Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Pharisee and the... Bishop?

The Pharisee and the Publican. James Tissot (1894)

This will probably be a controversial article, but I think it needs to be said, lest we fall into the trap of focusing on the evil of others to the point of self-righteousness and judgmentalism. There is a lot of anger directed at the bishops—individually and in general—over the latest scandals. This is understandable. But it can also be dangerous if it tempts us to justify ignoring Our Lord’s teachings when an evil seems too much to bear.

I think we forget that the audience Jesus spoke to was an audience of victims. The Romans had conquered Judea, and were running it unjustly. Some of the Jews (like the tax collectors) collaborated with the Romans out of self-interest, enriching themselves at the expense of their own people. Hope was high for a messiah who would drive out the Romans and restore the Kingdom of Israel.

But that’s not the message Jesus preached. That’s not the reason Jesus came. He preached salvation from sin, and spoke of the need to forgive those who wronged us. He warned against attitudes of self-righteousness and judgmentalism, telling us not to assume our following the rules and not being as bad as others made us worthy of salvation.

Understanding this shows how scandalous Our Lord’s teaching was. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus tells us that the Pharisee—who sincerely kept the teachings of the Law—was not justified in God’s sight while the tax collector—who was viewed as a notorious sinner—was justified. The difference was one of attitude. The Pharisee spent his prayer time praising himself and judging others. The tax collector pleaded with God for mercy.

I think of this, watching Catholics on social media expressing sneering contempt for the bishops. There is an ugly, self-righteous demand for them to abase themselves and grovel for our forgiveness. There is an ugly contempt that considers them to be human garbage. There is an ugly belief that we, the laity, are superior to them.

But, following the theme of Jesus’ parable, if a sinful bishop echoes the prayer of the tax collector, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” it is he who leave justified while we will not. Does that shock you? It should, just like the parable shocked the Jews. Like us with the bishops, the Jews had to struggle with the thought that Jesus was turning a blind eye to real wrongdoing. But He wasn’t. He was pointing out the need for repentance...from each one of us!

We should remember Our Lord’s warning to the Pharisees: (Matthew 21:31) “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” Our Lord picked out the two classes of people who were seen as the furthest from God. But repentant, they are closer to God than the proud. So we should beware: if we are proud and self-righteous, we might be horrified to hear: “the abusive priests and cowardly bishops are entering the kingdom of God before you.” 

No doubt people will angrily reply, “THEY AREN’T REPENTANT!” But this brings us to the (oft misquoted) “Judge not” of Matthew 7:1ff. No, Jesus wasn’t saying “don’t judge the morality of actions.” He was saying, “don’t judge the person’s soul or worthiness of salvation.” When we assume that the other is irredeemably evil unless they show repentance on our terms, we are violating Jesus’ teachings.

Nothing I have written above should be interpreted as ignoring or writing off real wrongdoing. Some have done things that require censure. But we must not forget that the Church has a mission to bring Christ’s salvation to all.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Incredibly, I have seen some say “we cannot show mercy,” or “there has to a limit to forgiveness.” But that flies in the face of The Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Scripture warns us (Matthew 6:15): “But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”

Now leaving aside the cases of actual victims and their families (counseling these people goes beyond my wisdom, training, and experience, so I do not presume to tell them what they should do), I would remind my fellow Catholics of Ephesians 4:26–27: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil.” If we are letting our anger fester into revenge and wrath, we are creating an eight lane highway for the devil.

So yes, let us work for reform in the Church. But let us make sure that our work is free of sinful anger, and make sure the reform we work for is compatible with the Church Our Lord established and promised to protect.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Come What May, The Church Remains

The scandals have shaken the Church. McCarrick and the 300 priests who have credible accusations [§] against them abused their positions to molest children and that is inexcusable. Some bishops were more interested in avoiding scandal than in shepherding their flock. That too is inexcusable. The Church has a procedure to canonically investigate and try bishops and that should be done [†].

However, certain Catholics have taken it further. In their mind, all the bishops should have known and therefore cannot be trusted. They believe that only the laity can save the Church and demand that they lead the investigation, determine the fate of bishops, and have a say in their replacements. The implication is that since none can be trusted (unproven) they cannot lead us. It’s a very anticlerical movement that shows some people do not have a clear understanding of what the Church is.

Others have shown signs of believing that the Church is a simply human institution. I’ve seen parents say they weren’t sure if they wanted their children baptized and priests wonder if the gates of hell have prevailed against the Church (cf. Matthew 16:18). These too are a sign of people not understanding what the Church is. 

What we need to remember is the Catholic Church is the Church Our Lord, Jesus Christ, established and promised to protect, remaining with it until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). That doesn’t mean that the leaders of the Church will be sinless. Even in the best of times, there is corruption. Even with the holiest of Popes and bishops, there are bad decisions. That doesn’t mean we have to be fatalistic about the current crises in this time. Of course we have to work to clean up the Church. But regardless of corruption in the Church, Our Lord’s promise remains. Individuals sin, fall into heresy or schism. But Our Lord does not permit the Church to teach error in His name [¶] regardless of what some of the shepherds may do. 

Remembering this is how we discern true reform from rebellion. In every time of crisis, the true reform has come from those who gave submission to those tasked with leading the Church. False reform came from those who rejected that authority. In fact, the false reform usually spun off into heresies or schisms. 

What we need to remember is that the Church exists as the ordinary means [∞] Our Lord uses to bring His salvation to the world and help us discern how to live faithfully, and that He has entrusted the teaching office to the successors of the Apostles—the Pope and the college of bishops in communion with him. Our Lord made hearing His Church mandatory (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). So, when we encounter a movement which refuses or undermines the teaching authority of the Church, we know this movement is not of God.

I understand it is frustrating, especially since some bishops have been revealed as failing to look after their dioceses. How can we tolerate knowing that other bishops, guilty of similar things, may be undetected? The answer is, we must trust that even if a sinful priest or bishop should escape detection, God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7). Our Lord’s warning about millstones (Matthew 18:6) should terrify them about dying unrepentant. We trust that God can and will protect the Church from going astray.

I admit that may be a small consolation for the victims and their families. They do want justice—rightly. But we need to realize that, being but men, our magisterium will not do a flawless job of rooting out corruption, no matter how diligent and sincere they are. For the rest, we must leave it up to God, painful as it may be.

So let us pray for the faithful clergy in this time of trial. Let us pray for the unfaithful clergy that they may repent and be brought to repentance and salvation. Let us pray for the victims, that they might be consoled. Let us pray that we act wisely and not out of sheer emotion. And then, after praying, let’s get to work—but let’s work with the Church, not against her.


[§] Barring any exculpatory evidence a la  the Cardinal Bernadin case—which I do not expect—I have no reason to question the credibility of the cases.
[†] As I understand it, the statute of limitations is past for criminal charges or lawsuits.
[¶] This protection is not “prophecy.”  It isn’t a guarantee of personal moral perfection either. Rather it is a negative protection. It prevents the Church from teaching error, but it doesn’t mean further development isn’t possible.
[∞] Ordinary means is the normal way Our Lord carries out His mission. There’s nothing to stop Him from using an extraordinary means, but it would be presumptuous on our part to knowingly refuse His ordinary means and demand something unusual to save us.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Avoiding Rebellion

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’ve been warning about certain factions among Catholics who are hijacking certain controversies in the Church to support their ideologies. For example, Catholics who oppose Pope Francis are treating his refinement of Church teaching on the death penalty as “proof “ of his error.” Meanwhile, Catholics who oppose the US bishops because of their opposing Obama on the contraception mandate or Trump on immigration are seizing the McCarrick scandal as “proof” of their moral badness.

Keep in mind I am not talking about people who hear the news and are trying to make sense of it, seeking the truth. I am talking about people who assume everything can be explained by their favorite theories. It’s one thing to be shocked by the McCarrick scandal or the Pennsylvania grand jury report. It’s another to use these cases to advocate dissent.

Tragically, the number of Catholics believing these accusations of theological or moral “badness” are growing. I believe this shows that Catholics seeking to understand these upheavals are believing the constantly repeated accusations from these factions. The people who thought capital punishment was morally good are finding it easier to believe that the Pope teaches error than to consider the possibility that their understanding of the Catholic position is faulty. The people who are appalled by McCarrick are finding it easier to blame “the USCCB” than to grasp that predators can deceive others into thinking they are “good.”

What we need to do is look at the leaders of these anticlerical attacks. Have they had past problems with Church leadership? Is “ignorance” or “liberalism/conservatism” their continual accusation to explain why the magisterium does not go the way they want? If so, it is a warning sign against their reliability as authentic guides. Are they on the record (books, blog, etc) as holding a position that is not compatible with clarified Church teaching? That may be a sign that their objectivity on what is authentic interpretation of Church teaching is questionable.

We need to understand that the Pope does have the authority to determine what is authentic or inauthentic applications of Church teaching. He has the authority to determine how the investigation and trial of a bishop can be handled. Nobody has the authority to hear an appeal against his judgments (canon 1404). So he does have the authority to declare that the use of the Death Penalty is inadmissible in these times. He does have the authority to determine how the investigation of wrongdoing will proceed. We cannot argue that the laity can overrule him or the bishops in the lawful exercise of their positions.

Once we understand this, we might be able to find ways leading to useful reform. If we understand how a canonical investigation/trial works, we can properly apply canon 212 and reverently provide useful input on how to better achieve justice. If we understand the scope of the Pope’s authority (try Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 3, for example) we can avoid needless arguments on whether we need to listen to him (short answer: Yes). 

But if we refuse to learn how things work, if we assume that the error must be with others, not ourselves, then we are not providing religious submission of intellect and will to the authority of the Church. Our interpretation of Scripture is not Scripture itself. Our interpretation of past Church teaching is not past teaching itself. The Pope and bishops in communion with him have the right and responsibility to determine which interpretations are correct.

If we choose our own interpretation over that of the magisterium, if we argue that when we disagree the Church must be wrong, we are choosing a faction over obedience, and becoming rebels.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Church Will Be Saved Despite—Not Because of—Their Attacks

Yeats, The Second Coming

As things continue, we see those who once defended the Church from unjust attacks join the ranks of the unjust attackers. Seizing on injustice that exists in the Church—and always will as long as sinful human beings are part of it—they seek to tear down the whole of authority because they dislike how some of those tasked with teaching and guiding have failed in carrying out their task.

What these people want is a wrathful response to wrongdoing, without considering whether the wrathful response is the right one. Wrongdoing exists in the Church. Therefore it must be the fault of the entire college of bishops. If they had done their jobs—so the argument goes—sin would not exist in the Church.

But until the final judgment, sin will always exist in the Church. I don’t say that to be fatalistic. I say that to point out that the attitude of “throw the bums out” is not going to solve the problems in the Church. Some in charge may indeed need to be removed to correct the current wrongdoing. But that correction must be done justly. That means determining who are guilty of wrongdoing, not assuming all are guilty and attacking the entire Church for not doing a mass purge.

I think these Catholics have allowed their dissatisfaction with how wrongdoing is handled to fester into assuming the entire system is unjust. Their arguments differ, depending on whether they identify with the morality of the political left or right, but they boil down to a belief that the Church is wrong in some way and the Pope and/or the college of bishops are to blame. 

The problem is many people assume that what they have heard is actionable when it is not. Take, for example, the recent Crux story about a seminarian who (anonymously) posted his account on Twitter. The line that made me go “hmm...” was this:

“If it is true....” I am not calling this unidentified man a liar. It may well be a true account. The problem is, with anonymity and with no identification, we cannot act on it.  Which diocese? Which seminary? Did the person he talked to even pass the complaint on to the bishop? There are a lot of things that a proper investigation has to know. We rightly want justice and reform. But if the things that “everybody knows” are stories without details like this, there’s a limit to what the Bishop can do. Sure, he can ask general questions. But that might turn up nothing...or even turn up misinformation if he asks the person who covered up. Without facts to act on, he can’t even know for certain that the story is true. Remember Cardinal Bernadin, for example.

Again, I am not accusing victims of lying. Nor am I trying to make excuses for bishops who did wrong. I am saying we need to determine the truth of the matter. We should keep in mind the Apology of Socrates on knowing and not knowing.

Apologia 21. Be like Socrates, not the other guy.

I cite this to point out that many people think rumors that “everybody knows” is the same thing as proof. It’s not. “Everybody” knowing a rumor is not the same thing as people with the responsibility finding information they can act on.

In this scandal, many critics think they “know” and, therefore the bishops are all guilty. But the questions to ask are: Who told? Were they reliable? Who was told? Did they pass it on? With answers to these questions, we can find the truth and hold the guilty responsible. Without answers, but thinking we know, we can only rashly accuse.

Unfortunately, in times of scandal, the person who says “let us seek the truth first” gets accused of supporting the status quo. But we cannot rush to judgment, especially if we have previous animosity with the accused. 

This is why I say “stop and seek the truth first,” instead of “hold all the bishops accountable.” Yes, those within the Church who were culpable for enabling abuse should answer for it. That’s a major part of reform. But the “guilty until proven innocent” mindset will not lead to reform. It will lead to mistrust and anticlericalism to the point where Catholics will justify disobedience on the grounds that the bishops didn’t act as they thought best.

The Church will be saved despite those angry critics. Not because of them.

Friday, August 10, 2018

No Matter How You Slice It, It’s Still Baloney: Thoughts on Dissent Masquerading as Prudential Judgment

Certain Catholics are trying to deny teachings they dislike. Most recently it involves the refined teaching on the Death Penalty. The argument tends to run as follows:
  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not infallible. 
  • Therefore it can err.
  • Therefore the Pope’s addition must be a prudential judgment that can be ignored.
The problem is, this argument has an an unspoken assumption: that whatever is not infallibly declared can be set aside as an opinion. This argument is popular, but the proposition was condemned over 150 years ago:

Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors

The fact is, the Church normally teaches using the Ordinary magisterium. The use of the extraordinary magisterium (an ex cathedra teaching or an ecumenical council) happens under rare circumstances where a teaching needs to be nailed down for the good of the faithful. For example, the Church has always believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But it was not given an infallible definition until 1215 in response to the rejection of that teaching by Berengarius of Tours. 

Under the logic of the dissenters, a Catholic would be able (before 1215) to ignore the teaching of the Church on the Eucharist as a “prudential judgment.” But that’s false. It should also be noted that previous dissenters tried to use this argument to justify disobedience to abortion or contraception. Because the teaching rejecting it fell under the aegis of ordinary magisterium, dissenters argued it was non-binding.

Whether the people who make these arguments are ignorant about Church authority or whether they knowingly reject it is a matter for the individual’s confessor. But knowing or not, they are in error. The Code of Canon Law makes clear that teaching requires obedience and rejection of that authority runs the risk of schism:

can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

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

can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.

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

Prudential judgment is not a matter of “optional obedience.” It is a matter of determining how to best cooperate with a teaching. It can never contradict the Church teaching however. #2309 of the CCC provides an example of what prudential judgment means. In listing the requirements of a just war, the Catechism states, “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” In other words, the determination of whether a conflict meets the requirements of legitimate defense is a judgment of the one doing the defending—but not whether to obey. This assumes, of course, that the person is rightly seeking to follow Church teaching and not feigning obedience while acting to contradict it. 

Applying this to CCC #2267, one might have been able to debate whether a particular case met the criteria of prudential judgment as phrased by St. John Paul II. But under Pope Francis, that debate of “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity,” is no longer open. By saying:

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

the Pope teaches there is no further debate on whether the death penalty is an option. It is inadmissible and we must stop supporting it. Is it possible that in a hypothetical future, conditions would exist where we no longer have “effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” But unless those conditions become a reality, as determined by the Church, we do not have the right to ignore this teaching and call it “prudential judgment.”

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Thoughts on Reforming and Deforming

[Preliminary Note: This article should not be seen as making a blanket condemnation of everyone who wants justice in the current scandals. Rather, it is warning about a certain anticlerical attitude promoted by some factions in this call for reform. I don’t intend to accuse any individual of supporting these errors. Rather I point out certain dangerous errors so they can be rejected in the search for true justice.]

The current scandals in the Church provoked legitimate concern. When wrongdoing exists, it needs to be addressed quickly and justly. The problem is different people have different ideas on what is quick and just. When something is proposed that doesn’t meet their ideas, the assumption is that “nothing is being done.”  The thing to remember is, the Church has things that cannot change. If we want reform that goes against the nature of the Church, that “reform” will not happen. We cannot demand the Church betray what she is in order to meet our demands. 

Throughout history we see the difference between real and false reform. The true reform works with submission to those tasked with shepherding the Church. The great reforming saints dealt with corruption in the Church while submitting to the judgment of the Pope and bishops. On the other hand, movements like the Lollards dealt with corruption by treating the Pope and bishops as adversaries that must be opposed. They ended up by attacking the teachings of the Church that stood in their way. If a bishop said their demands were not compatible with the teachings of the Church, the bishops were considered to be enemies of reform.

The question we need to ask, when faced with things we dislike in the Church, is whether we will accept the authority of the Pope and bishops when they make a decision as shepherd of the entire Church or diocese. Yes, canon 212 does say we have the right or duty make known our concerns (“with reverence towards their pastors,” which few seem to notice). But that doesn’t mean what we want is fully compatible with Church teaching. If we want something that violates Church teaching, the Pope or bishop must refuse that request.

Unfortunately, instead of assessing their demands, these factions tend to accuse the Church of stonewalling or “business as usual” or “good old boys club.” They certainly run the risk of falling into thinking these Church teachings are obstacles to good. History shows that movements like these turn into heresy (demanding a rejection of these underlying teachings) or schism (rejecting the authority of the teachers).

I don’t say this to advocate clericalism. I don’t say this to advocate “business as usual.” Instead, I say this because any true reform must work with the shepherds of the Church. A proper reform must identify where the problem lies and what sort of correction is compatible with the teaching of the Church. For example: The Lollards under Wycliffe thought that the problem of corruption among the clergy was the rejection of the clergy itself.

While I don’t see a Lollard style rejection (yet?), I do see troubling attitudes. “How can we trust the bishops to police themselves?” is a common charge. The demand follows that any solution must have the laity deciding what must be done—without input from the clergy. 

I believe that question is a warning sign of error. It is the foundation for a rejection of the clergy justly exercising their authority to determine how to apply Church teaching if that exercise doesn’t go the way the critics want. If one is tempted to think “the whole damn structure is corrupt,” then it’s easy to start thinking that we must remake the whole thing to suit our own beliefs on what it should be.

But if those beliefs are wrong, then the attempt at reform will also go wrong. As Catholics, we recognize that the magisterium has the authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, 18:18), interpreting how to apply teaching to a particular age. Any true reform must recognize that authority and submit to it. Yes, there will be corruption in the Church. Yes, it needs to be eliminated. Yes, there will always be disappointing actions we think fall short of what is needed, and No, we shouldn’t just take a fatalistic attitude about that.

But we need to recognize that a proper reform cannot exclude the Pope and bishops, and cannot begin with the assumption that all are guilty until proven innocent. A movement that thinks this way is cutting off those who have the authority and responsibility to determine whether a proposed reform is compatible with what Our Lord established the Church to be. That way lies ruin.

Yes, we of the laity have the right, and sometimes the duty of making our needs known—but respectfully and giving the proper submission required when they exercise their lawful authority.

I think one thing that is getting lost is trust in God and prayer. We should be praying for God to guide the Pope and faithful bishops to seek out a just solution. We should then work with them in getting that needed reform. But if we think we can reject the Pope and bishops as part of the problem, we will not reform the Church.

We will deform it.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Remerging Schismatic Attitude

Code of Canon Law

I understand there is legitimate concern over the failure to detect and deal with McCarrick’s wrongdoing. I understand that people are right to want accountability and reform. I understand that some people are having trouble reconciling Pope Francis’ refining of CCC #2267 on the inadmissability of the death penalty with previous ages in the Church. Seeking truth is a necessary thing after all. We should seek out the truth in these things so we can do the right things.

The problem is, some Catholics are using these things as an excuse to justify their preexisting issues with the Pope and bishops and subsequent rejecting of their authority. The assumption is that these things prove their own views of the Church and justifies rejecting magisterial authority where one disagrees. This mindset (which is not limited to one political ideology) involves people thinking they are the measure of what the Church is supposed to be and if the Church goes against their measure, the Church can be ignored.

In the case of McCarrick and the American bishops, there is no doubt that bad judgment was used. For example, for whatever reason, the 2002 decision excluded dealing with the bishops. Whether done in good faith or bad, it was clearly the wrong decision. Moreover, some of the bishops may have been involved in formal cooperation or a sinful level of informal cooperation with McCarrick’s wrongdoing. That should be rooted out like the Barrios case in Chile. BUT (and I suspect you knew I was leading up to this), this requires an investigation by those with the proper authority and competence to determine responsibility and culpability. What those of us who are outside of this scope desire may be just or it may be unjust. Yes, we might be afraid that a miscarriage of justice can occur. But that does not give us the right to be contemptuous or demanding in making our concerns known

Code of Canon Law

In the case of Pope Francis refining the teaching on the Death Penalty, a certain group of Catholics have confused their interpretation of past teaching with doctrine. The result is, when the Pope says something that doesn’t fit in with their interpretation, they assume that the Pope is contradicting past teaching. The problem is, the Pope never condemned past teaching on the subject. He, following St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, pointed out that capital punishment was never a mandatory requirement in the Church but instead a last resort existing to protect society and deter grave crime.

Being a last resort means it is only to be used when no other means are available. Popes from St. John Paul II on pointed out that under modern circumstances there are valid means to achieve these means without recourse to the death penalty. Therefore it is inadmissible to use the last resort when we have these means. Hypothetically, we could have a societal collapse where these means are no longer available, but we certainly can’t argue that those conditions exist now.

Still more Canon Law...

What dissent in both of these cases have in common is a rejection of the lawful exercise of the magisterium. The Pope does have the authority over all parts of the Church to determine what is the best way to apply the timeless teachings of the Church to this particular time. The bishops, regardless of the existence of scandal, still have the authority to shepherd the Church in communion with the Pope. Whoever refuses to give the required submission is in danger of falling into schism.

From that, I think we can recognize that those Catholics who advocate disobedience to the teaching authority of the Pope or bishops in communion with him are advocating rebellion. They might claim that they are being truly faithful, but Scripture (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16) and Church teaching tells us that this is rejecting Our Lord. To follow them is to become the blind led by the blind.

That does not mean we have no recourse in the face of an injustice. But it does mean that we have obligations to obey Church teaching and not treat sin or corruption among some bishops as an excuse to withhold that obedience. If we want to be faithful Catholics, we have to listen to the exercise of the teaching authority, even if we don’t like the actions of some of the teachers. Our Lord did not give us an escape clause that justifies dissent from legitimate teaching.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Institution? Family? Thoughts on the Church

Venerable Fulton J Sheen, in his Your Life is Worth Living series, once said:

What do you think of when you first hear the word Church, an institution, an organization, a kind of an administrative body? It is the way we have too often presented the Church.

It’s a good point. Many people view the Church as as a means of organizing the Christian religion. A person who sees the Church as a positive thing thinks the organization cannot be questioned. A person who sees the Church as a negative thing thinks of the organization as interfering between the relationship between God and the individual or as an arbitrary rule maker.

Those views are understandable if a person sees the Church as a thing, then they will see that thing in either a positive or negative way, and everything that thing produces in the same way. The problem is, the Church is not a thing but a relationship: between God and man; between fellow men in relationship with God. If the Church is a relationship, a family, then the people within it are not overlords and minions but are members of a family.

As the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 1960, each one of us has a relationship with God only if we are part of His community:

In fact this word [“Our”] does have great importance, for only one man has the right to say “my Father” to God, and that is Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son. All other men must say “our Father”, for the Father is God for us only so long as we are part of the community of his children. For “me” he becomes a Father only through my being in the “we” of his children. The Christian prayer to the Father “is not the call of a soul that knows nothing outside God and itself”, but is bound to the community of brothers. Together with these brothers we make up the one Christ, in whom and through whom alone we are able to say “Father”, because only through Christ and in Christ are we his “children”.

(The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, page 51)

When we grasp that truth, Our Lord’s admonition to love our brother takes on deeper meaning. If we hate our brother, we are not in communion with him, and therefore not in communion with God. But, if we continue to love our brothers, even if they do not love us, we remain in communion with God and each other.

The difference is like night and day. If we think of the Church as an institution, those who shepherd as rulers, and teachings as edicts, then it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I will only listen if they act as I think good.” In those circumstances, we are deceived if we think we can serve God while rejecting an external institution. But if we see Church as a properly functioning family, then we can understand the authority of the Church like the authority of the family. Our parents do not cease to be our parents just because they make a decision we dislike. The parents can listen to our input, but the responsibility for seeking the good of the family and the final decision rests with them. So if we desire something harmful, the Church (acting in persona Christi) like the parents, must refuse. If we do not like our parents decision, that does not negate their authority. If we dislike a Church teaching, it does not negate Church authority.

Unfortunately, whenever the Church makes a decision we dislike, we immediately drop into “Church as institution” mode and seek an excuse that justifies disobedience. But when we remember Luke 10:16, rejecting the Church is rejecting Our Lord... it breaks the relationship with God and with a His community. So, though we may think we’re doing good in rebellion, we’re actually doing wrong.

Of course all analogies limp if taken too far. Yes, in literal families we have problems. Yes we can have dysfunctional families that cause harm. But we trust God that He will protect His family, the Church, from leading us astray. Yes, we will have heretics, incompetents, and predators that seek to misuse the Church for their own purposes. But we believe they will not prevail in leading the Church, under the visible headship of the Pope, astray.

This is why we must look at the Church as family and be concerned for our brethren in loving God. To look at it any other way damages the communion.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Apostolate of the Wrathful? A Reflection on Going Past Anger to Find Just Solutions

Preliminary Notes: In these times, it is easy to accuse those don’t jump on a bandwagon over what should be done of indifference, complacency, or even support of the evil done. I want to make clear that anyone who thinks this article advocates any of these things or is making excuses for wrongdoers has rashly judged me. I certainly don’t support a status quo. The point of this article is to sort out the difference between rightly directed anger and misdirected wrath that some pundits seem to be promoting.


The fallout from the recent McCarrick revelations and Latin America continues. There’s no doubt that wrongdoing exists. The problem that I see is that, among the legitimate shock and anger against wrongdoing, there are some Catholics who are publicly presuming that all of the bishops are guilty through negligence or deliberate coverup. That’s what needs to be investigated, not assumed to be true.
(This news broke during the writing of this article. It’s a reminder that
just because we don’t hear about something doesn’t mean nothing is being done)

While the case of McCarrick himself was handled until the canonical process is finished and more serious censures are handed down, we still have to deal with the arguments over who actually knew and were silent (as opposed to guilt by association).

In terms of logic, the contradiction of “all are guilty” is not “none are guilty.” The contradiction is “some are not guilty.” [§] Recognizing that, the task is to identify the ones who are actually guilty and the failures that allowed them to get away with it. This should be done with the intention of seeking justice for past and current wrongdoing while trying to prevent future wrongdoing. Doing this requires meticulous investigation to avoid punishing the innocent and preventing rushed policies that are either ineffective or do more harm than good.

The danger of that approach is that it can be stonewalled or can have the appearance of stonewalling if we don’t get immediate results. Of course working on stopping this evil cannot be done at a leisurely pace. The fact that these problems were revealed after we were assured that the problem was solved rightly inspires shock and anger.

Anger and Response 

The problem with anger, however, is that it can lead people to unreasonable and unjust responses. Think about the concept of “frontier justice” where an angry lynch mob would take the law into their own hands, assuming guilt and demanding their own standard of punishment. These mobs were often wrong about the guilt of the accused and always wrong in exacting their own punishment apart from the law.

While nobody is advocating literal “frontier justice” (though a few Catholics on social media are using reckless rhetoric that might eventually spark it) against the bishops, some are getting out of hand in their anger, assuming guilt where an investigation must happen first. Badly written articles and blog posts make accusations of widespread or even universal guilt without proof and people believe them without discernment, believing “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

The Church cannot rush to judgment, even when she must act swiftly. Letting the guilty go free is an injustice. But so is punishing the innocent. Being so lax that predators operate freely must be stopped. But being so strict that it hinders the mission of the Church is wrong too. In other words, the Church cannot be unjust in seeking justice.

Dealing with Delays 

And this frustrates people. Deliberations can be seen as stonewalling, and no doubt some would like to turn deliberations into stonewalling. Real harm was done and must be stopped. But while identifying the evil that must be stopped is relatively straightforward, finding the cause and solution is not necessarily so. After the rise of Protestantism, the Catholic Church began the Council of Trent to root out the abuses that led to it. But the Council of Trent ran from 1545 to 1563 (around 18 years!). Some of that length was due to slow moving (reading the early sessions, we see a lot of “let’s reconvene later” decrees). But some of the length was due to the need to identify the best possible response and decree how it must be done.

(There’s a lot of this in the earliest sessions)

Likewise, in dealing with the current crisis, we can get angry with unnecessary delays. There were problems with the 2002 policy that never thought to investigate allegations about those who rose high in the Church—problems that should not have happened. But in solving them, we must discern between unnecessary delays and unavoidable delays that come with seeking truth and just solutions.

The Apostolate of the Wrathful 

Adding to the confusion is the fact that among the rightly offended are what I call “the apostolate of the wrathful.”  I see this collection of factions as already being angry at the Church for one reason or another and seeing this scandal as justifying their previous anger. These factions (and I have no intention of pointing fingers at specific individuals) have carried out private wars against the Church and see their perceived enemy as the cause to this current crisis. Some allege celibacy, a male priesthood, or the Church teaching on homosexuality as the problem. Others see Vatican II, liberal clergy, or Pope Francis as a cause. There certainly seems to be a strong anti-clericalism present, assuming Church-wide corruption of the bishops and cardinals, fueling the claim that it’s impossible that they could be ignorant of the problem.

Distinguishing Mistakes From Malfeasance

While the Church receives her authority from God, she remains governed by finite human beings. All of them, like us, are in need of salvation and all of them can be mistaken (barring the areas where the Pope is protected from error). This means that even a good bishop can be deceived by a lie from someone they thought was trustworthy. It means that even a saintly bishop can make a decision that seems right to them but is actually flawed. Other bishops might do wrong out of cowardice or a desire not to “rock the boat.” Some, sadly, do participate knowingly in evil. That’s inevitable.

However, the fact that this happens in general is inevitable does not mean we can be apathetic about the specific wrongdoing in our time. For example, heresy will inevitably arise, but that doesn’t permit apathy or complacency to the rise of a specific heresy. Rather this means we will never achieve a state where no evil, cowardice, or mistakes occur within the Church, but we will have to deal with each case when it comes along to prevent loopholes or vicious customs from thriving.

Distinguishing the Authority of the Church from her Shameful Members

With that in mind, we have to remember that the Church herself, led by the magisterium continues to have the authority to bind and loose and we have the obligation to give religious submission of intellect and will when they teach (see canons 752-753). We cannot withdraw obedience from that authority when we are offended by the members of the magisterium. We still have the obligation to follow the precepts of the Church. So, when someone invokes a scandal as an excuse to ignore obedience, that remains wrong. Jesus binds in Heaven what is bound on earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18).

So, when determining the proper response to scandal and corruption, disobedience is not an option. Dissent remains a sin. Catholics who advocate disobedience on account of the scandal are doing wrong, and we cannot do evil so good may come of it (CCC #1789). That can be hard to bear, but we must trust that God protects His Church in this case.

The Obligation of Mercy

Another thing we must remember. The Church is not a business that can simply fire an incompetent or wrongdoing employee. The Church exists to carry out the mission of bringing Our Lord’s salvation to the world, calling the wrongdoing sinners to be reconciled to God. No matter how heinous the sin, there is not one person whom we can “write off” as irredeemable. Wrath tends to sacrifice the mercy for notorious sinner in the name of punishment. It tends to presume guilt must be present and insists we move onto the punishment phase

Consider Genesis 18:22ff.

22 As the men turned and walked on toward Sodom, Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there were fifty righteous people in the city; would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! Far be it from you! Should not the judge of all the world do what is just?” 26 The Lord replied: If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.

Abraham kept pleading down to ten just men, with God promising to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if they existed. As it turned out, they didn’t, so God spared Lot and his family. The problem is, unlike God, the Apostolate of the Wrathful seems willing to sacrifice the innocent so long as they get the guilty. They are willing to presume guilt and if a few innocent get swept away, they were probably guilty of something. If a bishop was an associate of a wrongdoer, that bishop is presumed to be complicit in the evil through association. But the Catholic Church cannot act that way. She cannot punish without proof of wrongdoing and she cannot arbitrarily change her rules to behave mercilessly. The Church must work to bring salvation even the most heinous sinner. The punishments issued must not drive the person into despair or defiance. Yes, a wrongdoer might be defiant anyway, but the Church herself must not drive them to that point or erect roadbloacks in the road to salvation while imposing penalties.

“But Everybody Knew That...”

Hearsay is not proof.

If a victim comes forward and provided credible and usable evidence, and a bishop refused to pass it on or attacked the victim for coming forward, that is wrongdoing that must be investigated. No excuses can be made for that. It is also true that the victims can be too ashamed or otherwise traumatized to come forward. That’s understandable. I would not blame the victim for being unable to come forward.

The problem is, some Catholic pundits are saying that these bishops and cardinals must have heard rumors and should have acted on them. The problem is, rumors themselves (what “everybody knows”) are not always true, and sometimes even false [†].  

Of course if a lot of rumors come from different sources in the same region, all saying the same thing, there should be an investigation to see if they are more than mere rumors and a failure to do so is a problem that must be corrected. But we need to remember that the existence of rumors in themselves are not proof. Bishops cannot build a case on hearsay. So hearing these things does not automatically mean that they have enough to act on. 

An investigation into what individual bishops knew and were silent on must determine who had the responsibility to act and whether they had the information necessary to act. It’s not enough to say, “everybody heard of this, so bishop X must be guilty.”

The Search for Truth, Justice, and Mercy

I don’t want anyone to think this is easy. But I also don’t want anyone to think this is impossible. The closer someone is to a victim, the harder it will be for them to deal with a wrongdoer getting away. I can’t even imagine what an actual victim must have gone through seeing Cardinal McCarick, Bishop Barrios or others being elevated despite wrongdoing. I can’t imagine their frustration if the case turns up unable to establish guilt. One can understand this anger is justified. But if we are going to truly find a solution to this problem, the Church needs to be clear on why this is happening, investigate how it can keep happening, and where the system we have is ineffective or unjust, we must make reforms. In other words: People understandably and justly want reform. But there’s a vast difference between calling for an undefined reform and making actual reforms.

We cannot make unjust reforms. We cannot have the Spanish Inquisition kind of injustice (I actually saw someone advocate this!) to be more efficient in punishing the accused. We must make sure that the accused is guilty before punishing and make sure the procedure does not let the guilty get away. We must make sure that the penalties are aimed at protecting the innocent from harm and inspire seeking repentance.


I think it should be clear that going from “something must be done!” to actually fixing the problem is going to take a lot of difficult work and difficult soul searching. For example, I get the impression that the reason there is a bishop sized hole in the protection of minors is because the bishops found it hard to believe someone reaching that level in the Church was capable of this evil without being caught before that point. Clearly that thinking was wrong, and it must be corrected as quickly as possible. 

But it also must be corrected justly. And that’s the difficulty. It’s easy to pass a law. But it’s harder to pass a just law. No doubt the bishops believed they established a just solution in 2002. We now know that belief was false. But we should keep that failure in mind. We do not want to rush through a solution that turns out to have numerous flaws in another 15 years or so. But neither do we want to be paralyzed into inaction.

That’s why it’s the wrong approach for pundits to just say “We must do X.” We must consider all the consequences of X and make sure we don’t do a rush job we will later regret. That means we need to pray for the Church to guide the magisterium to find the right solution. We must make known our concerns (a la canon 212 §3) respectfully. But we must not reduce the process to mob rule, committing injustice in our attempts to reform. Nor can we behave like rebels against the legitimate authority which the Church exercises.

On social media, I see a lot of anger and a lot of desire to accuse people of complicity. But unless we go beyond slogans and determine real culpability we’re not helping find a solution. We’re merely behaving like a mob and that will not solve the problem.


[§] This also applies to anger in the Catholic media towards this scandal. Only a fraction of them are doing what I am writing against and I have no intention of saying ALL are guilty.

[†] I suspect one of the reasons the original response was so slow was people believed the perpetrators could never do this because the reported perversion was so evil. Sadly, it turned out that some clergy could be that vile.

Monday, July 23, 2018

When Factionalism Drives Evaluation

The latest news cycle brought out reports of scandalous things inside and outside of the Church. And of course, when wrongdoing happens, we must strive to correct it in a way that not only reflects our belief in justice, but the Christian obligation of mercy as well. That’s always hard. When we sympathize with someone, we want the mercy done but not the justice. But when we dislike someone, we want the justice done, but not the mercy. This is, of course, a corrupt attitude to take.

Making it worse, there is a tendency among some to use a scandal to target people one dislikes. Take the recent Cardinal McCarrick scandal. There are credible charges against him which—barring any exonerating evidence unexpectedly appearing—must be addressed. But some Catholics are using the scandal to target other clergy which they dislike. It’s the “guilt by association” fallacy. The question asked is, “is it really possible that [disliked clergy member] could have been ignorant about this?”

It attempts to imply that because a disliked cardinal (for example, Wuerl, Farrell) knew or were friends with McCarrick, they must have known and were complicit in covering up the abuse. The problem is, most people who commit shameful crimes don’t boast about it. They keep it hidden. The victims also keep it hidden out of shame, humiliation, or feelings of guilt (I understand it is common for the innocent victims of rape or other sexual crimes feel guilt over what they suffered). So, yes, it is possible that his friends didn’t know. Association does not prove knowledge and coverup. That has to be proven. Repeating the insinuation without proof is at the very least rash judgment.

But it is interesting that the cardinals targeted in this way were already hated by certain factions. So the fact that members of these factions are also insinuating that complicity exists should be noted. There may be a bias that seeks to misuse a scandal for the purpose of discrediting someone unrelated. On the other hand, we can’t simply argue from the fact that the person is hostile that the accusation is automatically a lie either. What this means is, we can’t draw an accusation against someone simply because of their affiliation with someone who does wrong. 

If we want to do what is right and avoid either false accusations or letting the evildoers get away with their evil, we must evaluate accusations. Is there any basis to them? Would I be willing to tolerate an accusation of evil if it came from someone I opposed? Would I be willing to accept that accusation if directed against someone I supported? How one answers these questions may indicate a factional spirit instead of a desire for justice.

Acting rightly when it comes to accusations can be real struggle sometimes. For example, when the Fr. Maciel story broke, I remember thinking that the accusations sounded so extreme that they had to be a lie being made to attack the Church. I was dead wrong about that. I remember being angry at the news stories about certain bishops taking a stand against Church teaching—only to discover the stories were false and my anger was misplaced. We can be wrong about what another is capable or incapable of and we have to be careful not to let our assumptions get in the way of our seeking out what is true, whether that truth is guilt or exoneration.

Rash judgment and calumny are sins. If we repeat as true what we do not know to be true, it is rash judgment. If we repeat what we know is false as if it were true, we commit calumny. We must not commit either. Instead, we must seek out truth and apply justice with the mercy Our Lord requires of us. If we presume the person we oppose must be guilty or the person we support must be innocent and refuse to seek out the truth, we do wrong in the name of our ideology.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

What Happened to Seeking Truth?

Being on Facebook and Twitter over the past few days have been interesting—in the sense of the old Chinese curse, May You Live in Interesting Times. Witnessing the fallout of the Trump-Putin meeting and the continual sniping against Pope Francis, I’m struck by the fact that many reach a conclusion without having all the facts, and make claims that are clearly in error. I don’t have any interest in rehashing or refuting the social media arguments in this article. But I am interested in how little respect people have for seeking out the truth and living in accord with it.

During his trial, Socrates could point out that the person who was aware of the fact that he was ignorant knew more than the person who was ignorant but thought he knew the truth. Aristotle could define truth as saying of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not. Both of these ancient Greeks point to the truth that we Christians ought to know: That we can never stand on what we think we know. We must always ask questions about our assumptions and, if we find them to be false, stop living according to them.

To be clear, I am not advocating some sort of agnosticism which says we must question our Christian faith. Rather I am calling for Christians to investigate whether what they think is Christianity is actually what Christians are called to be. As a Catholic, I believe that the Church teaches with authority given to her by The Lord Himself. What the Church binds or looses on Earth is bound or loosed in Heaven (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). So, I hold that the search for truth does not mean that we can deny the teaching of the Church. 

What it does mean is we must investigate whether our interpretation of Church teaching is compatible with what the Church intends to teach. The judge of whether an interpretation is correct is the magisterium—which is the Pope and the bishops in communion with him in every age. If a pundit or a member of the clergy takes a stance at odds with the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, that should be a red flag telling us that we have an obligation to question the one saying the Pope and bishops are wrong. Yes, when the Pope has no intention to teach (press conference, governing the Vatican City, etc), he can be mistaken. But when he intends to teach—even if not ex cathedra—we have an obligation to give religious submission of intellect and will.

I find it tragic that many Catholics can think they are being faithful while refusing to consider the elements of Church teaching they find inconvenient. Catholics who identify with the political “left” [†] often rebel on sexual morality and abortion, while those identifying with the political “right” often downplay Catholic teaching on social justice. Both groups are wrong. Whether they knowingly reject Church teaching or are ignorant about it (I leave this discernment to the individual’s confessor), they are not speaking the truth when they claim they are right and the Church is wrong.

Go on the internet and you’ll probably find people arguing about what the Church needs to do. They focus on the top down approach, which has it’s own merits. I think that there is also an approach from the bottom (all of us) up we need to consider:

Speaking at the level of the individual believer, we have an obligation to investigate whether our personal preferences are really compatible with Christianity. We do that by looking to Church teaching and to the witness of the magisterium today to make sure that our reading of past documents is compatible with how the magisterium understands it. If we think “The Pope is a liberal/conservative!” then we must take that as a warning sign that our understanding has gone wrong.

Some readers may correctly argue that Church history shows we have had bishops falling into error. They can also argue that we have had morally bad Popes. They can even argue that certain Popes were suspected of personally holding error. But none of these facts can be used to deny the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him when they intend to teach.

Perhaps, in recovering the obligation to seek the truth, that is a good place to start.


[†] I dislike using “Left” and “Right” in relationship to Church teaching because it makes Church teaching seem “partisan.” Unfortunately, certain errors among Catholics line up with their political views.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Bigotry vs. Truth

“It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.”

—G.K. Chesterton 

In response to the objections from religious groups to certain government actions, the common response is to either:
  1. Praise the religious group if you agree with them on that issue.
  2. Condemn the religious group if it goes against your political ideology.
There’s no real attempt to investigate whether one’s own politics are actually wrong. Many assume they are right and, if someone dares take a view that an ideology is wrong, these people savage them and accuse them of holding their views out of malicious intent.

Bigotry can be defined as, “obstinate or intolerant devotion to one's own opinions and prejudices.” Unfortunately, many seem to think it means “hostility to a certain group.” (This is actually prejudice, not bigotry). Then we see people argue that people from a currently trendy “protected group” can’t be bigoted when they express intolerance for those they disagree with.

Seeking truth is different from blindly holding to one’s own views. I can oppose something as morally wrong without being a bigot. I become a bigot when I assume that whoever holds a different view from me must actively be evil, rather than mistaken.

(A popular meme, mocking online accusations of intolerance when others disagree)

I think the problem is we’ve lost sight of the need to investigate what is true. We need to ask ourselves whether we properly understand an issue and whether we actually understand what our opponents believe and why. If we do understand, we can still say something is wrong. But understanding means we won’t automatically assume whoever disagrees is secretly a Nazi or an Antifa.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Partisan Fights

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen the Trump administration issue an immigration policy which was roundly denounced by the US bishops. In response, a certain faction of Catholics responded with “what about abortion?” The other day, Supreme Court Justice, Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. This was seen as a chance to overturn the inherently unjust Roe v. Wade. But a certain faction of Catholics responded with “we should focus on other policies that make less people seek out abortions.” A little bit of digging showed that these two factions strongly identified with one of the two major parties—generally showing that their stance was more partisan than principled.

Now I don’t intend to indict all Catholics under this aegis. I do encounter Catholics (notably, our bishops) who recognize that the Right to Life covers from conception to natural death and all stages in between. Recognizing and following the Catholic teaching means we will be at odds with our party of choice at least some of the time, and we must be willing to face our own party and say: No, you are wrong!

But instead of doing that, people are saying “Oh, the Democrats/Republicans aren’t as bad as those Republicans/Democrats! These issues you worry about aren’t as important as those issues!” That is partisan. That is being willing to sacrifice part of Catholic teaching when it goes against our political preferences.

What we need to realize is twofold:
  1. We must work to oppose legalized abortion.
  2. We cannot stop with opposing legalized abortion.
As St. John Paul II taught (Christifidelis Laici #38):

In other words, we absolutely cannot downplay the defense of life in favor of other issues—even though the other issues are also important in the eyes of the Church. 

But that being said, we cannot use his words to deny our obligation to work for justice on other issues. Our Lord Himself taught about what will happen to those who ignore the “least of these.”

So, both the person who denies the need to oppose abortion and the person who denies that we need to concern ourselves with the other issues are doing wrong. We cannot turn our backs in the name of “other issues” without being hypocrites.

I think the problem is people fall into the either-or fallacy. We think that the two positions are “support us” and “support everything evil our worst opponents stand for.” It over looks the possibility of rejecting the extremes or choosing a third option. This is how the Church gets attacked as being “liberal” by conservatives and “conservative” by liberals. Because people cannot conceive of the possibility they are wrong in part, they assume everyone who disagrees must be wrong.

We see the result of this. Look at how many Catholics argue that they need to take control of the Church from those who oppose them—assuming that the magisterium is being partisan while they are being unbiased. In fact it is the reverse. If we will not listen to the Church when Our Lord made it necessary (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17), we are not keeping His commandments (John 14:15). 

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.