For even also he [Callistus] permitted females, if they were unwedded, and burned with passion at an age at all events unbecoming, or if they were not disposed to overturn their own dignity through a legal marriage, that they might have whomsoever they would choose as a bedfellow, whether a slave or free, and that a woman, though not legally married, might consider such a companion as a husband. Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth.9 Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church!
Hippolytus of Rome, “The Refutation of All Heresies,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. J. H. MacMahon, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 131.

I find this remarkably similar to the statements of some Catholics who claim that what the Pope said in Amoris Lætitia would mean people in a state of mortal sin seeking to receive the Eucharist—assuming that the abuse was directly caused by the Pope’s action as opposed to being an abuse of his teaching. 

Yes, a third century Catholic could think about becoming pregnant by a slave husband in that way, but that would be doing evil that was not in accord with the Pope’s teaching. This was a post hoc fallacy by St. Hippolytus which is similar to the one committed by Pope Francis’ critics.


These cases are examples of members of the Church who confused their interpretation of what should follow from Church teaching with Church teaching itself. Because of this, they falsely accused Popes of promoting error, attributing worst case scenarios as directly caused by the Pope who declared the teaching. These cases also involved the accusers assuming the worst of the Popes, leading them to think they must support the worst abuses.

I believe that these are the proper historical counterparts to the opposition to Pope Francis, not the examples of “bad Popes” people try to cite. People who have assumed that all people who are divorced and remarried must be in a state of mortal sin cannot reconcile that assumption with the Pope correctly pointing out that assessing culpability must be done with remarriage as well as with every other grave sin.

Like the third century critics of Popes, the 21st century critics of this Pope have confused their view with Church teaching itself. The Pope has made a reasonable teaching, but some people, failing to understand it, assume their fears of negative consequences through abuse is the intended teaching.


[†] Also known as Callixtus.
[§] This is commonly cited [correctly] as proof that the Church consistently condemned contraception and abortion.  But I find it interesting that Hippolytus slandered Callistus in doing so just as some critics today slander Pope Francis. These critics are correct that the teaching they defend is true. But they err in thinking the Pope’s teaching contradicts it.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Theologians, Bloggers, and Authority

It is the teaching of the magisterium that binds and looses, as well as interprets how to apply the teachings of the past to the present age. When the Pope and bishops in communion with him do this, we have the obligation to give assent to these teachings. There is no appeal to the decision of a Pope (canon 1404), though a later Pope can decide on a different approach from his predecessor. The magisterium does not invent new revelation, but can develop doctrine from the timeless teachings meeting current needs and challenges.

For those Catholics who are not members of the magisterium (most of us), we do not have the authority to bind and loose. Nor do we have the authority to declare what is the proper teaching and judge people who disagree with us to be enemies of the faith. The value of what we write only goes as far as we accurately portray the teaching of the Church. We might think that position Z logically follows from teaching X and Y, and perhaps our insights may help the Church to deepen our understanding of the faith, but we cannot claim that Z is Church teaching if the Church does not teach Z. Nor can we accuse the Church of error if she rejects our reasoning.

This is important because there is a growing number of theologians and bloggers out there who presume to pass judgment on the current magisterium based on their own interpretations of what should follow from past Church teaching. If they hold one thing, but the magisterium does not act in accordance with that interpretation, these theologians and bloggers have no right to declare them in “error.”

This is the reality we must adjust to. The “progressive” Catholic who wants to change Church teaching or the “traditionalist” Catholic who wants to resist change cannot declare the Church to be in error if the Church should reject their interpretation.

This means we have an ongoing obligation to study what the Church teaching is, and how it is applied. If we find our view is at odds with that of the teaching authority of the Pope, that’s a good sign that our view is the one in error. We have an ongoing obligation to understand in context what the teaching we have problems with really means.

The 2000 years of teaching from the Church cannot be cherry picked to reach a conclusion that we think is more in line with what we think the Church should be. Individual saints from the Church Fathers occasionally offered ideas which the Church eventually rejected. We cannot appeal to those ideas. Occasionally, theologians offered opinions that they later retracted. We cannot try to use the name of the theologian to justify what he later rejected.

The fact is, we do wrong if we seize on these ideas and call them “Church teaching,” when the actual Church has decided against this view. In short, we cannot bind what the Church has loosed, nor loose what the Church has bound. If we think otherwise, we act without authority and become stumbling blocks to the faithful.

That doesn’t mean we can’t theologize or encourage fellow believers to act rightly. But it does mean we must offer submission to the magisterium when she teaches in a way which goes against our preferred view.