Monday, February 24, 2020

Since When Has Conscience Become A Dirty Word

So, this morning, I saw a well known§ opponent of abortion post on Facebook, saying we shouldn’t vote according to conscience, but according to “conviction.” This post was aimed at encouraging people to vote for her preferred candidate instead of a minor party. In fact she implied it would be morally wrong not to vote for her candidate. I’ve addressed that sort of nonsense before, so I won’t repeat my objection to those arguments. But the fact that this personality—who is Catholic—could have such a malformed idea of conscience, makes me think I should discuss it, and why it is vital to follow it.

I understand why some people are suspicious of invoking conscience. Many do abuse the term, treating it as a mere feeling. But Conscience is not a feeling. It’s not a case of “I like X,” or “I don’t like Y.” Conscience is something that compels us to act or not act. “I must do X.” I must not do Y.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:

1777 Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking. (1766; 2071)

1778 Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law: (1749)

For a person to say they will act on conviction, not conscience, especially if they urge others to act against conscience, shows that they are either grossly ignorant of what conscience is, or they are saying that they are choosing or advocating to others disobedience on what they feel morally obliged to do. That’s deadly serious, especially when trying to pressure others. Our Lord had some words about that, involving a millstone. 

Conscience must be formed by following the teaching of the Catholic Church of course. That means if the teaching of the Church seems to go against our conscience, we need to see if we have properly understood the teaching. If we have not, we need to learn the true teaching. But if we have not misunderstood, we should see if we are being honest about what we’re labeling “conscience.” We might find it’s not conscience at all, but simply our feelings or preferences that we don’t want to surrender.

Can conscience err? Yes. But if we don’t know the truth, and have no way of knowing (invincible ignorance). then we are not condemned for having a faulty conscience (see Gaudium et Spes #16). Not knowing the truth is not an automatic free pass, however. If we are Catholics, we should know that the Church is established by Christ (cf. Matthew 16:18) and that we are bound to listen to her (Luke 10:16) as the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). So rejecting Church teaching is not a result of a properly formed conscience. As Donum Veritatis tells us:

38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.

The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised.

So, if the Church teaches “X is morally evil,” then anybody who is Catholic and knows that teaching, yet freely chooses to do X cannot claim that they are following a properly formed conscience. But note this: I said if the Church teaches. I did not say, “if some guy on the internet says…” The sad thing is, there are a lot of Catholics out there who confuse their preferences and political beliefs with Church teaching. If they think caring for the poor means voting for higher taxes, they will often argue that opposing taxes is “rejecting the Church.” If they think that opposing abortion means voting for party X, they will treat any Catholic who has moral issues with voting for party X is “rejecting the Church.” We should always remember that it is the Pope and bishops in communion with him who represent Church teaching, not some social media personality or blogger—and, yes, I include myself in that*.

The Catholic whose conscience forbids an action that others have no problem with should not let themselves be bullied by a theological “Karen on Facebook” who thinks their preference is doctrine. If we seek to do what is right, according to Church teaching#, then the fact that others draw a different conclusion from us is not automatically proof of their error. 

If we try to pressure such a Catholic to violate his conscience because we fear the political consequences of his actions^, we had better start preparing our fitting for the millstone, because we will be pressuring that person to do what he or she thinks is evil in God’s eyes.


(§) As always, I omit the names involved to prevent people from thinking that my opposing an idea is an ad hominem attack. My blog is about defending Church teaching, not political infighting.

(*) I will always do my best to present Church teaching accurately. But if the Pope or bishop decides on an interpretation different from mine, follow them, not me!

(#) Scrupulosity is something to be aware of. If one is in doubt about their position, consulting with the pastor could be a wise move.

(^) As a personal example, my conscience forbids me from voting for a candidate that supports abortion. But that doesn’t mean I feel I am automatically obliged to vote for the other major party. If my conscience forbids it, I must not do it.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Catholic Teaching Must Come First

The primaries continue, and Catholics remain divided on who to support. As they argue on social media, many of them argue either that their candidate is morally superior or at least not as morally bad as the opposing party.

But because both major political parties in America promote things that the Catholic Church must condemn, we’re left with the tragedy of Catholics justifying themselves as paragons of virtue and condemning the other side as diabolical—when they are actually both guilty of what they denounce in others.

And God help the bishops when they teach Catholic moral obligations that a Catholic’s political party runs afoul of. They suddenly get labeled partisans for the other side. If somebody relied solely on the combined opinions of critics, the USCCB would be the first example of “right wing leftists” or vice versa.

The problem with this mindset is Catholics are putting their party first and the Church teaching second. That doesn’t mean that the individual Catholic openly rejects the Church teaching of course. Often it means that they think the issues their party is wrong about matters less than the matters they care about. Thus Catholic Democrats§ come up with excuses why we must set aside our concerns about abortion because of the evils Republicans support while Catholic Republicans argue that issues like social justice must be ignored because of the evils Democrats support.

Settling aside judging whether those Catholics maliciously support those evils they say are “less important” (that would involve violating Matthew 7:1), Catholics of both sides are overlooking the fact that we’re supposed to be opposing evils and striving to overcome them. They overlook this by dualistic thinking: as long as the other party supports Evil X, I have to endure the Evil Y supported by my party.

But our opposition to evil is not limited to those whose name is followed by a -D or an -R, and it’s not limited to the election cycle. Why don’t we see Catholic Democrats opposing their party stance on abortion in off years? Why don’t we see Catholic Republicans opposing their party on unjust immigration policies? Unfortunately, one of the answers is, Catholics don’t vote as a bloc. There’s very little difference between the Catholic vote and the national vote. So people who look at the “Catholic vote” to predict how the election goes is only a view of the country in miniature.

It shouldn’t be that way. I believe that, even if we—as Catholics—think we must vote for party X over party Y to oppose a greater evil, we have an obligation to oppose the evils within our party and try to change it. Maybe we’ll succeed. Maybe we’ll end up moving on to a minor party. But we can’t be silent because we’re afraid we’ll “hurt our party’s chances.”

Our task is to bring the world to Christ, and that includes converting our own political associations. If we want to do this, we must put the Church teaching first.


(§) To avoid accusations of partisanship, I will post the dichotomies of Democrat:Republican, left:right, and conservative:liberal in alphabetical order.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Truth and Charity: Brief Reflections on Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”

People who follow my blog’s Facebook page may have seen my occasional sharing of quotes from Calvin’s Institutes of the Catholic Religion# along with my commentary. Having finally finished the thing yesterday, I have been asked to offer my thoughts on it. This will not be an in depth analysis. Rather I intend to comment on something lacking within it that Christians need to have when interacting with each other: Truth and Charity. 

In that respect, I would have to say that I found this work informative—though not in the way that the author might wish—because whatever Calvin’s sincerity might have been, the book lacked both truth and charity.

The book lacks truth to the extent that I would have to use the word calumny to describe it. That is John Calvin constantly presents a caricature of what the Catholic Church actually believes, treating individual corruption as official policy, claiming that we believe things that we explicitly reject, creating straw man arguments, taking Scripture, Patristics, and Church documents out of context*. He contrasts this mess with his own interpretation of Scripture which he declares to be the original intent of the Early Church. Anybody can make their own claims seem true if they do this. But if the accusations are false and the evidence is misrepresented, any guilty verdict that comes from it is an injustice.

I would have to say it lacks charity because Calvin assumes any personal sin on the part of Pope, Cardinal, bishop, or priest must be done maliciously and approved by the Church, while any difference between him and Catholic teaching is a willful perversion of what the Bible teaches.

Obviously, when it comes to truth, if two views are in contradiction, they can’t both be true, and we have to discern which is the truth. Part of that search for truth is removing false understanding of the other side and discovering what they really believe. Without that first step, any attempts at “dialogue” on our part will fail. That is where charity comes in. We don’t assume bad will without evidence. We don’t assume heresy without a thorough investigation.

With this in mind, I think the Catholic reader and the non-Catholic reader should consider some things: 

I should remind the Catholic reader that the Church does not declare any person to be in hell. We simply do not know the levels of culpability in a person’s knowledge, intent or will to say something like “Calvin knowingly and maliciously lied.” After all, he could have been grossly misinformed about what we believe and sincerely thought we held what he accused us of. It’s still false witness of course, but if we assume the worst, we’re doing the same wrong he did.

I should also remind the Catholic reader that, regardless of the culpability Calvin might have, we are not to assume the same guilt exists in the person who was taught Calvin’s claims from youth and assumes that they have to be true. It is truth taught in Lumen Gentium #14 that “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.” So, of course we must defend what is true. But Unitatis redintegratio #3 tells us that “The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection.” So, when sharing what we profess, we must not take a “@#$& you, heretic!” approach in doing so. We must interact with love, even when we disagree with others. Hurling polemics will not convince anybody to listen.

As for the non-Catholic Christian reader—especially from Protestant denominations—I would ask you to remember that we do naturally resent falsehoods being spoken against us. Setting aside the issue of who teaches correctly for the moment§, you need to realize that what men like Luther and Calvin accused us of are misrepresentations, no matter how sincere they were when they wrote against us. Since we are all forbidden to bear false witness, you have an obligation to make certain what you say against us is true before repeating it to others.

 Both Catholics and non-Catholics need to remember that—regardless of what polemics were hurled in the past—we need to remember those obligations of truth and charity today.


(#) Catholics should remember the Church warnings about reading material hostile to the Catholic faith without good reason and without proper care to avoid damaging their faith. I have taken those precautions. But, since there is a lot of false witness in this book, I strongly urge the Catholic who thinks that all denominations have a mix of truth and error, do not have a solid grasp of the truth, or might be inclined to take accusations at face value to avoid it. It is not for casual reading.

(†) 1960 Translation, Westminster Press, unabridged, if you’re curious.

(*) The nice thing about Verbum software is that one can easily read the passage cited in context—if you have the linked books. Unfortunately, that can get expensive. If you want to try it, I’d recommend starting with Verbum Basic (which is free) and only getting what you need when you need it. 

(€) When two positions are contradictory, they can’t both be true. One must be true and the other must be false. For example, Either Jesus is God or He is not. When two positions are contrary, they can’t both be true but both might be false. For example, saying the sun is either water or sand.

(§) Of course, I do hold the Catholic position to be true.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Deceptive Claims

As the official teachings on the authority of the Pope become more widespread, showing that his badgers are in the wrong, and as it becomes obvious that the claims about what the Pope is supposed to change are false, the anti-Francis Catholics have been forced to shift tactics. Now they’ve come up with new justifications about why they’re not in the wrong.

The first tactic they use is to argue that the authority of the magisterium doesn’t apply because the Pope isn’t teaching but expressing an opinion. Therefore—they claim—what he says isn’t binding, isn’t protected from error and they aren’t being disobedient by rejecting what he says.

The problem is, what they are calling his “opinion,” are things that are recognized as teaching when it comes from any other Pope. Eliminating misconceptions about the Death Penalty by making a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is an act of teaching. Teaching about our moral obligations regarding the environment through an encyclical letter is an act of teaching. Writing about the needs to strengthen marriage and helping those at odds with the Church through an apostolic exhortation* is Church teaching. But, because the critics do recognize the authority of these teachings from previous Popes and denounce Catholics who reject them, they are without excuse when they reject Pope Francis and call his teachings “opinions.”

The second tactic, used to accuse the Pope of error is to say that he never mentioned something. Therefore, that lack of a mention is considered “proof” that he supports whatever bad thing the anti-Francis Catholics want to accuse him of.

For example, after the recent synod, the Final Document suggested that the Church consider ordaining “proven men” who were married. The Pope, however, said that he was not in favor of removing the celibacy requirement in the West. But the anti-Francis Catholics argue that, since he didn’t explicitly reject married priests in Querida Amazonia, he must favor it and plans to implement it. 

But what the Pope actually said about the priesthood in the Amazon shows a belief that the the Church has other options, writing:

90. This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region. At the same time, it is appropriate that the structure and content of both initial and ongoing priestly formation be thoroughly revised, so that priests can acquire the attitudes and abilities demanded by dialogue with Amazonian cultures. This formation must be preeminently pastoral and favour the development of priestly mercy.

In the footnotes for this section, he notes that many Brazilian priests go overseas for missions instead of to the Amazon, and he notes there needs to be more effort to find vocations among the indigenous people. These are evidence against these accusations.

Both arguments share a logical fallacy: argument from silence. It is an error because it assumes Either A or B. Then the person draws a conclusion by way of claiming a lack of evidence for A is proof that B is true. But no evidence for A is not proof of anything at all.

The anti-Francis Catholic who argues that the Pope is only offering opinions or is secretly planning to implement a married priesthood—these two contradict, by the way—is basing it on the argument that since he didn’t explicitly see the Pope reject their interpretation, his claim must be true.

Such claims are deceptive and should be rejected, lest they lead us into error.


(*) Ironically, the critics of Amoris Laetitia argue that it can’t take precedence over Familiaris Consortio because it is “only” an apostolic exhortation. But Familiaris Consortio is also an apostolic exhortation. If Amoris Laetitia isn’t teaching, neither is Familiaris Consortio.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Final Thoughts on the Shared Errors of Anti-Francis Catholics and the First Protestants

Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things
—(Romans 2:1)

Over the past few months, during my studies of Martin Luther and John Calvin, I’ve demonstrated similarities in attitudes and assumptions between them and the modern anti-Francis Catholics who accuse the Pope of corrupting the Catholic faith, ironically accusing him of being “Protestant*.”

I say it is ironic because these self-appointed defenders of the Church use the term “Protestant” as an accusation against any change of discipline they dislike in the Church, but they actually behave like Luther and Calvin did in rejecting the lawful authority of the Church to bind and loose justifying their rejection in the name of defending true Christianity—as defined by them—from “error.”

When I look at Luther and Calvin on one side, and the anti-Francis Catholics on the other, I see in both sides a conviction that believes their understanding of how the Church should be is right and any opposition to that understanding by the Church is “proof” of their accusation that the Church has fallen into “error.” The problem with that conviction is that the critic never asks himself—or quickly discards—whether he or she is the one who got it wrong. It’s not a sin to be mistaken as long as one constantly seeks out the truth and looks to the Church as the way to properly form right understanding and right conduct. But, once the critic stops looking to the Church as the guide and instead insists on the Church looking to him or her, such a critic has fallen into error.

Why? Because Catholics profess to believe in a Church that teaches with Christ’s own authority, and to reject that authority is to reject Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16).

At this point, I should make one thing clear: While the Church cannot accept the non-Catholic beliefs that contradict# what she teaches, she does not impute guilt to those non-Catholics who were brought up in communities that reject Catholic teaching. If there is guilt (and that is for God to judge, not I), it would be on the part of those who—knowing that the Church is necessary—made the conscious decision to reject the Church when she teaches in a way they disagree with, not those who grew up sincerely believing that falsehoods they were told about the Catholic Church were true.

God will be the one to judge the culpability of those, like Luther and Calvin, who rejected the Catholic Church. But, those who use the term “Protestant” in a contemptuous sense show by that usage that they think the founders of Protestantism did wrong in rejecting the authority of the Church. But if they recognize that Luther and Calvin were wrong to do it under Leo X and his successors, these modern critics are without excuse when they reject the teaching of the Church under Pope Francis.

This is where the anti-Francis Catholic objects. They claim that the difference is that the Protestants were wrong to reject the Church but they are defending the Church from error—oblivious to the fact that Luther and Calvin used the same argument to justify their own disobedience.

What the anti-Francis Catholic fails to grasp in giving a litany of “errors” against the Pope is that the first response to an accusation is not to ask “why does he do this?” but to ask whether the accusation is true in the first place. For example, let’s look at Calvin, condemning the sacrament of Confirmation:

But if they prove that in the laying on of hands they follow the apostles (in which they have no similarity to the apostles except some sort of perverted zeal), yet whence that oil, which they call “the oil of salvation”? Who taught them to seek salvation in oil? Who taught them to attribute to it the power to confirm?

— Institutes of the Christian Religion IV, xix, 7

The response is not to defend oil as giving salvation. It is to say “No matter how much he might believe it, Calvin spoke falsely about us.” Because we do not believe that oil saves. We believe that God’s grace saves, and by His choice, the grace is bestowed through a sacrament that uses oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #436, 695, 1291, 1297). Calvin§ grossly misinterpreted Peter Lombard’s Sentences and condemned the Church for teaching something it never taught in the first place.

This is what the anti-Francis Catholic does when he accuses the Pope of supporting same sex “marriage,” contraception, divorce and remarriage, socialism, and other things the Church condemns. Because the anti-Francis Catholic never questions whether he is wrong in his accusations or wrong in his interpretation of past documents, he assumes he is correct and that the Pope errs. But, since the Pope does not support what his critic accuse him of, the critic has done what men like Luther and Calvin have done—falsely accuse the Pope or the Church of holding error when the error is on the part of the accuser.


(*) I find it interesting that actual Protestants see no similarities between what the Pope teaches (or what Vatican II teaches) and what they profess.

(#) Ecumenism involves dialogue to correct misunderstanding about what the other believes. Even when differences are irreconcilable, we act with charity in explaining why we must hold to our views.

(§) Calvin left off studying Catholic theology as a teenager when his father left the Church, and began studying Law instead. The result is—to put it charitably—that the accusations against the Catholic Church in the Institutes of the Christian Religion read like it was written by a lawyer with a juvenile understanding of the Catholic Church.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Misrepresentation of Binding Authority

891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.… The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.” This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us two important paragraphs on the binding authority of the Pope, but only one of those two get cited. The result of this selective citation is a misrepresentation: that unless the Pope teaches ex cathedra he might err and we can “withhold obedience” if he does. Of course, for those who do disagree with a Church teaching, it’s easy for them to find what they think is a “contradiction” and claim that their infidelity is “being faithful.”

We witnessed this during the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI when those who wanted a change to Church teaching claimed that the Papal teachings on contraception, abortion, divorce and remarriage, etc., were never made ex cathedra. Therefore, one could reject them “for a good reason.” That “good reason” was never submitted to the Church, of course. In fact, if the Church rejected their interpretation, it was seen as “proof” that the Pope was in error.

We witness it now with the opponents of Pope Francis. Because the individual interpretation of what he teaches does not line up with their interpretation of past teachings, the critics argue that his teaching is not binding because it is not ex cathedra and, can therefore “err.”

Both examples are variants of the No True Scotsman fallacy. It attempts to deny the authenticity of any authoritative act that refutes their claim by saying it is not “truly” authoritative. Since the individual who sets himself/herself at odds with the magisterium is the one who judges, the Church will never be in the right in their mind. But the No True Scotsman is a fallacy. It assumes that one’s own conception of a thing is what a thing actually is, refusing to accept anything that disproves their own view as valid. 

We do not interpret for ourselves what a definition is. Rather, the validity of our interpretation depends on whether it squares with what a thing is (the truth). If it does not, we speak falsely if we insist on our definition against the truth.

In this case, the critics of both above examples speak falsely when they limit the authority of what a Pope says to his ex cathedra statements because the Church does not limit her authority to the ex cathedra statements. Divine assistance is still given in the ordinary teaching of the Church and obedience is still required. The difference is not whether an ordinary teaching can err. It’s whether the teaching can be modified for different conditions.

The ex cathedra statements are statements that can never be modified based on new conditions of a time. For example, when we say that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, that teaching will never be retracted based on new discoveries of science or how society changes. The Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady will never be retracted.

The ordinary magisterium, on the other hand, involves true teachings that cannot be changed, but the understanding on how to best apply them can change based on the changes in society without denying the unchanging teachings. For example, the condemnation of contraception will never change. But science will invariably discover new methods of regulating births. The Church must therefore evaluate the new methods and either accept them (like Natural Family Planning replacing the older calendar or rhythm method) or reject them (the Pill worked differently than the previous methods of contraception, but in the end turned out to be a contraceptive). 

To confuse the discipline rooted in time with the timeless teaching is to wind up accusing the Church of error when there is none. A change of discipline in the ordinary magisterium is not the same as denying the unchanging truth. Sometimes society changes so drastically that older disciplines cannot be applied: for example, the past teachings on just government in an absolute monarchy do not fit the conditions of a world where such governments do not exist. Teachings on social justice in a feudal society do not fit a society where modern capitalism has replaced it. The teachings on religious freedom in a time when other religions when people and governments recognized that Christianity was true do not fit into a time where people and governments are apathetic—if not hostile—to religion in general. 

Unfortunately, Catholics on both side of the factional divide make this error. The Catholic who believes that a teaching is wrong often points to a change in discipline as if it were a change in doctrine and uses it as “proof” to argue that unchanging truths can and should be changed. The Catholic who prefers an older discipline argues that the change is a change in doctrine and uses this as “proof” that the Church today is in error. But both are wrong.

Adding to the confusion are things like acts of governance. How the Pope administers the See of Rome as bishop, or how he governs the Vatican City (or, before that, the Papal States) are not acts of teaching at all, and not considered as having Divine Assistance. We don’t have to defend the Concordat with Nazi Germany (or Communist China, for that matter) or the case of  Edgardo Mortara*. Meeting with heads of state is not a teaching. But even in cases where we feel dubious about such an act, we have the obligation to fully understand the actions and respond in charity rather than assume the worst. Calumny and Rash Judgment remain sins.

But, when the Pope does teach—ex cathedra or ordinary magisterium—he is given Divine Assistance, and we are bound to obey, and we are trust that God will not permit him to teach error.

(*) In all of these cases, I believe that the Popes involved tried to make the best decision they could in a bad situation, but since these decisions did not involve teaching, they were not protected from being wrong. Any wrong that might have occurred is not “proof” of heresy or evil will on the part of the Popes involved.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Thoughts on the Misuse of the “Ultramontanist” Label

One tactic used by Catholics who oppose Pope Francis is to label any attempts at defending him as ultramontanism, defining it as attempting to claim everything a Pope says or does is infallible, and then claiming that ultramontanism is a heresy. Therefore, they argue, the defenders of the Pope are guilty of heresy. 

The problem with these claims give us a plethora of misrepresentation. They use the label with a false definition of what it means, and portray those who defend the Pope as guilty of supporting the behavior found in that false definition. As a result, they portray the defenders of Pope Francis as heretical while those who oppose him as faithful—both portrayals would be considered risible by faithful Catholics during the pontificates of his predecessors.

The abuse of term ultramontanism goes so far as to misrepresent the etymology of the word. Properly understood, it is derived from “beyond the mountains,” referring to the fact that the Pope was on the other side of the Alps from the rulers of those nations that tried to deny or reduce his authority over their Catholic subjects. Ultramontanism is not in opposition to orthodox Catholicism. It is in opposition to heresies like Gallicanism or movements like Febronianism, or the kulturkampf that demanded the submission of the Church to the state. Properly understood, Ultramontanism is recognizing that the final decision in the interpretation, teaching,  and governing of the Church lies with the Pope. Where there is a dispute, we obey the Pope over those who reject him. That’s Catholic teaching, defined in Vatican I and reaffirmed in Vatican II.

Unfortunately, the misuse of the term wrongly tries to tie it into the heresy of Montanism, claiming that those they accuse of Ultramontanism elevate the Pope’s teaching and governance to new “revelation.” Thus, we see certain Catholics accuse the defenders of Pope Francis of thinking Church teaching can be “changed,” which is something no informed defender of the Pope is claiming*.

So, to accuse the defenders of Pope Francis of “the heresy of Ultramontanism” certain anti-Francis Catholics commit a hat trick of errors: they falsely misdefine the term, wrongly apply that concept to his defenders, and wrongly claim that his defenders are “heretics” because of their false definition. 

The term Ultramontanism is effectively a combination of the strawman and the ad hominem fallacies. A strawman because it misrepresents the actual defense# of the Pope, and an ad hominem because the label tries to attack the defender, not refute the defense made. When someone uses the term to attack defenders of the Pope, look carefully at what they claim. Under close scrutiny, the Ultramontanism label is rotten to the core.


(*) I don’t doubt you could find grossly misinformed Catholics somewhere who might think that way—just as you might find grossly misinformed Catholics who literally worship Mary—but in both cases, the Catholics thinking that way are in error.

(#) For example, my principal defense of the Pope starts with the fact that the accusations against the Pope are false, not that I agree with the false accusations.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Without an Excuse

When one is at odds with Church teaching, dissenters of any stripe usually have an excuse for rejecting it. They’re quick to cite Bible verse A or Church teaching B as the standard for doing so. The problem is, as I pointed out elsewhere, that their interpretation is not at all authoritative and cannot be cited contra the Scriptures or the document as interpreted by the magisterium.

If the Church was merely a human institution, that would be a monstrous claim, locking in people to the whims of a spiritual dictator. But if one believed that the Catholic Church is merely a human institution, that person would be foolish to be a Catholic in the first place. This is because the Catholic Church teaches as the Church established by Jesus Christ and under His protection. If we profess to be faithful Catholics, we accept that belief about the Church.

But once we accept that belief, we are without an excuse if we refuse to accept a teaching of the Church*. If we say that Pope X or Council Y is binding, then we are acknowledging that we know Papal teaching and Council documents are binding. Indeed, the arguments used for refusing obedience shows that these dissenters do know the authority and protection God gives His Church. Whether or not they recognize it, their excuses are merely attempts to justify disobedience while insisting others obey. 

The general arguments to justify disobedience is to argue that the Church has gone wrong on something and, because we cannot follow error, we must disobey those who teach with authority. This is why you’ll see many dissenters combing past documents to find a “break” in continuity with the present. Dissenters handle this in different ways, depending on whether they support illicit change or oppose licit change. 

If the dissenter wants to illicitly change Church teaching, they look for what they see as a “break” and argue that since the Church “changed” Church teaching in the past, they can do it now. In making this argument, they don’t distinguish the difference between Church teaching and Church discipline. One example of this involves the past obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays. These dissenters argue that it used to be a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays, but now it’s not. Therefore (they argue) we can change Church teaching on contraception. The problem is, this is a fallacy of false analogy. The ban on eating meat on Fridays was a discipline, while the ban on contraception involves an intrinsic evil. The mortal sin in eating meat on Fridays would be in knowingly and freely rejecting the authority of the Church to impose a discipline. The mortal sin in contraception would have been in knowingly and freely choosing a gravely evil act.

If the dissenter wants to oppose a licit change in discipline, they either look for a past discipline which they elevate to a doctrine (for example, the rite of the Mass) to call the change “heresy” (this would be the false analogy again), or they rely on their personal interpretation of the changed discipline and accuse the Church of contradicting actual doctrine (committing the begging the question fallacy. For example, saying Vatican II taught “indifferentism” or that Pope Francis opened up The Eucharist to the divorced and remarried.

Conscience frequently gets cited by dissenters of both types. The first type argues that their conscience “can’t allow them” to impose rules contrary to their understanding of compassion. The second type appeals to conscience that “demands” obedience to their personal interpretation of past documents over their personal interpretation of current documents. But the CDF document Donum Veritatis tells us both of these invocations of conscience are wrong:

38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.

The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised.

The reason we are without an excuse if we refuse obedience is that we claim to be “faithful,” while we refuse an important part of being faithful, obedience to God’s Church. If we would be faithful when we find ourselves at odds with the Church, we should not ask “how did the Church go wrong?” We should ask ourselves, “how did we go wrong in understanding the Church?”


(*) I occasionally run across members of the SSPX who complain that the Church is more compassionate to Protestants and Eastern Orthodox who reject the Church than to them who refuse obedience. They shouldn’t. The Protestants and Eastern Orthodox were born long after the schisms and have never been part of the Communion with us. The dissenters claim to be in Communion with the Church but refuse obedience. The culpability is entirely different.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ignorance and Arrogance: A Reflection


The saints and the philosophers made a distinction between being ignorant and being arrogantly ignorant. The former involved not knowing. The latter involved not knowing but still assuming one’s rash assumptions were true. The former might or might not involve sin, depending on whether one made the effort to learn to the best of one’s ability (God being the ultimate judge). The latter certainly involves rash judgments. Both of them are to be avoided, though the consequences might differ.


Ignorance can be defined as being “uninformed about or unaware of a specific subject or fact,” or “lacking knowledge or awareness in general.” We tend to see the term “ignorant” as an insult or a condemnation. But that isn’t always the case. Humans, being finite, will always have things they don’t know. Sometimes, what we don’t know is inconsequential (What was Gary Kasparov’s seventh move in the final game of his first victorious tournament?)* Sometimes, what we don’t know can have life-threatening consequences (Is it safe to pass that truck while going over the hill?).

Obviously, ignorance about things impacting our or other lives can be harmful. We can be held responsible if we could have learned the answer but never bothered or refused to learn to avoid acting on it. But if it was impossible for us to learn something (invincible ignorance), we can’t be held responsible. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (#16) tells us

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.

Even if we strive to be faithful Catholics, there is always more to learn. There will be things we didn’t know previously that the Church taught on, or discover nuance in a teaching we had previously thought was more blunt. When we do discover this deficiency, we need to correct our thinking, trying to live according to those teachings. 

To do so, we need to be attentive to the Church, under the visible head, the Pope and bishops in communion with him. When the Church admonishes us that a behavior is incompatible with being a disciple of Christ, we act wisely if we listen to the Church, and foolishly if we refuse to listen and insist on our own views.


Arrogance can be defined as “having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” It combines with ignorance when we have an exaggerated sense of our own knowledge, when we are actually ignorant—we think we know what is important to know, passing judgment without considering the possibility of our own being in error. For example, I have seen numerous instances of people responding to the Pope condemning injustice related to our politics by saying “why doesn’t he speak out on the mistreatment of Christians in the Middle East?”

This is where I wish I could reach through the computer screen to smack the person. The Pope has frequently spoken out on this subject, and a Google search would quickly correct the accusers error. The arrogance is assuming that one’s lack of knowledge is a knowledge of lack. Through arrogance, the accuser turns what they know nothing about into a belief that the Pope is negligent.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns against thinking that way, teaching:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

Assuming the moral fault of another requires knowledge that a thing is so, and not merely assuming that what we think we know is sufficient to level accusations. To accuse the Pope of letting priests marry, of letting the divorced/remarried receive the Eucharist, of supporting Marxism, one has to determine that it is what the Pope intends to do and not what one thinks follows from their interpretation of what he says or writes (I discuss this more, HERE).

The Catholic Church is a catholic (universal) Church. It teaches to people of all languages, cultures, and times. But if we assume that our language, culture, and time is the only way to interpret the Church teaching, we are ignorant and arrogant when we condemn the Church—under the visible head the Pope—for pointing out that we have gone wrong in an assumption.


(*) No idea. After writing the sentence, I tried Googling it out of curiosity. No luck.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

No, They Don’t, Actually

In writing my articles comparing the Catholics who attack Pope Francis with the founders of Protestantism and anti-Catholics, I inevitably get comments from those Catholics. The language varies, but the gist of it is, we do respect the Papacy or we have read what Pope Francis wrote/said. They claim that the real problem is Pope Francis and his “errors.” To which, I can only say, “Doubtful.” 

The reason I say this is the actual transcripts and documents don’t allow for the interpretation these critics give. They can only come about by focusing entirely on one quote or footnote, combined with the assumption that Pope Francis is morally or intellectually bad in saying it. Actually reading with discernment shows that in context, what the Pope said is different from what he’s portrayed as saying. 

For example, take the calumny that will not die… that the Pope is going to “approve” same sex activity. This goes back to the mantra of who am I to judge. While those misguided Catholics who want “same sex marriage” supported by the Church have by now conceded that the Pope didn’t say what they hoped it meant, his critics repeat it as a charge of “heresy.” But when we actually READ THE FREAKING TRANSCRIPTS§, we can see that the context excludes that interpretation. What the Pope said, in context was

But if a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives. When we confess our sins and we truly say, “I have sinned in this”, the Lord forgets, and so we have no right not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not forgetting our sins. That is a danger. This is important: a theology of sin. Many times I think of Saint Peter. He committed one of the worst sins, that is he denied Christ, and even with this sin they made him Pope. We have to think a great deal about that. But, returning to your question more concretely. In this case, I conducted the preliminary investigation and we didn’t find anything. This is the first question. Then, you spoke about the gay lobby. So much is written about the gay lobby. I still haven’t found anyone with an identity card in the Vatican with “gay” on it. They say there are some there. I believe that when you are dealing with such a person, you must distinguish between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of someone forming a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. This one is not good. If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying ... wait a moment, how does it say it ... it says: “no one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society”. The problem is not having this tendency, no, we must be brothers and sisters to one another, and there is this one and there is that one.

The Pope was speaking of a priest accused of having a notorious past. Everyone was wondering if the Pope would fire him from his position. But, since the priest repented, the Pope would not. 

The Pope’s position on “same sex marriage” was reinforced in the same interview by the following exchange with a reporter:

Patricia Zorzan:

Speaking on behalf of the Brazilians: society has changed, young people have changed, and in Brazil we have seen a great many young people. You did not speak about abortion, about same-sex marriage. In Brazil a law has been approved which widens the right to abortion and permits marriage between people of the same sex. Why did you not speak about this?

Pope Francis:

The Church has already spoken quite clearly on this. It was unnecessary to return to it, just as I didn’t speak about cheating, lying, or other matters on which the Church has a clear teaching!

Patricia Zorzan:

But the young are interested in this ...

Pope Francis:

Yes, though it wasn’t necessary to speak of it, but rather of the positive things that open up the path to young people. Isn’t that right! Besides, young people know perfectly well what the Church’s position is.

Patricia Zorzan:

What is Your Holiness’ position, if we may ask?

Pope Francis:

The position of the Church. I am a son of the Church.

The Pope’s accusers were committing an argument from silence fallacy, assuming that the Pope not mentioning abortion and same sex “marriage” at the World Youth Day meant he supported these things. But his point was that he doesn’t need to keep invoking them for them to remain valid teachings.

This misrepresentation of the Pope set the template for how his pontificate was viewed. No, the Pope didn’t condemn large families. He spoke of a woman under the error of “providentialism.*” No, the Pope didn’t say that civil marriages were no different from sacramental marriages. He said that some people seeking a marriage in the Church are so grossly misinformed that they have less of an understanding of what marriage is than those in civil marriages. No, he didn’t say that the divorced and remarried could receive the Eucharist. He said that those individuals lacking might receive sacraments if some of the conditions of mortal sin were absent and the person  was trying to live properly. He didn’t say that the existence of different religions was God’s will. He said that the divisions were part of God’s permissive will and we needed to approach ecumenism and interreligious dialogue# with that understanding.

I could go on and on. And these Catholics undoubtedly will. But in each case, certain Catholics have assumed the false interpretation as the Pope’s actual intent. They base their opposition to the Pope on misinterpretation@. That misinterpretation comes from either failing to seek what the Pope means, or from the assumption that the Pope is morally bad (“a heretic”) or intellectually bad (“doesn’t know Church teaching.”)

So, if I seem skeptical about the claims by the critics of the Pope, this is why. Actually reading what he has to say shows he does not seek to attack or undermine Church teachings.


(§) After dealing with this one for close to 7 years, you might detect I’m getting a mite bit testy over it.

(*) Providentialism is essentially putting God to the test, living imprudently and relying on God to protect us from the consequences.

(#) While people use the terms interchangeably, they’re not the same thing. Ecumenism is dialogue between Christians of different denominations. Interreligious Dialogue is discussion with non-Christian religions.

(@) To be clear, “misinterpretation” is wrongly understanding something, thinking that error is correct. The person may or may not be culpable. “Misrepresentation” is a deliberate attempt to portray something as different than intended.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Continuity of Magisterium

There are, unfortunately, Catholics who think that defending Pope Francis involves tearing down his predecessors. What Pope Francis does is either portrayed as “finally correcting” bad practices of the past or trying to bury the good his predecessors did under the problems that became public at the time of their pontificates. It’s a problem because they fall into the same error as those who claim that Pope Francis is a “disaster” for the Church. Both factions falsely believe there is a “break” in continuity and merely disagree on whether that “break” is good or bad.

In doing so, both are forgetting about the nature of the Church as God’s chosen means to evangelize the world, protected from error in doing so. The individual needs of an era can require changes in discipline or emphasis, but the central truth remains. When we take both the changeable and unchangeable into account, arguing that a break has occurred is to either deny or be ignorant about God’s role in the Church.

It doesn’t matter which Pope you use as a yardstick. You will always find something that went wrong during his pontificate or at least something you might wish had been done differently. But that is an unavoidable part of God’s choice to make use of weak, finite, and sinful human beings. Without God’s protection, His Church would have collapsed right after Pentecost, if not the Last Supper.

Some things are not protected, of course. We might look at certain acts of governing the Papal States and Vatican City and wince. We might wish that the concordat with Nazi Germany or the agreement with China had been handled differently. We might wish that St. John Paul II had not kissed the Qur’an, that Benedict XVI had not given that interview in Light of the World§, or that Pope Francis didn’t give press conferences. Cringing in those cases is not being rejecting the magisterium*. Regretting how Popes handled the sexual abuse crisis is not against the magisterium. We can lament how some priests escaped or took refuge behind bad interpretations of canon law@. But, if somebody uses these non magisterial events to argue that a Pope is a heretic, and we can reject when a Pope does teach—that is dissent.

Pope Francis is not “a Marxist.” His warnings on the evils of Capitalism are no different from his predecessors. St. John Paul II was not “heartless” with Familiaris Consortio. Nor did Pope Francis contradict him. The two Popes wrote on two different aspects of communion after remarriage. St. John Paul II wrote on the fact that those not seeking to rectify their situation cannot be admitted to communion. Pope Francis wrote about evaluating every person to determine whether the conditions of mortal sin are present#, and helping those earnestly trying to get right with God and the Church. What Pope Francis said would not apply to the unrepentant. St. John Paul II denying communion would not apply to those trying (and occasionally failing) to live as brother and sister.

But if one assumes a break in teaching by a non magisterial act or a change in a discipline, it’s the same error whether one supports or opposes the “break.”

I would ask my fellow defenders of Pope Francis not to tear down his predecessors while defending him. From a worldly perspective, it might seem to be a break or change in teaching. But it’s actually only a change in approach to deal with where our society went wrong today.


(§) This was where Benedict XVI used the infamous example of “the male prostitute with AIDS” that many (wrongly) thought was opening the doors to using condoms.

(*) It might be sinful based on how one responds. We should always remember that the account we hear might not accurate.

(@) Reading the 1917 Code of Canon Law, it appears (to me anyway) that the canons did not consider that victims might be too ashamed to come forward, that abusive priests might not confess their sins, or that the canons seemed to block bishops from acting until the victim came forward.

(#) Unfortunately, some interpretations of FC assumed that mortal sin was present in all cases. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Catholics Out of Control

Benedict XVI’s spokesman, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, issued a statement at the request of the Pope emeritus asking that the book not identify him as a co-author. Cardinal Sarah later announced that he would respect Benedict XVI’s request and that Benedict XVI would not be listed as a co-author, but as a contributor.

Judging by the accounts out there, Benedict XVI had written a small piece on priestly celibacy and okayed it being used in Cardinal Sarah’s book. So there’s no question of the Cardinal “hijacking” the piece. My guess is that Benedict XVI was concerned that some Catholics and the secular media would use this to create a myth of a “counter-magisterium” and asked that his role in the book be clarified. Both he and Cardinal Sarah§ have reiterated their obedience to the Pope. 

You might think that this was simply resolved and whatever confusion existed between the two men was cleared up. You’d be wrong, because the Catholic Internet went berserk. Not just on one side either. Some Catholics—on both sides—are falling into rash judgment.

English language publisher Ignatius Press announced (in something that struck me as problematic reasoning) that they would not change the identification of Benedict XVI as co-author. Apparently their reading of the Chicago Manual of Style overrules Benedict XVI’s express wishes. Some opponents of the Pope also treated criticism of how publishers handled it as if they were accusations of disloyalty (unfortunately, some criticism did sink to this level. See below) and attempting to stir up attacks on those defending the faith. Those hostile to Pope Francis claimed that Archbishop Gänswein was lying about it, delivering a message contrary to what Benedict wanted—some claiming this was ordered by the Pope, implying it was at the orders of the Pope.

At the same time, some supporters of Pope Francis tried to portray Benedict and Cardinal Sarah as disloyal, even part of a cabal. The two stand accused of deliberately trying to preemptively undermine Pope Francis’ final decision on whether married priests would be allowed, trying to “rally support” against the Pope. They are accused of hostility to the Eastern Rites which do have married priests. There is no evidence for this of course. Just some excerpts that sound harsh, though we have no sense of context. Then, once Benedict XVI asked that his name be removed as co-author, some turned and started portraying Cardinal Sarah as dishonest, misrepresenting his book to the Pope emeritus.

Catholics should not be rushing to judgment. We might say that some of the excerpts seem to be harsh, while remembering we have no sense of context to claim certainty. There’s no basis to accuse Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah of disloyalty. There’s no basis to say Archbishop Gänswein issued a false statement or that the Pope was “furious.” While we may later find some of our suspicions may turn out to be true, we have no basis for those claims now.

We need to stop looking for heroes and villains in this story and start doing research unclouded by our personal likes and dislikes. Otherwise, we’re damaging the Church and causing scandal.


(§) Cardinal Sarah’s writings sometimes strike me as blunt to the point of being a bit over the top, but I have never read anything of his that struck me as disloyal to Pope Francis. I think this is simply a matter of his temperament. I don’t say this as a condemnation. All of us have things we need to deal with in our lives. Moreover, we certainly should not make any accusations before the book is published. Cardinal Sarah has stated his obedience and fidelity to the Pope. I will take him at his word unless credible evidence to the contrary emerges (none has yet).

Monday, January 13, 2020

Brief Reflection on the Hype over the New Book by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah

People are making a big to-do about the book coming out by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah. It’s being portrayed as these two men “opposing” the Pope. I have some brief thoughts about that.

This book isn’t even out yet. We have a few excerpts coming from the French version and some claiming access to the galleys of the Ignatius Press translation. We have no sense of context. Secular media and Catholic media hostile to the Pope are portraying it as a rift. Other Catholics, supportive of the Pope, are portraying it as a betrayal. But right now, any speculation is exactly that. Speculation. 

Remember the fuss over the 2011 interview when people thought the excerpt of “a male prostitute with AIDS” using a condom meant a change in Church teaching? As it turned out, he was describing a person moving slowly turning towards thinking about consequences of actions. I suspect in this book, we’ll find out that the conflict was not a conflict at all.

Another thing to remember is that there is no counter-magisterium here. If I’m wrong and it turns out that what the Pope ultimately decides—and remember, he is opposed to ending celibacy—is different from the views presented in this book, what the Pope decides will be binding. 

But now is not the time to look for heroes and villains, nor battle to the death for the teachings we think must or must not be. It’s certainly not time to bewail disasters to the Church. We don’t know the context of the presented snippets, and once we do know, we know who has the authority to shepherd the Church.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Church and Politics

One tendency many American Catholics have is to argue that “The Church should stay out of politics and focus on saving souls.” Invariably, what they label “politics” happens to be whatever rebukes the Church has for their own political party. That doesn’t always mean that these Catholics support those evils. But it shows that they view them as less important than the issues that offend them more. Whatever their political beliefs, they think the Church should focus more on the evils of the other side.

I think these Catholics miss the point. The Church is not replacing the mission to bring people to Christ with political beliefs. Rather, the Church is carrying out their mission by warning people when they are giving support to Caesar in opposition to what God commands. Regardless of what party an individual Catholic favors—and in a universal Church, there are more political parties to worry about than just the Americans’ Democrats and Republicans—if that party tries to implement an agenda contrary to God’s law, they are usurping what belongs to God. Benedict XVI makes a good point here:

To the extent that the Roman emperor safeguards the law, he can demand obedience. Of course, the scope of the duty of obedience is reduced at the same time: there are the things that are Caesar’s and those that are God’s. Whenever Caesar exalts himself as God, he has exceeded his limits, and obedience then would be the denial of God. Essentially along these same lines is Jesus’ reply to Pilate, in which the Lord, in the presence of an unjust judge, still acknowledges that the authority to act as judge, a role of service to the law, can be given only from above (Jn 19:11).

—Benedict XVI, Western Culture, Today and Tomorrow

If a party tries to legalize something contrary to God’s law (for example, try to declare abortion or homosexual actions as “good” or try to redefine the nature of sex and gender) or carries out a potentially neutral act in an evil way (such as turning the right of the state to control who enters the country into forced family separation or to live in disgraceful conditions), they have gone beyond the authority that was given from above.

It’s always easy to see when the “other side” does evil. But it is much harder to see when our own party does evil. I have seen Catholics claim that “the bishops got played” when the bishops stood up to condemn abortion. I’ve seen Catholics claim that “the bishops support open borders” when they condemn mistreatment and callousness directed against migrants. These Catholics should remember something else Benedict XVI said:

Politics is the sphere of reason; more precisely, not a purely technical, calculating reason, but moral reasoning, since the end of the State, and thus the ultimate purpose of all politics, is by its very nature moral, namely, peace and justice. This means that moral reasoning about, or more precisely, rational discernment of what fosters justice and peace (and therefore is moral) must be constantly carried on and defended against all that could obscure and diminish reason’s capacity for discernment. The party mentality that goes along with power will always produce myths in various forms, which are presented as the true path of moral reality in politics but are in fact merely masks and disguises of power.


We should beware of those myths. In America, they tend to be negative: if you don’t vote for us, you will be responsible for whatever evil happens is one of the most common. Another is we can’t focus on that issue right now when this is so much worse. But let’s face it: Obama did many of the things we condemn Trump for. Planned Parenthood remains fully funded despite warnings and promises, and the contraception mandate is still in place. Both sides point out the hypocrisy of their rival. But Matthew 7:3-5 applies to both parties. So these myths are shown to be masks of power.

Does this mean voting is futile? Of course not. We do need to act to promote the good and oppose the evil in accord with Church teaching, and voting is part of that action. 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.

But if we make use of myths to promote our own party and excuse our own disobedience to the Church, we are letting Caesar—or at least the person we want as Caesar—attempt to take the place of God. We must be always ready to draw the line when Caesar tries to usurp the power of God—even if that Caesar is of our own party—and tell him or her we will not tolerate their actions*. If our preferred party is at odds with the Church, we have an obligation to change the party to do be closer to what we are morally obligated to do.

It is easy to decry when the fellow Catholic doing this is part of the “other side.” But if we refuse to oppose it—or worse, we even support it—when our “own side” does it, we are also guilty, regardless of the fact that the other side does it too.


(*) While America is effectively a two-party system, we must avoid the either-or fallacy here. The fact that Party X promotes evil does not make Party Y good. We must evaluate both. If we accept one or reject both, it needs to be done through formation of conscience through the teaching of the Church. We might successfully lie to each other, we cannot lie to God.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Pressing Forward, Blindly

Certain Catholics who oppose the decisions and teachings of Pope Francis (or other recent popes) proudly announce their “orthodoxy” by citing certain Scripture and Church documents—the latter frequently from the time of St. Pius X—in order to argue that the more recent statements they dislike must be heretical. Their behavior is very much like that of those Protestant Christians who claim to rely solely on the authority of the Bible.

The reason I say that the two are similar is because they make the same error, even though both would disagree with the other’s theoretical understanding of the Church. That error is confusing their own interpretation with what is actually taught. Because they rely on their own interpretation instead of on the Church established by Christ to bind and loose, they assume that they have not erred in their interpretation and—as a result—will not heed anyone who warns them that their interpretation went wrong. If the Church should warn them, that correction is assumed to be proof of error on the part of the Church.

Ultimately, what they seem to do is (perhaps unwittingly) assume that their conviction over the meaning is a sign that they are right and, as a consequence, the Church must be wrong. But conviction is not proof of error. Numerous heretics were convinced that Arius or Nestorius was right. Many Christians today are convinced that God, being love, didn’t really mean that God condemned certain acts as evil—even though it is literally in the Bible. Many are convinced that despite Our Lord founding a visible Church and giving it His authority to teach, that they can freely ignore the Church or accuse it of error when it teaches contrary to their interpretation. The question that they need to answer is: what gives them the authority to interpret contrary to the Church?

Such questions usually are answered with a begging the question fallacy. The one rejecting the Church authority assumes that the “errors” of the Church—based on their interpretation—mean that Scripture on false teachers and Church teachings on heretics must apply. Social media discussion usually turns into something like this:

Why do you say that the Pope/Church is in error?
Because the Bible/Church teaching contradicts them.
But how do we know that you interpret correctly? 
Because that’s what it says. 
But what about others who interpret it differently and say you’re in error?
They’re in error.
Why are they in error?
Because the Bible/Church teaching contradicts them*.

But it’s precisely their own interpretation that they have to prove is correct, and that is precisely what they don’t answer. The fact is, when someone tries to argue their own interpretation, we have to see if it squares with what the Church teaches—under the leadership of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him—before we accept it.

This has always been the criterion for discerning what is authentic vs. what is counterfeit. When the Church teaches, whether ex cathedra or from the ordinary magisterium, we are bound to accept it. If one will not, they should remember that refusing obedience is a schismatic act (see canon 751).

The mentioning of bad Popes and heretical bishops throughout history are a fallacy of false analogy. Those bishops who fell into heresy or schism acted in opposition to the Popes, not in concert. We have never had a Pope who was a manifest heretic. The history of the Papacy gives us three categories of bad Popes: 
  1. Those who were morally or intellectually bad but did not teach#.
  2. Those who were suspected of privately holding error but did not teach@.
  3. Those who were derelict or incompetent in their administration, but did not teach§.
But, when it comes to the current attacks on Popes and Councils, the accusations are about teaching, not private behavior, private error, or failure to act. Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia are Papal teachings. Vatican II is an Ecumenical Council. They, not individuals (even clergy), make binding interpretation.

This has always been understood: even when there were Saints who challenged the moral or administrative faults of Popes, they were always respectful of the teachings of the Popes, giving obedience when he taught. But now, we see people claiming to be faithful Catholics but refusing obedience out of the belief that the Pope and bishops in communion with him are the ones spreading error or causing confusion. That is the accusation made by every heretical and schismatic group that emerged throughout Church history.

They might sincerely think that their rebellion is faithful. But they are blind in doing so. They are pressing forward blindly, confusing their interpretation for what actually is true. If one would follow them, that person would be the blind being led by the blind.


(With thanks to Mike Lewis for suggested edits)

(*) This is also what reading Luther or Calvin feels like.
(#) We would include Popes like Benedict IX and John XII here.
(@) We might put John XXII here.
(§) We might include Honorius I here. He was not condemned (posthumously) for holding error—scholars disagree on that. He was condemned for failing to take actions against it. It should be noted that the Pope at the time of the Council’s condemnation rejected that canon, so it seems to have no validity.
(€) The criticism by St. Catherine of Sienna was about the Pope not being in Rome and the moral decay in a Rome that came from that fact.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Dear “Karens on Facebook.” Please Stop

I came across a meme (creator unknown) on Facebook and decided to repurpose it for the declining state of Catholic theological understanding. 

In the beginning, Catholics looked to the Pope, the bishops, and the theologians in good standing to understand the teachings of the Church. But there was a problem we didn’t see. So long as we could find magisterial figures who taught what we agreed with, we would follow that part of what they taught, and downplay the rest. But things began changing when the Pope and bishops began reminding us of the teachings we didn’t like. Then Catholics began looking to non-experts with the views we held. 

These non-experts were used to explain why we didn’t always have to obey the Pope and the Church. Theologians Not in good standing with the Church invented a theology of dissent in the “spirit of Vatican II,” or “defense of tradition.” If St. Paul VI taught on contraception; if St. John XXIII taught on social justice, we could find a theologian who told us it was all right to dissent against it.

Once that door was opened, it became easier to pick and choose what we would believe and invoke whoever would support the decision as proof. We skipped past the non-magisterial theologians to the media pundits who did not know the Church teachings but reported on it anyway. People who would not believe the media when it reporting on their favored political figures would uncritically accept everything they said about the Pope or the Church. Eventually, Catholics on the internet would go so far as to accept ipse dixit claims from anybody who said that “everyone knows that.” These baseless statements were repeated so often that it was considered irrational to question it. 

Some go so far as to make themselves “experts.” Where laity once looked to the magisterium to make clear the things they did not understand about Church teaching, they now interpreted them for themselves and sat in judgment on the Pope or bishops who dared to teach differently. 

These people became the “Karen of Facebook,” offering false interpretation as “proof” of magisterial “heterodoxy.” They repeated other people’s statements and others repeated theirs to the point that everyone believed the false interpretation and thought that those who said the interpretations were wrong were either blind or part of the deception.

Now, people just chant slogans and occasionally cite agreeable media personalities or those theologians, lacking (or not using) the magisterial authority to teach, as if they were reporting fact in order to accuse those who do use authentic magisterium. From a Church that was strong in obedience to Our Lord and those tasked to lead the Church, we’ve become an ochlocracy (mob rule) following every demagogue instead.

People complain about confusion in the Church. But the confusion isn’t caused by the Pope. It’s caused by “Karen of Facebook.” Who are these Karens? Those who spread their own views or repeat the views of others across social media as if they were authoritative against the true authority of the Church.

How do we end the confusion? We stop listening to the Karens and stop being the Karens. We need to start listening to the Magisterium under the authority of the Church. We need to trust that Our Lord protects His Church that He built on the Rock of Peter. THAT is the mark of the faithful Catholic.