Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Is It Really So?

Awhile back, I was reading about St. Paul VI. The account pointed out that there was a ten year gap between his last encyclical (Humanae Vitae) and his death in 1978. The conclusion drawn was that he was so shaken by the response to Humanae Vitae, that he withdrew for ten years into a sort of isolation while the Church fell into chaos.

There was a major problem with this conclusion though: it wasn’t true. Yes, Humanae Vitae was his last encyclical. But it wasn’t his last teaching. The 1970s were filled with Apostolic Constitutions and Motu Proprio on different topics, implementing Vatican II and dealing with the rebellion that arose in the late 1960s. Not to mention his unprecedented travels [§].

This example of Church history should remind us that if you only look at part of the data instead of the whole picture, you’re going to reach a false conclusion. The Church has 2000 years of history which need to be understood when assessing what is going on. If we look at only parts of it, we won’t correctly interpret it.

I bring up this example to make a point about how people portray the Church. If someone only tells part of the story with part of the data, it could turn out that the story they tell about the Church is false. If someone tells part of the story about the Church prior to Vatican II, focusing on the strongest elements alone, it will appear as if that period was a “golden age.” It wasn’t. Or if someone takes the words of Pope Francis out of context, omitting the things he says and does that defend the moral teaching of the Church, it will sound like he’s a heretic.

But you can use this tactic with any age of the Church to make it sound good or bad. You can make a saint sound demonic or a heresiarch sound faithful. Ultimately, that’s how you can detect the bias. If someone consistently takes quotes out of context to fit the narrative, it’s most plausible to suspect that the person is devoted to a narrative about the Church instead of the Church as she is.

The Church as she is will, of course, have sin and sinners in every age. Every Pope will have his flaws. But there will also be saints in every age, and the Popes will have their strong points as well. The accurate evaluations will recognize both. The biased version will omit whatever goes against their preferred interpretation. We should keep this in mind when we read accounts trying to set one era of the Church against another.

[§] We tend to think of St. John Paul II as the first to make these trips, and indeed he definitely traveled the furthest so far. But St. Paul VI was the first modern Pope to travel.

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