Friday, September 20, 2019

On the Need For Dialogue

Therefore, let us not be provoked with these men, let us not use anger as an excuse, but let us talk with them gently and with kindness. Nothing is more forceful and effective than treatment which is gentle and kind. This is why Paul told us to hold fast to such conduct with all the earnestness of our hearts when he said: “The servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome but must be kindly toward all.” He did not say “only to your brothers,” but “toward all.” And again, when he said: “Let your gentleness be known,” he did not say “to your brothers,” but “to all men.” What good does it do you, he means, if you love those who love you? 

(St. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God. Homily 1.40)

While doing the somewhat irritating task of studying non-Catholic Christian theologies, I came across this “interesting” claim from an Eastern Orthodox professor about what Catholics supposedly believe:

A natural consequence of this is the attempt of Roman Catholics to dematerialize as much as possible the offered gifts of the Eucharist, since they represent symbolically the completed transubstantiation. The bread of the Eucharist is not the everyday bread of people; they have replaced it with “hosts”, an unleavened, almost transparent preparation. And they deprive the laity of sharing in the cup, because the taste of the wine is dangerously opposed to the idea of transubstantiation. (Yannaris, Christos. Elements of Faith: An Introduction to the Orthodox Faith)

To which, the informed Catholic is tempted to respond in this manner:

The reason we are tempted respond this way (and the reason I call studying non-Catholic theology “irritating”) is because the author of the book is either grossly ignorant or deliberately deceptive about what Catholics believe to the point of being insulting.

In doing so, he invented a ridiculous reason to explain why we “believe” something so foolish. But Catholic belief on Transubstantiation does not have anything to do with what Professor Yannaris falsely claims we believe.

[Excursus: Before going forward, I want to make something clear. When I say these writings—described or quotedin this article—speak falsely or falsehoods about us, it doesn’t mean that I automatically accuse them of deliberately lying. I leave it to God to judge whether they who speak falsely lied or simply erred. Rather, based on Aristotle’s definition of truth, the person who says of what is, that it is not, or says of what is not, that it is, speaks falsely. All lies are falsehoods, but not all falsehoods are lies. A lie is when a person knowingly says what is false. But a person who believes a falsehood is true or repeats it without investigating whether or not it is true does not lie, but still speaks falsely. Whatever their culpability, because Catholics do not believe what they accuse us of, these claims should be rejected as false by all people of good will.]

We have the same problems when modern anti-Catholics repeat the falsehoods of Luther, Calvin, and others. They speak falsely about what we believe, take Scripture and Patristics out of context [¥], and invent a false motive for why we “believe” them. It seems like a huge poisoning the well fallacy used to turn the reader against considering the Catholic perspective before they ever encounter it. 

For example, Calvin’s misrepresentation of Catholic concepts of repentance as external works (for example, Insitutes of the Christian Religion Book III Chapter 4) and his claims of what we believe about Confession are plain and simple falsehoods, misquoting people like St. Thomas Aquinas to make it seem as if the Catholic Church invented doctrines, either ignoring or being ignorant of the fact that the Saint anticipated and answered his objections 300 years previously.

Ironically, Luther was quite angry at those who dared to misrepresent him. In his introduction to the Smalcald Articles [€] he writes (The Annotated Luther, volume 2, p. 425):

I must tell a story. A doctor sent from France was here in Wittenberg. He stated publicly in our presence that his king was persuaded beyond the shadow of a doubt that there was no church, no government, and no marriage among us, but rather that everyone carried on with each other like cattle, and all did what they wanted. Now imagine, how will those people, who in their writings have represented as pure truth such gross lies to the king and to other countries, face us on that day before the judgment seat of Christ? Christ, the Lord and Judge of us all, surely knows that they lie and have lied. They will have to hear his judgment again; that I know for sure.

Yet, he and Calvin did exactly that with Catholic teachings. Luther was correct in saying that those speaking falsely would be judged. But he apparently didn’t ask questions about whether what he said was true. As Our Lord said in Matthew 7:2, For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.

Unfortunately, some Catholics are guilty of doing what anti-Catholics do to us. Some are perfectly willing to yank quotes out of context and repeat things as truth without investigating whether they were actually said or what they meant. Then there’s the Catholics who commit the same calumny against Muslims that 19th and 20th century Americans used against us [*]. If it’s wrong for non-Catholics to misrepresent us, then logically we must not misrepresent them either. As the Catechism points out:

2464 The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant.

I think this is where the oft maligned concept of dialogue comes into play. Dialogue is not a stealth attempt to make the Catholic Church “Protestant” (a popular charge from the anti-Vatican II crowd). Dialogue [#] is “discussion directed towards exploration of a subject or resolution of a problem” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary). The Catholic Church enters discussion with other groups to eliminate misunderstandings and resolve needless religious conflicts with the aim of working to restore communion. The Code of Canon Law makes this obligation clear:

can. 755 §1.† It is above all for the entire college of bishops and the Apostolic See to foster and direct among Catholics the ecumenical movement whose purpose is the restoration among all Christians of the unity which the Church is bound to promote by the will of Christ.

That doesn’t mean all problems will vanish once everyone understands what we believe and why. There will cases where the accurately understood beliefs of those involved in dialogue will conflict with each other. For example, the Catholic Church professes: “We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men” (Dignitatis Humanae #1) and “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (Lumen Gentium #14). So, Catholics cannot say that we have “part of” the truth and the “whole” will only be found in coming together.

This is obviously going to be a stumbling block. Faithful Catholics cannot deny these teachings or try to undermine them [^], while those who believe that the Catholic Church is in error and think that dialogue means we want them to embrace error will be scandalized. Many Christian denominations and non-Christian religions think we’re arrogant to make the claim that the fullness of truth is found in the Catholic Church. At the same time, those Catholics who either don’t know or don’t believe that Vatican II reaffirms the past teachings about her nature fear we're going to “give away the store.” If we’re going to avoid needless conflict and perhaps close gaps between us, we need to make sure that all parties involved understand what the others believe and why, even if we disagree afterwards. As St. John Paul II put it during his June 26, 1985 audience: “On our part we shall make our entire commitment of prayer and of work for unity, by seeking the ways of truth in charity.”

But that unity can only happen if we [§] talk to each other instead of at each other; if we strive to understand what the other parties believe and why, instead of merely inserting our own meaning into something we don’t understand. That’s why the Church takes part in dialogue. And that’s why we must not treat it as some sort of “capitulation to error” when we take part. Because if the Church doesn’t take part, how will those who accuse us learn that their charges against us are false? And if they never learn that their charges are false, how can we hope to restore communion?


[¥] Reading Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity, I am struck by how brazenly he makes ipse dixit, argument from silence, and begging the question fallacies in claiming that the Scriptures that contradict him don’t count (e.g. “In the first place the sixth chapter of John must be entirely excluded from this discussion, since it does not refer to the sacrament in a single syllable” The Annotated Luther vol 3, p. 21) when it is precisely his assertions that need to be proven in the first place.

[€] The accusations in the Smalcald Articles are so bizarre that I find myself wondering just how bad Luther’s priestly formation was in his monastery that he could possibly believe the Church taught these things. If he wasn’t knowingly distorting things to justify his schism, it certainly explains why the Council of Trent insisted on a reform of priestly formation.

[*] No, they didn’t worry about a Catholic al-qaida. But they did worry about Al Capone.

[#] Technically, dialogue between different groups of Christians is “ecumenism.” Dialogue with non-Christians is “religious dialogue.”

[^] To make it clear to those who might misunderstand me, I fully believe and profess these things that the Church teaches.

[§] When I say “we,” I don’t mean individual Catholics should decide for themselves what the “real truth” is, ignoring what the Church teaches. The Church wisely warns against casual and uncritical reading of works hostile to the Church to prevent people from making a shipwreck of their faith. Too many think that if they don’t know an answer to a challenge, that means there is no answer. I suspect that many ex-Catholics are in this category.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

False Meaning From a Failure to Understand

One of the annoyances in daily Catholic life is encountering people who have no comprehension of what Catholics believe and instead insert their own meaning into what they see Catholics do. The result is a wild claim that the Catholic Church teaches something that actually no informed Catholic believes.

Let’s start with something obvious. The manga panel to the left is a ridiculous version of that behavior [#]. Catholics don’t believe that rosaries are a “protective charm” which holds a reservoir of prayers. A Rosary is a sacramental. A sacramental is something which prepares us to “receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (CCC #1670). 

A Catholic who has forgotten his Rosary can certainly use his fingers instead. A simple set of Rosary beads made out  of knotted cord is no less efficacious than a set of Rosary beads made out of gold beads and silver chain [§]. The person who would be foolish enough to think that Catholics view Rosaries as having some sort of “magical” power based on the meaning a person gives it is grossly mistaken and guilty of superstition. If anyone were to to spread that view, they would be guilty of spreading a falsehood.

As I said above, the manga panel is just being cited as a ridiculous example. I strongly doubt Yosuke Kaneda intended anything other than using a convenient mysterious Western spiritual image [@]. But let’s look at something real—the anti-Catholic attacks which are just as ridiculous as Kaneda’s version of the Rosary but done with the intent of discrediting the Catholic Church in order to make their own theology look better. 

When I read writings of Calvin, Luther, or certain Eastern Orthodox theologians [*], the significant thing I notice is not the explanation of what they profess. It’s how they portray the beliefs of the Catholic Church to justify their divergence. The portrayals of the Catholic Church take local abuses (for example, the misuse of indulgences) and accuse us of inventing a “doctrine” that the Church not only never taught, but actually condemned. Those anti-Catholics who proselytize, often target uneducated Catholics by contrasting these false claims about the Church with their own beliefs to make them seem reasonable in comparison [£]

Catholics don’t believe that we’re saved by our own merits or that we earn our salvation through works. We don’t worship Mary or the saints. We don’t believe that the Pope is impeccable. Indeed, our view of Papal infallibility is much more limited than the authority given by some non-Catholics to “personal interpretation” of the Bible. We don’t rely on forged writings to justify the authority of the Church. But those hostile to the Catholic Church turn their lack of understanding about what we believe and the personal error by some in the Church into a “theology” that the Church never taught in the first place.

If you’re familiar with my blog, you are probably expecting a “bait and switch” at this point. And you’re right. I’m not interested in writing polemics against non-Catholics. But I am interested in writing about attitudes that Catholics deplore when used against them but risk falling into when they dislike something that the Pope or bishops say.

The fact is, some Catholics who are offended by the misrepresentation that some non-Catholics make against us, do use those tactics in dissenting from what the Pope and bishops teach. Whether they don’t understand what the Church teaches or whether they do understand, but want to justify their rejection of the Catholic Church, they misrepresent what the Church teaches, or what the Pope said, and claim that the (misrepresented) view of the Pope contradicts Catholic teaching. Because of this redefinition by the dissenters, they claim that they are justified in refusing religious submission of intellect and will. And, just like those anti-Catholic proselytizers, these dissenting proselytizers also use misrepresentation to target uneducated Catholics by making false claims about the Pope or the Church to make their own claims seem reasonable in comparison.

If we deplore the misrepresentations made against the Catholic Church from those outside of it, we should make sure we do not focus on the misrepresentations that come from the mote of ignorance in the anti-Catholic’s eye while ignoring the beam of culpable ignorance or knowing misrepresentation in our own. Because if we profess that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ—something other groups do not believe—we have more culpability if we misinterpret or misrepresent the teachings and act in defiance on that basis.


[#] Boarding School Juliet is a pretty awful story, even setting aside the issues of cheap fanservice. I gave up after two chapters and don’t recommend it. Other notorious examples include One Pound Gospel where nuns hear confessions, or the “anime Catholicism” of Negima.

[@] Japan has many misconceptions and negative understanding of Catholicism dating back to the Tokugawa era. As a result their portrayal of Catholics (TV Tropes calls it “Anime Catholicism”) is heavy on the trappings but devoid of actual understanding, portraying it as mysterious and slightly sinister. It’s similar to how early to mid 20th century pulp fiction portrayed Eastern culture and religion.

[§] If you’re curious about my own Rosary, for years I used one with knotted cords and plastic beads. My current one is made out of knotted cords and wooden beads that came from Jerusalem. I don’t think that one is holier by nature than my plastic one or that it “works better.”

[*] I would like to make clear that the described behaviors do not mean that I accuse Protestants or Eastern Orthodox in general of being guilty of what is described here and this article should not be interpreted in this way. Also, what I describe is based on the actual works of Calvin, Luther, and Eastern Orthodox theologians (post AD 1054), not what some Catholics claim that they say.

[£] For example, in Luther’s Large Catechism, he writes:

There is, moreover, another false worship. This is the greatest idolatry that we have practiced up until now, and it is still rampant in the world. All the religious orders are founded upon it. This kind of worship involves only the kind of conscience that seeks help, comfort, and salvation in its own works and presumes to wrest heaven from God. (The Annotated Luther, vol. 2, page 303)

This statement is manifestly false. If Luther was unaware of that fact, it means he grossly missed the point of his religious life as a monk and could be no reliable authority against the Catholic Church. If he was aware of that fact, it makes him a liar. Either way, he would not be an “expert witness” to cite against what Catholics believe.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Brief Thoughts about the Catholic Acrimony on Immigration

It’s legitimate when Catholics have different ideas on how to best carry out the Church teaching on treating migrants. However, it’s not legitimate to reject the Church teaching on immigration and accuse those who teach it of being against Church teaching. But many Catholics are choosing the illegitimate action while claiming that those in authority are wrong.

Church moral teaching can be traced back to the Greatest Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40), where Jesus says:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

If we love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15), not look for an excuse to refuse obedience. The problem is, we are seeing an alarming disregard for the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. When people leave their homes and travel ~2100 miles on foot to come here, some of them dying on the way, many more being victims of crime, disease, and other hardships, the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself means we don’t say “It’s your own fault for coming here.” It means we don’t accuse our bishops of “ignoring” other issues when they say we have a responsibility to ease their suffering. We don’t ask why somebody else in Guatemala isn’t helping them.

But the things we must not do are what an alarming number of Catholics are doing. For example, when I blogged about the father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande, I received a number of people who said exactly those things and worse (like claiming it was a staged picture). 

The problem with that way of thinking is, we don’t get to think that way and call ourselves faithful Catholics. Our Lord gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The one person who would have been most justified in refusing to get involved was the one person who acted according to the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself. We’re called to emulate the Samaritan, but we’re acting like the Priest and Levite.

Different people can legitimately have different ideas about how to best help those in need our doorstep, and yes, we should prudently consider safety of citizens. But if we act like the rich man who outright ignores the person suffering on his doorstep, things will go badly for us at the end of our life (cf. Luke 16:19-31).

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rethinking the All or Nothing Approach to Government: A Reflection

American Catholics tend to fall into extremes about our Presidents. We tend to either think of them as pure villains or national saviors because of their policies or personal behavior. In doing so, we tend to downplay, or even ignore, the policies or behavior that go against our assessment. 

That’s a bit of an aberration. The Church in different times and places throughout history had a different perspective: that rulers and governments can be morally bad and still benefit the Church in some way, or live by a lofty moral code and still do great harm to the Church.

Take the quote to the top left of this article. It’s from Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History. The emperor, Commodus (reigned AD 177 [*] to 192) lived a morally dissolute life and ran a corrupt government. He was strangled in the bath, rumor has it his assassin was a homosexual lover. Whether that’s true or not (historians are divided), he was not a praiseworthy person. But a few of his policies brought about good and, whether by intent or distraction, he stopped the general persecution of the Church. The Church could recognize this good while not approving of his life in doing so.

In contrast, his father—Marcus Aurelius (reigned AD 161-180)—was a Stoic philosopher known by historians as the last of the Five Good Emperors. He lived by a strong moral code and was a good governor. However, under his rule, the persecution of Christians greatly increased—historians debate about whether this was done with his direct support. The Church recognizes the harm he did despite his other actions.

If we were to judge these two emperors by the standards of American Catholics, some would say that Commodus was the greatest emperor ever and his “moral failings” were unimportant in comparison. Others would say that the first group were partisan and we would need to go back to the policies of Marcus Aurelius, ignoring the evils he did as a cost of the “greater good.”

Both groups would be wrong. The moral wrongdoing and the unjust government policies must both be opposed by Catholics. But the good that a government does should be encouraged. Both would have to be part of the Catholic assessment and we could not say that one was unimportant compared to the other.

This is how we need to respond to the policies of our government and those who rule. When our government does good, we support it. When it does evil, we oppose it. If we do this selectively, ignoring the good of those we dislike, or the evil of those we support, we are not acting as Catholics ought. We are acting as partisans who bring up or set aside things depending on how they benefit our worldly views, not on their objective good or evil.


[*] From AD 177-180, he co-ruled with his father, Marcus Aurelius.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Cum Petro et Sub Petro

If I had to say what I thought caused the biggest harm to the stability of the Church and acceptance of her teachings, I would say it was the loss of respect and obedience to the Holy Father when he teaches, and the assumption that when the Pope teaches what we dislike it means he must be an idiot or a heretic.

In the period of 1968-2013, this behavior was seen in those Catholics who were at odds with the teachings on sexual morality and women in the priesthood. They believed (and still do) that the Church went wrong on those teachings and, until the Pope reversed those teachings, they could “legitimately” disobey him. They argued that, since these teachings were not defined ex cathedra, they were not protected, and could be in error.

In response, Catholics began stepping up to defend the authority of the papacy. They pointed out that the authority of the Pope was binding when he intended to teach and, even if we should wind up with a morally bad Pope, God would prevent him from teaching error (whether by guidance or by diverting him from attempting to implement a false teaching). 

There were warning signs we should have seen however. Because some of the Church teaching on moral issues superficially coincided with conservative values, it became easy to confuse the two. When Popes wrote on other issues, these Catholics fretted that the Church was “moving left” or argued that the Pope was just expressing an “opinion” where his Polish (St. John Paul II) or German (Benedict XVI) background gave him a distorted view of the West. 

Beginning in 2013, we saw the first non-European Pope. He was solidly orthodox, but had a different perspective on the world, based on different experiences than Catholics in the US and Western Europe had. Misinterpreting these perspectives as a “change of teaching,” we soon wound up with same problem but with different actors and reasons for dissent. Because he spoke out on the social justice teachings of the Church—the ones the defenders of his predecessors wrote off as opinion—we saw the Catholics who confused Church teaching with conservatism begin to question him, then challenge his orthodoxy.

And, similar to before, the superficial similarities between Catholic teaching on social justice and political liberalism leads some Catholics to assume that the Church was finally agreeing with them, despite the fact that the Pope confirmed that he held the teachings of the Church, calling himself a “son of the Church.” [§]

Both of these factions of dissenters lost sight of the Catholic understanding of cum Petro et sub Petro—with Peter and under Peter. This is the recognition that one must be in communion with the Pope and offering religious submission of intellect and will to him when he teaches. This was the obedience of the saints even in darker times when some Popes were more interested in self than in God.

Professing that God protects His Church is not some misplaced trust in the holiness and knowledge of the individual on the Chair of St. Peter. It’s faith in God that we can trust Him to protect His Church under the headship of the Pope, even if some of the Popes should prove to live unworthily. 

If we believe this, we can understand why we give obedience to each Pope when he teaches—even if we don’t particularly like him or his behavior—because we can trust God to protect His Church and prevent it from teaching error when we give obedience to the visible head of the Church. But if we refuse to give religious submission of intellect and will to the Pope when he teaches, if we refuse to be cum Petro et sub Petro, we are not faithful Catholics. We’re merely schismatics (cf. canon 751).


[§] It should be noted, despite the constant predictions of Pope Francis changing teachings on contraception, woman priests, homosexuality, etc., he has always strongly reaffirmed Church teaching on these subjects. Maybe it’s time to stop listening to the critics and alarmists.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Ahab, Dissent, and the Art of Misrepresentation

When Catholics openly dissent from a teaching, but want to appear as if they’re really the faithful ones, they develop misrepresenting the Church into an art form. Doctrines are reduced to merely human teaching. The teachings of the ordinary magisterium are reduced to optional, often partisan, opinions. The dissenters effectively says, “yes the Church might say this, but they’re wrong and we’re justified in not obeying it.”

One of the most common tactics is to claim that the Church, or a member of the magisterium, is wrongly intruding into the concerns of the state or offering a political opinion. Such dissenters overlook seem to forget that totalitarian dictatorships made the same complaint about the Catholic Church. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and many other regimes have bitterly complained when the Church condemned the evils of their regimes. It becomes especially bizarre when those who hold positions that the Church speaks out against are themselves Catholic. Those individuals come across like King Ahab speaking bitterly against the prophet Micaiah:

Jehoshaphat said, “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here we might consult?” The king of Israel answered, “There is one other man through whom we might consult the Lord; but I hate him because he prophesies not good but evil about me. He is Micaiah, son of Imlah.” (1 Kings 22:7–8)

Common sense says that, when one who speaks with God’s authority speaks against the position a person holds, the person who recognizes that authority in general is a fool if they reject it when directed at him or her. We might laugh at Ahab’s foolishness in refusing to listen, but if we start saying in response to a bishop acting in communion with the Pope, “the Church should be silent, and stick to what they know,” we’re behaving like Ahab did.

Another application of this misrepresentation is when Catholics draw a line in the sand where the Church stays on one side and the state stays on the other. The problem is, this line is arbitrary and does not resemble what the Church actually believes. The Church does in fact have something to say when the state behaves in an unjust way, persecuting those who do right and permitting evils. This is because the Church has a role in speaking out to ensure justice when those who govern violate what is right. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out:

1930 Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church’s role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.

A state only has legitimacy if it acts in a way that is just. When the state acts unjustly, the Church must speak out to warn those who govern about the danger to their souls and to the legitimacy of the state, as well as to warn Catholics who live within not to be swept up into supporting the evil. So, when the dissenters side with the rule of government or ideology of a politician in opposition to the teaching of the Church, they are choosing to reject the Church. And, since Catholics should know that the Church teaches with God’s authority (Matthew 16:19, 18:18), then to reject the authority of the Church is to reject God (Luke 10:16).

To get around that, dissenters like to point to sin in the Church and try to claim that grevious evils by some means the guilt of the whole. And, if the whole is guilty (they argue), then the Church cannot teach with authority until those in authority eliminate those evils. Some go so far as to say that the existence of evil removes the authority to teach. It’s a sort of neo-Donatism that pops up in the Church from time to time. Those who promote it will point to evils that exist, and say that the Pope and bishops have lost their authority (something they assume but do not prove). From there (through a non sequitur) they argue that what they teach is right. When the Church rejects their erroneous views, they point to the evil and rejects the authority of the Church. (Martin Luther and John Calvin were especially notorious with this tactic).

The problem is, even though Scripture has a lot to say about what will happen to faithless shepherds, they don’t say that sinful behavior removes authority. Aaron created a golden calf. He did not lose his office for his sin. Peter denied Jesus three times. He did not lose his office. Indeed, Our Lord pointed out (Matthew 23:2-3) that there was a difference between authority and personal behavior. Those who teach with authority must be heeded, but we may not use their bad behavior to justify ours.

Yet another tactic is to argue that X is a worse evil than Y, therefore the Church should not focus on Y while X exists. This is a red herring fallacy, aimed at discrediting those in the Church speaking against Y. Yes, some sins are worse than others. But, if X is less common in the Church in a nation, while people routinely commit Y, it makes sense that the Church would remind the faithful of the fact that Y is evil, lest they go to hell for committing it. As Ezekiel warned through prophecy:

You, son of man—I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel; when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them for me. When I say to the wicked, “You wicked, you must die,” and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life. (Ezekiel 33:7-9)

When the Church calls us out for supporting Y, we often say “the Church should speak out on X instead,” overlooking the fact that we forget their speaking out against X because we resent being called out over Y. But we should be grateful that the Church, as watchman, does not remain silent when we are the ones in danger of hell.

When we’re tempted to balk at the teaching of the Church, we should consider these ways in which we try to evade the religious submission of intellect and will. The Church teaches with the authority of Christ, and we should be very wary around arguments denying that authority. 

Yes, there will be those in the Church who do fall into error when they try to teach in opposition to the Pope. But we trust that God will not permit His Church under the headship of the Pope to teach binding error. Yes, a teaching of the ordinary magisterium is changeable. But that means it can be refined, not that it was heresy before.  If we accuse the Church, when she teaches, of teaching error, we are acting like Ahab who dared to be angry when a prophet warned him of his destruction.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Church and Politics

The Catholic Church was established by Jesus Christ and given the authority and mission to bring His salvation to the entire world, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). When the Church teaches, it is with His authority (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and rejecting the teaching of the Church is rejecting Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). Indeed, He warns that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

This obedience is not simply limited to the ex cathedra teachings. We are also obligated to give religious submission of intellect and will to the ordinary teaching authority of the Pope and bishops teaching in communion with him (cf. Canons 751-753Lumen Gentium 25Humani Generis 20 among others). If we knowingly do not accept this, we are heretics and schismatics.

The political field exists as a manner of agreeing how best to govern. In many circumstances, the government does enforce the common good through authority given it by God. As St. Paul (Romans 13:1-7) points out:

Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. 

The exception, however, is when the government tries to carry out what the Church which teaches with God’s authority. As Peter told the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When the Church teaches that X is required or Y is forbidden, the state that refuses to do X or demands we do Y is demanding that we render what is God’s to Caesar (see Matthew 22:21). Nor can we be silent over what does not directly impact us but the Church condemns (See Matthew 25:41-46). As St. Caesarius of Arles points out (Sermon 157), if it’s wrong to do ignore the suffering, what will become of us if we participate in the evil:

Vatican II (Apostolicam Actuositatem #5) tells us:

Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience.

Because of this, we must listen to the Church when she teaches and “penetrate and perfect” the temporal order. But a dangerous attitude is arising among Catholics who used to pride themselves as faithful Catholics. That danger is treating the teaching of the Church as a “prudential judgment” (in a complete abuse of the term) or “interfering in politics” as if the bishops were corruptly abusing their authority to demand that we vote for a specific political party.

But that is not what they are doing. They are saying it is evil to support or be indifferent to abortion, same sex “marriage,” or the inhumane treatment of immigrants regardless of legal status. As Gaudium et Spes #27 puts it:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

If the political party we favor supports one or more of these evils, we must oppose the evil, not point to the evil of the “other party” as worse and, therefore, justify the evil of our own party as unimportant in comparison. We cannot (if we are Democrats) downplay the evil of our party supporting abortion because our opposing the moral evil of the immigration policy. Nor can we, if we are Republicans, downplay the evil of our party’s role in the immigration policies because we oppose the evil of abortion [§].

The problem is, when the Pope or the bishops of this country [#] condemn an evil act or intent that is a political plank in a party platform, we automatically assume they are “getting involved with politics” instead of acting as the successors of the Apostles. By refusing to consider that the party or the candidate we favor as being evil in the eyes of God, we risk turning the party or candidate we favor into an idol, acting with a dual allegiance forbidden to us.

When our political party embraces something that the Pope and bishops condemn as evil, we have a choice: to fight to overturn the evil in our party, or to leave the party. In the first option, Archbishop Chaput wrote about abortion, in 2004, something that applies to every grave evil:

My friends often ask me if Catholics in genuinely good conscience can vote for “pro-choice” candidates. The answer is: I couldn’t. Supporting a “right” to choose abortion simply masks and evades what abortion really is: the deliberate killing of innocent life. I know of nothing that can morally offset that kind of evil. 

But I do know sincere Catholics who reason differently, who are deeply troubled by war and other serious injustices in our country, and they act in good conscience. I respect them. I don’t agree with their calculus. What distinguishes such voters, though, is that they put real effort into struggling with the abortion issue. They don’t reflexively vote for the candidate of “their” party. They don’t accept abortion as a closed matter. They refuse to stop pushing to change the direction of their party on the abortion issue. They don’t reflexively vote for the candidate of “their” party. They don’t accept abortion as a closed matter. They refuse to stop pushing to change the direction of their party on the abortion issue. They won’t be quiet. They keep fighting for a more humane party platform—one that would vow to protect the unborn child. Their decision to vote for a “pro-choice” candidate is genuinely painful and never easy for them. 

(Render Unto Caesar)

If we look at his words as “Democrats bad, Republicans good” (or look at the denouncing of our immigration policy as “Democrats good, Republicans bad”), we’ve missed the point. What it means is when our party chooses evil, we must fight to change our party if we choose to remain in it—NOT to condemn our Church for pointing out that evil. Not saying “the other party is worse.”

God desires the salvation of all. That includes Trump and Ocasio-Cortez. It includes McConnell and Pelosi. We have to convert all the world to Him, not convert all the people to our preferred political party, and especially not demand the Church embrace our party.

If we will not obey the Church, we will reject from Him who sent His Church. Then He will say about us, “Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Matthew 22:13). And when He does so, there will be no excuses to justify us at the final judgment.

[§] To avoid the accusation of bias (Succeed or fail, I try to keep my blog non-partisan) I put the party names in alphabetical order and used the first person plural with both to avoid giving the impression of siding with one over the other.

[#] Being an American myself, I write about what I know politically. I would hope that the general ideas work anywhere, but I don’t pretend to know the nuances of the politics in another nation.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Tactics of Diversion

It’s long been a tactic of atheists and anti-Catholics to respond to an argument they can’t answer by pointing to some unrelated issue in which members of the Church have either caused harm by ignoring Church teaching through sins of commission or omission, or by actions that do not involve the teaching of the Church. If you’ve seen someone suddenly bring up Galileo, the Spanish Inquisition, or the abuse scandals when they have nothing to do with the topic discussed, you’ve seen the tactic. The unspoken assumption in this tactic is that as long as the Church has a case of some evil or bureaucratic insensitivity in her past, she is morally flawed and has no right to insist on anyone obeying her. Unfortunately, we are now seeing Catholics use this tactic in order to discredit the Church when she speaks out against something they support.

The problem is, if any group must be morally impeccable to be able to say “X is wrong,” than nobody can oppose anything because nobody [§] is morally impeccable. That means the critics of the Church can’t insist on a moral course of action either. For example, if this tactic was valid, Americans could not oppose ethnic violence in the world on grounds that we also have a history of it. Can you imagine a neo-Nazi smugly saying that Americans have no right to speak against the concentration camps because of our history of putting Native Americans into reservations? Under this tactic, we’d have to.

The tactic is not a valid argument. It merely tries to hide the truth the person or group makes in a moral objection by bringing up things—usually out of context—that makes the one objecting seem hypocritical. But the fact that a person or group may be acting hypocritically if they have no intention to correct a moral fault [#] while demanding others correct theirs, does not change the truth of the moral objection raised against wrongdoing.

This most recently arose when the US bishops responded to the spate of mass shootings that flared up over a 24 hour period. The bishops called on the nation to pass sensible laws and asked Trump to consider his past rhetoric. The social media responses (some of which are pictured in the top left of this post) are examples of this tactic. Because they did not like what the bishops had to say, they responded with tu quoque, ad hominem, guilt by association, straw men, and red herring fallacies to try to undermine the entirely valid response by the bishops. But those responses (largely falsehoods) do not disprove the truth of the bishops’ concerns.

Of course, it’s not just the political right and Trump. The political left on abortion, same sex “marriage,” and transgenderism use the same tactics, bringing up the sexual abuse cases and other shameful acts/omissions in the Church to discredit the current statements.

But whoever uses it, know that they don’t have a point. They are merely using a tactic of diversion. The people who use it are trying to get the attention off of an issue they might stand indicted under and shift it to an issue they feel safe about. While those who shepherd the Church should work to ensure the dioceses are free of evil, bringing up charges like this don’t actually disprove the truth of the bishops’ warnings.


[§] This statement does not deny the sinlessness of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary, of course.

[#] A rash judgment. Yes, some in the Church have failed to guide the Church properly, or even fallen into corruption. But we can’t conclude from “some have not” that “all have deliberately refused to act.”

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Reflections on Reactions to the Chesterton Decision

The decision of Bishop Peter Doyle to not pursue the cause of GK Chesterton at this time has stirred up a lot of emotion from his supporters. Bishop Doyle [§] gave three reasons as to why he felt he could not:

“...I am unable to promote the cause of GK Chesterton for three reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no local cult. Secondly, I have been unable to tease out a pattern of personal spirituality. And, thirdly, even allowing for the context of G K Chesterton’s time, the issue of anti-Semitism is a real obstacle particularly at this time in the United Kingdom”.

If you’ve seen the comments on social media, you’ll know that some Catholics have responded to the decision by bashing the Church or the bishop, accusing him of being politically correct, a leftist or a Freemason. Others have accused him of saying Chesterton was evil. Most of the responses focus on the concern about possible anti-Semitism. The American GK Chesterton Society, for example, issued some statements and past articles about the charge. So let’s deal with this, even though the bishop thought the biggest problem was of the lack of a local cult [*].

I’m a fan of Chesterton’s non-fiction writing. He certainly made good insights into the attitudes of the world and defended the Catholic Church with a rapier wit. But as soon as I saw the article blurb, I knew which book the bishop had in mind—The New Jerusalem. I’ve read it, and I found his statements on Jews to be jarring, sometimes offensively so.

Unfortunately, the term “anti-semitism” is an equivocal term. It can be used to describe a range of attitudes from Adolf Hitler to people who have misgivings about the policies of modern Israel. If the bishop intends it one way and the reader interprets it another way, then people will be fighting over different issues.

Chesterton’s defenders bring out the fact that he opposed the Nazis and said he would die to defend the Jews. That is laudable. It certainly defends him from an accusation that he supported Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. But it would be an error to think that this means none of his statements were offensive.

Personally, I think that if there is a valid concern about his writings about the Jews, it would be of the patronizing kind that sees negative things in their culture and assumes that “they can’t help it, so we need to help them.” [#]. In my reading of The New Jerusalem, I had a sense of Chesterton assuming that the problems among Jews were because of their culture and not because of some of the more shameful elements of European history keeping them apart from the rest of society.

For example, while his defenders make much of his saying he supported a nation for the Jews, less is said about why he supports it. On page 289 of my version of The New Jerusalem, he explains:

Patriotism is not merely dying for the nation. It is dying with the nation. It is regarding the fatherland not merely as a real resting-place like an inn, but as a final resting-place, like a house or even a grave. Even the most Jingo of the Jews do not feel like this about their adopted country; and I doubt if the most intelligent of the Jews would pretend that they did. Even if we can bring ourselves to believe that Disraeli lived for England, we cannot think that he would have died with her. If England had sunk in the Atlantic he would not have sunk with her, but easily floated over to America to stand for the Presidency. Even if we are profoundly convinced that Mr. Beit or Mr. Eckstein had patriotic tears in his eyes when he obtained a gold concession from Queen Victoria, we cannot believe that in her absence he would have refused a similar concession from the German Emperor. When the Jew in France or in England says he is a good patriot he only means that he is a good citizen, and he would put it more truly if he said he was a good exile. Sometimes indeed he is an abominably bad citizen, and a most exasperating and execrable exile, but I am not talking of that side of the case. I am assuming that a man like Disraeli did really make a romance of England, that a man like Dernburg did really make a romance of Germany, and it is still true that though it was a romance, they would not have allowed it to be a tragedy. They would have seen that the story had a happy ending, especially for themselves. These Jews would not have died with any Christian nation.

That’s not far off (albeit more eloquent) than Ilhan Omar’s accusation that Jews have a dual loyalty, and Catholics who were offended by Omar should consider the above passage in that light.

Another thing to be aware of are the arguments that Jesus Himself, not to mention St. John Chrysostom, would be equally scandalous. It’s an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, but it doesn’t work. Jesus did not condemn Jews because they were Jews. Jesus condemned prevalent attitudes among prominent Jews and called for their conversion. St. John Chrysostom did say some appalling things about Jews [~]. But his views were based on an anger that the Jews had rejected Christ and a concern that some in his diocese were embracing Jewish practices as a novelty, putting themselves at risk of losing their faith. But, if you read St. John Chrysostom, you will see that he thought Jews could and should become Christians, while Chesterton gives the impression that Jews can’t be fully part of a nation. But that’s also what anti-Catholics in Britain and the US have said about Catholics—a fact that we rightfully find offensive.

It is important to remember that the decision of Bishop Doyle does not mean that Chesterton is evil. It does not mean he’s not in Heaven. It doesn’t even mean that his case is permanently blocked. The formal declaration of sainthood by the Church means that the person is held up by the Church as an exemplar of Christian life.

In Chesterton’s case, these obstacles may or may not be solved. Certainly we should pray that they are if we want him to be declared a saint. But let’s not condemn the bishop for raising the concerns he is obligated to raise. That doesn’t help the Church or the cause of sainthood. It only serves to divide the Church—something Chesterton wouldn’t approve of.

[§] Curiously, though his letter was read at the American GK Chesterton Society conference, nobody has provided an actual text of the letter at the time of my writing this. The only citation Catholic media like CNA and Catholic World Report have used for the letter is a column by Rob Dreher who says he was sitting in the back and couldn’t hear everything. That’s hardly professional reporting. They should have made an effort to get a text of the letter.

[*] It’s a valid concern. He has the obligation to investigate and only start the cause if he sees it justified. But if the people of his own diocese didn’t develop a cultus, he can’t go forward with the cause. The popularity of Chesterton among American Catholics is irrelevant in his determination.

[#] Similar to how some American supporters of civil rights treat problems in minority communities as inevitable. The character of Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman exemplified this mindset.

[~] See his Discourses Against Judaizing Christians, for example.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Thoughts on the Use and Misuse of Prudential Judgment

A follower of my blog asked me about the proper understanding of prudential judgment. While I have written about it in regards to certain issues, I haven’t really discussed it in general. Given that the invocation of the term on social media is more often than not a misuse, I thought it would be useful to discuss it.

The starting point for a proper understanding can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid. (1788; 1780)

In other words, in judging what we must do, we must use right reasoning to carry out our moral obligations to the best of our ability. We ask ourselves what the Church teaches and how we can best apply it to a situation our lives, neither avoiding our obligations nor acting with reckless abandon in fulfilling them.

In different areas, different people have to make the call. For example, in determining whether to go to war, it is the government who has to determine whether the conditions for a just war exist, whether the last resort has been reached, and how to carry out a just war (this responsibility is an example of why we should be praying for our government—that they might properly make these kinds of decisions). In another example, each voter must decide how to properly carry out the moral obligation to promote good and oppose evil.

What is important to remember here is that we must look to the Church to properly form our conscience. We cannot appeal to our conscience against the Church. The Catholic who acts against the teachings of the Church under the present magisterium is not judging prudently.

And that’s where a major error emerges among Catholics: the misrepresentation of the term “prudential judgment” to mean whether I should obey a Church teaching instead of how I can best obey Church teaching. When the Church teaches…

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). 

—St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae #73

…we cannot invoke prudential judgment to act against that teaching or argue it is only a guideline. Yes, the Church teaching on the defense of life is more than just opposing abortion, but we cannot make that defense “optional” under the guise of prudential judgment.

We should be on our guard against arguing (or listening to an argument) that a statement by Pope or bishop condemning something as wrong is “merely an opinion” that we can choose to follow or not as it suits us as a “prudential judgment.” When the Pope or bishop in communion with him intends to teach—even if it is not an ex cathedra teaching—we are bound to give religious submission of intellect and will. As canon law tells us:

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.

That can be hard of course. In America, where we are so bitterly divided and both political parties are openly at odds with Church teaching in some way, and vicious customs treat things as morally good or indifferent which we must oppose, it is easy to think that a condemnation of political party A is an endorsement of the evils of political party B. But, if we remember that our first loyalty is to God and that we must obey Him when human laws go against Him, we can see that prudential judgment might be doing what is right, even if we suffer evil for it. After all, sometimes accepting martyrdom is the proper prudential judgment.

Some problems arise when we have multiple options on how to best carry out Church teaching. Provided that we do not falsely invoke “prudential judgment” as an excuse to evade obedience to Church teaching or to claim our political views are themselves religious obligations, it is possible to have two faithful Catholics come up with two different solutions on how to obey Church teaching.

For example, take the debate over how do we limit the demand for abortion so that, even if we successfully abolish it, people do not seek out illegal abortions? In this case, the question for prudential judgment is “in what way should I support to best help those in need so they won’t be misled into thinking abortion is a legitimate option?”

Some say we need more government programs. Others think that successful initiatives must come from individuals instead. There are merits and disadvantages to both approaches and the Church neither mandates one nor forbids the other. So long as neither option is used to evade our Christian obligations, we can support one over the other as a prudential judgment. Unfortunately people who confuse their preferences in politics with Church teaching hurl anathemas and labels against each other, like “anti-abortion but not pro-life” or “socialism.” In this case, they refuse to consider the legitimate prudential judgment of another and instead unjustly accuse each other.

To avoid this, I think we should remember some things. 
  1. When the Church teaches X, we are not free to reject or ignore teaching X.
  2. When using prudential judgment, we are not to use it to evade obedience.
  3. We need to evaluate what options are compatible with Church teaching and choose the true good. 
  4. We must not confuse the true good with our comfort and political preferences.
  5. When there are two or more options based on choosing the true good, we cannot accuse someone who chooses an option contrary to our preferences of bad will.
If we remember these things, we might avoid falling into sin by disobedience or rash judgment/calumny.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Moment of Decision

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains. (John 9:40-41)

Some Catholics, when the Church calls out certain behaviors as contrary to the Catholic teaching, react with sorrow upon learning that they held or did something against Church teaching that they never thought about before their discovery, regretting their past ignorance and henceforth strive to change their ways.

On the other hand, when the Church calls out certain behaviors as contrary to the Catholic teaching, some who practice that behavior protest, saying that the Church should instead “stay out of politics,” displaying a profound ignorance of what the Church actually teaches and refusing to take correction from their bishops or the Pope to amend their lives. Frequently, they invoke conscience against the Church even though we must use Church teaching as a measure to judge whether our conscience has gone wrong—not the reverse.

The difference between the two attitudes can be described by St. Augustine in his work, The Free Choice of Will. Is the person in question ignorant against their will (i.e. if they had any idea that their behavior was wrong, they never would have done it)? Or did the person simply never bother to ask whether the actions they supported were wrong and refuse correction when learning otherwise?

This is where Gaudium et Spes, #16 helps us evaluate our behavior:

In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

The person who is ignorant against their will tries to do what is right and, if they discover they have gone wrong, try to learn and live by what they have discovered to be right. The person who does not care that their behavior is condemned by the Church and, in fact, takes a stand against the Church when the Church reaffirms her teachings, is failing to seek and actually rejecting the truth when revealed to them.

It’s not for me to determine what category you, the reader, falls under in this decision. That’s for you and your confessor to determine. But we can ask ourselves about our own response. Do we feel like the scales fall from our eyes when we learn and strive to change our ways? Or do we burn with resentment against the Church and accuse the magisterium of “playing politics” or “heresy,” or downplay it as a “prudential judgment” we can ignore?

If we do the former, we are doing right. If the latter, we are in danger of willingly rejecting God by rejecting those whom He sent (cf. Luke 10:16).

Friday, July 19, 2019

Evading Responsibility

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another. (John 15:12-17)

The Church teaches us about following Jesus and keeping His commandments. Those commandments follow the Great Commandment, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37–40). When the Church teaches, “We must do X,” or “We must not do Y,” we can be sure that X and Y are areas that either respect or violate those commandments. 

But all too often, we evade our responsibility by making excuses for why we don’t obey the Pope or the bishops when they teach. For example, saying “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t want to impose my beliefs on others,” while supporting laws that impose the belief that abortion is good. Or saying “Those immigrants came here illegally, we should help others who live here instead,” while failing to help either immigrants or citizens in need.

These evasions do not excuse us. These commandments are not limited to those who are born or those who are legal citizens, and, as Lumen Gentium #14 reminds us:

He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

It seems to me that if we’re making excuses for refusing to hear the Church (a dangerous thing. cf. Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16) in the current magisterium, we should ask ourselves “Why?” What excuses can we give before God at our Judgment for refusing to hear those teachings on how to obey His commandments.

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that when we accuse the Pope or bishops of “getting into politics,” the real issue is that we refuse to get out of politics. If so, we do this to our own peril: in doing so, we’re making our preferences into an idol which we obey rather than God. No matter what excuses we might make, it will not justify our evading obedience.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Catholics and the Either-Or Fallacy

People have a habit of thinking in a binary manner: Either X or Y. If one doesn’t support X, they must therefore support Y. The problem is, that’s only sometimes true. It’s only true if there are only two possible choices and you must pick one. But, if choosing Z is an option, if rejecting both X and Y is an option, or if choosing elements of X and Y are options, then the either-or dilemma is false because it is NOT a choice of only X or Y.

When it comes to the teaching of the Church, Catholics often commit this fallacy. They interpret Church teaching in a narrow way, then argue that whoever disagrees with their narrow interpretation must—by the fact of that disagreement—be in opposition to Church teaching. But they overlook the possibility that the Church teaching is different from what these critics think it is and actually rejects the dilemma the critics present.

Recently, we’re seeing American Catholics fall into this trap over the debate on immigration. The bishops, following Church teaching, have been speaking out against changes to immigration policy that makes it harder for legitimate asylum speakers to apply and presents migration as an “enemy horde” to be defended against. Supporters of this policy are accusing the bishops of supporting illegal immigration. In terms of logic, they are saying:
  • Either support the current administration’s policy OR support illegal immigration (Either X or Y)
  • Not supporting the current administration’s policy (Not X)
  • Therefore supporting illegal immigration (Therefore Y)
The problem [§] with this reasoning is that the Church is not saying “Y.” The Church is saying “Neither X nor Y.” The bishops recognize that the needs of security are legitimate, but also recognize that we cannot use this need as an excuse to evade our Christian obligations to help those in legitimate need. What the Church is calling for is a just process that seeks to find and aid—without delay—those who do need help. The bishops don’t want members of MS-13 in the country any more than the rest of us do. But they do realize that trying to keep all or most immigrants out in order to keep out the gang members is not a just response.

Whatever the issue, the Catholic is tempted to see the “right” solution as the one they support (X) and whoever rejects X must support the antithesis, not recognizing that they could be the ones in error. Some Catholics label the Church teaching against contraception and abortion as being about “controlling women” because they interpret these intrinsic evils as necessary “rights” so women can be “free.” Other Catholics interpret the Church teaching on social justice as “promoting socialism” because it necessarily condemns government laxity on the topic. In both cases, they accuse the Pope and bishops of supporting “Y” when the Church is rejecting both X and Y.

The Either-Or fallacy used by Catholics against the magisterium is effectively an attempt to shift the blame: “I can’t be in error, therefore YOU must be!” by way of wrongly accusing the magisterium. As Catholics fall into this trap, they see the Church as increasingly going wrong—never considering that they have been misled about what is right behavior for Catholics.

It doesn’t have to be on an issue either. It can also happen if someone assumes that a problematic action must be “proof” of willful heresy as opposed to misunderstanding, a mistake, or a matter of personal sin. Or a case where we don’t see a public rebuke leads to an assumption that the Church “approves of the error” instead of a private correction.

The “either-or” fallacy leads Catholics to violate the proper sense of Matthew 7:1–assuming to rashly judge hearts and minds where no justification to do so exists. To avoid this logical error and the accompanying sin of rash judgment, we need to consider whether there is more to a story than our usual sources; more to an action than our presumed motives. We can certainly say X is wrong, when we know (i.e., using submission to the magisterium as the guide for our knowledge) that X goes against Church teaching. But we can’t justify attitudes that reject or explain away the teaching of the Pope and bishops in communion with him, or make accusations against them without explicit proof that there are only two possible conclusions and they have deliberately chosen the evil one.


[§] In this form, it’s also a logical error of Denying the Antecedent.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Ignoring the Watchman: A Reflection on Our Double Standard Views of Evil

When we think about the concept of doing evil, we tend to treat our own sins and those of our own faction as minor, while treating the harmful consequences of the acts from those we dislike as if those who did them were acting with the motivation of Aaron in the Shakespearean play, Titus Andronicus:

Lucius: Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?
Aaron: Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day, and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,
Wherein I did not some notorious ill:
As kill a man, or else devise his death;
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it;
Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself;
Set deadly enmity between two friends;
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears,
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut! I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

Titus Andronicus, Act V Scene I.

This way of thinking helps explain why we have a growing divide between factions today when there should be no factions in the Church. By limiting the meaning of evil to “with malice aforethought,” we do not judge our sins rightly and assume that those who disagree with us must sin in the worst way. But doing evil is to do things contrary to the teaching of God as passed on by His Church. If we knowingly disobey these teachings, we are doing evil. There are two things to remember. First, venial matter, imperfect knowledge, or less than full consent may reduce our guilt. Second that evil was done regardless of the level of guilt. By downplaying our own willful disregard to “unimportant,” we’re committing presumption. By exaggerating other’s sins to malicious, we are violating the proper sense of Matthew 7:1ff.

This is evident when we see American Catholics play the “bishops should stay out of politics” card when they teach on something that challenges our complicity on something we write off as “unimportant.” Tragically, this complicity is bipartisan. If the Church speaks out against the unjust treatment of migrants, some Catholics will object to the bishops focusing on this instead of X—with X being something that they already happen to agree with. If the Church defends life and the sanctity of marriage, some Catholics will object to this, insisting that the bishops focus on Y instead—Y being something that they just happen to agree with. Both are willing to overlook that the Church does in fact teach on X and Y as well as on the just treatment of migrants and on life and the sanctity of marriage.

All of us need to realize that this behavior is not standing up for “more important” teachings. It is rejection of the Church teachings which we dislike. Yes, we can be quite sincere about opposing X and Y. But Church teaching is about more than X and Y which don’t directly affect us.

In addition, all of us face the temptation of assuming that, because the individual bishop is not speaking about X or Y at that moment, they must maliciously oppose Church teaching on X or Y. Or, that because the bishop speaks about showing compassion to those who violate Church teaching in an area we feel vehement about, it “must” mean he is lax about the teaching in this area, or even plotting to undermine it. The possibility of him wanting to both save those sinners and protect us from committing rash judgment never seems to occur to the critics.

But see what we’ve become! By assuming that the teaching that rebukes us is “unimportant,” we deafen ourselves to the teachings that could lead us to repentance. By assuming that those who violate teachings we vehemently support must be malicious in intent, we judge in a way forbidden to us. In both assumptions, we endanger our souls.

Yes, some sins are objectively more destructive than others. But that does not mean the “others” can be ignored. I’ve often said in my blog that the deadliest sin for each person are the ones most likely to damn that person to hell. If the Church warns that something we’re indifferent to or complicit in our support for, we’re fools to ignore the warning and blame the messenger for speaking out. We should remember the prophecy of Ezekiel when the Church speaks out:

You, son of man—I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel; when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them for me. When I say to the wicked, “You wicked, you must die,” and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life. (Ezekiel 33:7-9)

The Church, as a watchman, is warning us. If we don’t listen, we too will die in our sins.