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.