Saturday, January 19, 2019

Signal to Noise Ratio and the Catholic Social Media

In science and engineering, the Signal:Noise ratio is described as “the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. SNR is defined as the ratio of signal power to the noise power. A ratio higher than 1:1 (greater than 0 dB) indicates more signal than noise.”

It strikes me as a good analogy for the situation of Catholics on social media. As part of our Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), the Catholic witness should be a strong signal, clear to all. But if you scroll through the self-righteous posts and partisan comments, we see the noise of the worldly views held by Catholics drown it out.

This is understandable. All of us are afflicted by original sin and are tempted to embrace views that suit us. But while it is understandable, it is not justifiable. We are called to be the light of the world, the city on a hill, where our witness should be clear to all. But instead it’s drowned out by political and social opinions. Pro- or anti-Trump; Pro- or anti-Democrat; pro- or anti-Republican... these views are the noise that drown out the legitimate message.

I see bloggers [§] of pro- and anti- positions who angrily point out the hypocrisy of their opponents positions, rightly pointing out that their opponents support things incompatible with the Catholic Faith. But, tragically, they are blind to where they too compromise and ignore the moral faults in their own politics. The beams of Matthew 7:3-4 are equally distributed across the Catholic Social Media... probably I have one as well, mea culpa.

The problem is not only the danger to our own souls. When we play the hypocrite, the people we are pointing to recognize that hypocrisy and reject any part of the signal that gets through as part of the noise. Thus we see some Catholics downplay or even reject the Catholic teaching on sex and abortion, calling it “right wing.” Other Catholics downplay or even reject the Catholic teaching on social justice, calling it “left wing.”

Yes, some of that rejection is the fault of the listener who refuses to listen to truth. But some of it is because of our own bad behavior and self-righteousness. We’re more interested in condemning than converting, using insults and rash judgments. (And before invoking St. Paul against St. Peter, consider the words of St. Francis de Sales that I’ve reprinted HERE). If God will punish the listener for ignoring the truth, what will He do to the speaker who buries the signal of Christian truth with the noise of personal partisanship?

We should consider our behavior and the words we write... how will God view them? Perhaps we should be more concerned than we are.


[§] If you’re thinking, “I know who he’s talking about,” you should be aware that I have in mind many people across the political spectrum who do this.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Rendering Unto Caesar That Which Belongs to God

Reading the comments made in response to news about Catholic teaching can be disheartening. Some of the most vocal responses come from Catholics who spew the slogans of their party as if they were dogma and the teaching of the Church as mere opinions that can be “set aside” for a greater good.

Two of the most common examples involve abortion and immigration. Catholics who hold positions at odds with Church teaching (whether by actively rejecting Church teaching or thinking it’s “less important” than other teachings) argue that the authority of the Church doesn’t really forbid their actions—because they are being faithful to a “higher” teaching of the Church. 

So, one one side, a Catholic who either supports abortion or thinks it’s “less important” than a combination of other issues, misuses the Seamless Garment idea of the late Cardinal Bernadin to say that their vote is not undermining Church teaching because it “also” or “really” defends life, ignoring the words of St. John Paul II:

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fĂ­nds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

Christifideles Laici, 38

In other words, you can’t invoke those things as a counterbalance to the obligation of ending abortion because they depend on defending the right to life in the first place.

On the other side, we see Catholics arguing that the defense of borders (they usually cite part of CCC 2241) outweighs the teaching of charity. Our Lord, in Matthew 25:31-45, warns us that the final judgment will involve how we treated “one of these least ones.” That obligation will not be negated by what side of the border the “least one” should be on. Whatever the legitimate defense of the borders might be in a specific case, they cannot allow us to ignore the suffering of those we think are on the wrong side of it. Yet, when the Church speaks out on this, some Catholics respond with hostility, effectively saying “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9b).

There are many other issues, where Catholics disagree with or downplay Church teaching and side with a political party instead. When the Church contradicts them, they either try to explain away the Church teaching as “non-binding,” or attack the leaders of the Church that they dislike. For example, with the current sex abuse scandal, there’s a tendency to focus on the bishops they identify with a disliked faction and claim that this faction is the cause of the scandal. For these Catholics, the “liberal/conservative” nature of the Church is to blame for the spread of homosexuality or the concealment of abuse.

This example shows the problem that must be corrected. By treating Church teaching as a political view or opinion that can be ignored while treating disagreement with a political view as a sign of “heresy,” people are making political orthodoxy the criteria for judging the theological orthodoxy of a member of the Church. Since we believe that the Church was established by Christ with the authority to teach in His name, those that reject what the Church teaches in the name of their ideology are placing political loyalty over fidelity. 

That’s effectively rendering unto Caesar what is God’s. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

Missing the Clues, Missing the Answer

Among the dangers of misunderstanding out there, one that comes to my mind is the fact that members of the faithful are all too quick to draw assumptions from what they think they know, treating it as all the information needed to form a judgment. The problem is it is easy to make mistakes over cause and effect, or assume that there is only one conclusion to be drawn.

Assumptions can be falsely positive or excessively negative. I’m reminded of some triumphalistic books written by English Catholics in the early 20th century about the rising divorce rate in Protestant countries. They rightly deplored the divorce rate (back then it was “only” 3 in 10 ending in divorce), but wrongly assumed that the problem was caused by Protestant theology and that Catholics would never run into these problems. Unfortunately, that assumption was based on false interpretation of information. Yes, the Protestant mindset about marriage caused this to appear more quickly among their denominations, but they mistook the cause and effect. The problem was a growing indifference to moral and religious obligations... something that would fester later (after World War II) among Catholics. The reaction of the authors was rather like the above (repurposed) comic by David Low. These authors failed to grasp that the growing threat put them in the same boat if the problem was left unchecked.

Another example might be one described by C.S. Lewis in his essay, “The Decline of Religion” (found in the book God in the Dock). Talking about the missed clues that led to the decline of attendance at chapel in Oxford, he pointed out that the assumed cause and effect was wrong. He wrote:

The ‘decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels. Now it is quite true that that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory. It was not in fact a decline; it was a precipice. The sixty men who had come because chapel was a little later than ‘rollers’ (its only alternative) came no more; the five Christians remained. The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the ‘decline in religion’ all over England.

In other words, when chapel was mandatory (and attendance was taken), the nonconformists had to report in early. So many came to chapel not out of conviction, but because it meant sleeping in an extra ten minutes. It could not simply be fixed by reinstating mandatory attendance because the attitude had appeared long before.

Another issue is mentioned by Benedict XVI in his work, Milestones. In discussing the attempt of the bishops to defend the schools from the Nazis (page 15), he discusses a problem that doomed their efforts:

Already then it dawned on me that, with their insistence on preserving institutions, these letters in part misread the reality. I mean that merely to guarantee institutions is useless if there are no people to support those institutions from inner conviction. But this was only partially the case. To be sure, teachers could be found in both the older and the younger generations who had deep convictions of faith, people who in their hearts saw Christian faith was the foundation of our culture and, therefore, of its work of education. But in the older generation there existed an anti-clerical resentment that was understandable, considering that the prerogative to inspect schools belonged to priests. In the younger generation there were convinced Nazis. So in both these cases it was inane to insist on an institutionally guaranteed Christianity.

Yes, the bishops were fighting to save an institutionally guaranteed Christianity, but the people didn’t.

This is why I think the Catholics who say things like “Vatican II caused X,” miss the point. The fact that much of our abuse scandal involved priests ordained before Vatican II shows the problem had another cause. The fact that there was a false “hope” among many Catholics that the Church would overturn the contraception teachings after the discovery of “the pill,” and the abandonment of Friday fasting from meat (even though some penance was still required) showed that a large number of Catholics didn’t obey previously out of conviction but out of compulsion. When the social upheavals of the late 1960s arose, many Catholics simply stopped obeying... and if they stop obeying, how can the magisterium succeed in standing for the Church?

It would be wrong to assume that “the magisterium” was to blame. Pope Pius XII was the first to warn about the loss of the sense of sin in the Church. His successors continued that warning, targeting specific evils of that time. It would also be wrong to blame one political faction. Yes, the Catholic “left” rebelled against sexual morality teaching. But the Catholic “right” rebelled against social teachings. Both led to the later Catholics believing they could set aside whatever they disliked. In both cases the rebelling Catholics used the same argument: the teaching they didn’t like “was not binding” and not free of error.

The Popes didn’t miss the clues though. They continued to teach on what Christians had to avoid, and continued to encourage us to go beyond the letter of the law. Pope Francis’ letter to the US Bishops (PDF) is an example of that—saying it was not enough to create policies. We had to change our hearts as well.

As I see it, the problem today involves a legalism which condemns whatever others do that we agree with while evading obedience which condemns what we want to do. In that, we’re little different from the students C.S. Lewis mentioned who only did something so long as it was required under pain of sanction. 

We need to stop assuming that the problem in the Church exist because we changed or did not change a discipline in the Church. That’s being so focused on our pet theories for cause/effect that we miss the real causes. We need to watch for the signs that people no longer care to defend the Church and live it wholeheartedly. If we miss those clues, we miss the solutions.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Who Watches the (Self-Appointed) Watchmen?

Rorschach, “The Watchmen”Vigilantes have been a part of the superhero genre since at least the 1980s. People tired of the clean-cut Superman type of hero became interested in the antihero who repaid violence with violence while the legitimate law-enforcement was portrayed as inept or corrupt.

Of course, the times made the vigilante stories popular. Stories about corruption and criminals getting off scott-free—especially when the two seemed to be linked—tempts people to think that the institutions have failed and we need someone who will defend us if the authorities will not.

There is a problem with that line of thought though. Yes, even with those given the authority to determine what is or isn’t in keeping with the law, there is always a concern over whether they follow the law themselves. But rules do exist (regardless of how well they’re enforced) to govern the abuse of power.

However, the self-appointed vigilante (as graphically demonstrated here by the character Rorschach in the graphic novel The Watchmen [§]) has no authority except brute force, and follows no rule of conduct. If they violate the law in doing what is “just,” they protest that the authorities are focused on petty matters in “persecuting” them while “real” criminals get away.

This strikes me as a good analogy for the self-appointed “orthodoxy cops” who take it upon themselves to determine what is or is not an authentic interpretation of the Catholic Faith... going so far as to pass judgment on the orthodoxy of bishops or even the Pope if these shepherds of the Church should dare interpret the Catholic Faith differently than they do. If you’re not on this “orthodoxy cop’s” side, you’re seen as part of the problem.

The result is, more often than not, symbolically like the panel above. The character Rorschach, investigating a murder, takes it on himself to brutalize people in the hopes (ie. no basis of fact) that one of them will provide the information needed. When it doesn’t, he moves on, justifying himself by assuming that they must be guilty of something.  Likewise, the self-appointed “orthodoxy cop” assumes the guilt in his targets and justifies his or her own attacks by assuming that if others don’t think the way he or she does, they must be heretical and deserves whatever savaging they get.

Think I’m being ridiculous? Consider how many times you’ve seen a “combox warrior” show up in the comments  section on a social media post to accuse a bishop or the Pope of error, based on his or her reading of what was said vs. his or her reading of past Church teaching. If one defends the Pope or bishop in question, or challenges the veracity of the combox warrior, that defender is assumed to be ignorant and a heretic. 

Vigilante comics were spawned from a mistrust of those entrusted to enforce the law, thinking them part of the problem. But the authority to uphold the law exists with law enforcement, not the vigilante. The current attacks on the Church also come from the mistrust of those who interpret and defend the Faith. But, like the vigilante, the self-proclaimed defenders of orthodoxy have no right to impose themselves as judge, jury, and executioner over and above the teaching of the Pope and bishops. Any attempts to claim Catholics must go against the Pope to be faithful has no authority for their actions.

Keep this in mind the next time you see the “orthodoxy cops” at work online. When they equate their opinions with Church teaching and pass judgment on those who reject their opinions, they are basically the online equivalent of a thuggish vigilante.


[§] The entire graphic novel involves “heroes” who have no problem with committing evil acts in the name of a “greater good.” It escalates to the point that one character commits mass murder with the “justification” of preventing nuclear war. The characters display a very Utilitarian morality. While I’m not entirely sure of the intended meaning of the comic as a whole, I think it involves raising questions about vigilantes and morality.