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).