Monday, May 25, 2020

Have We Forgotten Our First Love?

Reading Scripture this morning, I came across this passage from Revelation 2:1-5 (NABRE).

The one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks in the midst of the seven gold lampstands says this: I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and discovered that they are impostors. Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

The reason this stood out for me this time through the New Testament was how it might tie in to the infighting going on in the Church at this time. With all the focus on the policies of the Church and which faction they benefit, it seems to me that we are in danger of losing our first love of Christ that should be our motivation in dealing with others. Our Lord didn’t give us a church. He gave us The Church under the headship of Peter and his successors. In defending the Church, some treat it as an institution that we either favor if we agree with it, or get angry with if we disagree with it.

But if the Church is God’s gift to us to be the visible means of carrying out His mission, then reducing our participation to fighting over what we want the Church to be is forgetting our first love of God. That doesn’t mean we keep silent when there is a problem in the Church. But it does mean we need to handle these problems in light of our love for God and His for us.

Do we believe that God established what we know of as Christianity? Then let us live it out of love for Him, not as a collection of bylaws for membership. Do we believe that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ created and continues to protect? Then let us handle our affairs in the Church out of love for The Lord who built it on the rock of Peter, giving all due obedience out of love, not out of reluctance or legalism. If we make known our needs (see canon 212 §3), then let us do so out of love of God and each other as the Greatest Commandment (cf. Matthew 22:36-40) was formulated, and not “The Pope/Cardinal/Bishop/Priest is a jerk and a moron!”

It’s unfortunate that the different factions in the Church seem to think the Greatest Commandments is suspended when dealing with those we think are wrong. For example, I’m unhappy with the anti-Francis attitude in the Church. But I have to constantly remind myself that my dislike for their behavior does not merit treating them contemptuously. Those who dislike the Pope, or those who dislike the “dubia cardinals” and other critics (along with all other factions out there) should remember that treating these people as enemies goes against the One who must be our first love.

Yes, sin is wrong and must be opposed. But we cannot treat sinners as those to be despised. That was the attitude of the Pharisee that our Lord condemned. Jesus taught, “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matthew 7:2). We need to remember that if we love Jesus, we will keep His commandments (cf. John 14:15). That means we must look at ourselves and see how we have transgressed. But love and mercy (even when correcting) is part of His commandments. 

No, loving the sinner does not mean calling the sin good. But too many think it does. Both the “conservative” and “liberal” Catholics think the Church calling for moral laxity when it calls for mercy. They merely differ over whether they think it is good or not. But both are wrong. The sins we tolerate—disguising our partisanship as mercy for the sinner—are wrong just as wrong in the eyes of God as the ones we abhor (and show no mercy for the sinner).

So, to regain our First Love that we have lost like the Ephesians, we need to start acting out of love for God and our neighbor and not limiting our compassion to our allies and treating our enemies with evil. 

 

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(†) One year for Lent, I gave up using sarcasm in my replies on social media. You might think that’s ridiculous (and maybe it is), but it definitely left me thinking about the charity and tone of what I said. It also changed my views of them. The further I go back in my blog history, the more cringeworthy some of my comments seem. So, what I write in this post has a particular relevance to my personal life.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Factional Nonsense: A Problem Plaguing American Catholicism

I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

There’s been a story going around (soon to be a released documentary) about the late Norma McCorvey—the “Roe” of Roe v. Wade—that she was first the face of pro-abortion and then pro-life because of money. I don’t know if this is true or a matter of convenient editing in response to the fear that abortion might lose its protected status. Indeed, we have contradictory accounts from people who were alleged to have been paying her. If it’s false, she’s not around to defend herself. If it’s true, that might be the origin of the movie Citizen Ruth. But I noticed that the usual suspects in Catholic America swooped in to use this as one more opportunity to demonize their opponents. 

And that’s a problem. Too many American Catholics are seeing this as just one more battleground to advance their political views while pretending they are defending the real meaning of Catholic teaching. I don’t doubt that both of these factions have members who are sincere about the people who they try to help by their cause. But I’m seeing a disturbing number of American Catholics who seem to show more schadenfreude over whatever makes their opponents look bad than concern about people.

American Factional Catholicism tends to be split into two groups: conservatives who think that things they don’t like in the Church are liberal, and liberals who think the things they don’t like in the Church are conservative… often to the point of trying to insist that the Church embrace their politics if they want to be truly in step with God. And they sneer when they do so. We’ll hear that the bishops belong to the other side of the political divide and are partisan in doing so when they speak against the preferred faction. We’ll see accusations that the Catholics from faction A are not truly Catholic because they maliciously support the evil in their faction.

Both of these factions ought to be rejected. The Catholic teaching is not factional, and both of our American factions are at odds with the Church in serious ways. But all too often we see Catholics from these factions think that only the “other side” is political.

It’s time for us to stop putting up with factional nonsense. If we’re inclined to lean towards one faction in determining who is a “good guy” and who is a “bad guy,” we need to rethink our understanding of the Church. We’re called to evangelize the whole world and reform our own lives in the process. That means being aware of the log in our own eye before we look down on others for the splinter in the eyes of other people. If we’re willing to make excuses for our own faction while condemning Catholics from another faction for doing the same, we are no better than they are. If we demand that everyone obey the Church where we agree and refuse to do so where we disagree, we are no better than they are. And, since we ought to know our obligations, what do we call it if we refuse to do it?

But if we look to overcome the evils in the factions we think are more beneficial and respond in charity to those who belong to factions we oppose, we might find ourselves doing God’s work instead of behaving like factions that pretend to be serving God when they’re really serving themselves.

And if we’re tempted to think that this is a problem only with the “other side,” then we need to start with ourselves.

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(†) The premise of the movie is a satire about pro- and anti-abortion activists battling to use the title character as a symbol for their causes, and using money to bribe Ruth (a grossly irresponsible drug addict of a character), forgetting her humanity. When it came out it was roundly condemned by both sides for playing up the stereotypes of their own side.

(‡) And (as an aside for the non-American reader), unfortunately, in America it is a both. We’re very dualistic, politically.

(∑) To avoid appearances of political bias, I try to sort Conservative-Liberal and Democrat-Republican dichotomies in alphabetical order. I also try to capitalize or leave the compared terms as lowercase consistently as well. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Thoughts on Truth and Sincerely Believed Error

I’ve been encountering a lot more conspiracy theories—though not by choice—on social media lately. The tendency always seems to be based on the taking the facts of a case and giving dubious interpretation to those facts. There might be liars out there who feed this information to those who believe it, but many of them seem sincere in their belief and are shocked if you question their ideas. Because it’s “obvious” to them, they think it should be obvious to everyone.

Of course, we can all think of examples among certain groups of people. The anti-Francis Catholics and the like immediately come to my mind. Others might immediately think of the COVID-19 deniers. But it goes way back. I don’t doubt that the people who believe Jack Chick tracts or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion get equally shocked by our disbelief, thinking their bizarre ideas are true. 

But other falsehoods are given more widespread credibility. I’ve seen people allege Christian conspiracies against whatever sinful behavior gets transformed into a “minority.” So, our objections to certain behaviors—especially by those who work at Catholic schools and can cause public scandal—is often treated as a sort of conspiracy to discriminate. Our teaching on contraception and abortion becomes a “war on women.” These are just as dubious as the rest of the conspiracy theories, but they are repeated and believed by many more than the wingnuts of society that we’re alarmed by.

In all of these cases, we have people who feel threatened by a certain Church teaching or government policy. They cannot perceive any other reason for that action than hostility to what they hold. That results in a belief that hostility towards X must be the cause for the position. It’s true we do need to beware of extremists and factional media who believe that legitimate policies or teachings are malicious. But we also need to beware of the mainstream media leading others to think this way about causes they simply disagree with.

Ultimately, we must scrutinize whatever we hear. Just because what we hear goes along with what we want to be true doesn’t make it so. Yes, our enemies can do evil, but so can our allies. And our allies can cause harm with good intention, but so can our enemies.

We cannot assume the worst of our enemies while being silent on the wrongs of our allies. Truth and charity are obligations for the Catholic. If we want others to speak truthfully and charitably about us (even if they’re sincere in believing their errors), we have an obligation to speak truthfully and charitably about others (even if we are sincere about believing our errors). That’s the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), and it applies to us even if others do not respond in kind. God will judge those who bear false witness against us, and He will judge us if we bear false against others.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Truth, Whether Convenient or Not

As we in the United States continue the lunacy that we call the election season, I notice a certain problem—where we see many people willing to make excuses for the factions that they support in a crisis but assume the worst possible motives for the factions they oppose. That’s not to say that the factions are equally valid of course. It’s quite possible to have one faction be correct on an issue and a second be wrong. But it overlooks the possibility of people being sincere in their error, or that the difference is one of policy, not of right and wrong.

This is a behavior which Catholics cannot condone. While sometimes we might have the right to conceal a truth rightly held in confidence, we’re never permitted to spread a falsehood to benefit our friends or harm our foes. This means we need to consider the reliability and biases of our sources before repeating what we hear. Regardless what we think of Trump, Pelosi, or Ocasio-Cortez, we don’t have the right to accuse them of things we don’t know are true, even if we rightly oppose what they stand for or against.

Let’s face it. There’s a lot of news going around with the COVID-19, where people are willing to accuse Trump of crimes against humanity for wanting to end the quarantine, or accusing the Democrats of creating a dictatorship for wanting to continue it. But these accusations strike me as wanting to denigrate the opponent when there is an election at stake, not as an accurate criticism of the actual policy.

In short, we’re seeing people replace a search for truth with propaganda. And as long as we’re willing to hear the propaganda we want to hear while deriding the truth we don’t want to hear as “fake news” we are likely overlook injustice as long as it suits us… and then turn around and get angry for the other faction using those precedents we set against us. That’s the recipe for an unjust society.

A just society requires us to determine whether a claim made is true or not, and reaching a conclusion that addresses the truth we don’t want to hear. For example, what are we to make of the coronavirus quarantine when we don’t have good numbers on how virulent it is or whether our policies are “flattening the curve” as the popular saying goes? We see people in some countries lifting the quarantines and we want to know why we’re still having restrictions. Whether someone is “reckless” for wanting to lift the quarantine or “totalitarian” for wanting to be more cautious depends on the truth of how dangerous or benign the coronavirus is. Our preference for one party or another doesn’t allow us to “shade” the truth to our favor.

Regardless of our political preferences, we have an obligation to make sure that our defenses for our faction or accusations against the opposing faction are truth.  If they’re not truth, we must not use them. If we’re not sure if they’re true, we must not present them as if they are true. We must not rely on the mindset of “I wouldn’t put it past him/her.”  Anti-Catholics have come up with all sorts of slanders against us based on that way of thinking. And since we must not do unto others what we do not want them to do to us, assuming guilt based on what we think someone is capable of is rash judgment.

In saying this, I’m not advocating the misuse of Matthew 7:1 where people think not judging means “let them do whatever they want.” I mean we must not assume guilt without actual evidence of guilt, nor assume motive without proof that this is the actual motive. 

Some people might protest, saying “we’ll never prove anything that way!” But these people should realize how they sound when they say that. This is saying that suspicion is good enough to convict when this is exactly what Our Lord condemns when He says not to judge. Our conspiracy theories—no, not only nuts follow them—are not proof of wrongdoing.

That doesn’t mean passivity in the face of wrongdoing. But it does mean that we must avoid begging the question where the “proof” we used to justify our accusations depend entirely on the accusation being true in the first place.

Yes, our politicians seem to be a disreputable bunch nowadays. But that in itself is not proof of wrongdoing. And even if one is guilty of wrongdoing, we must not impute the motives that are based on how we see their character. We must determine the truth before judging… even if nobody else does, because we profess to be Christians, and the God we know, love, and serve forbids us to do otherwise.


Monday, May 11, 2020

Practicing What We Preach: The Problem of Catholics and Toleration of Evil

Then Nathan said to David: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7)

While it’s easy to forget it with all the other turmoil going around, the United States will have an election in November. Many Catholics have already decided how they will vote. Both sides justify that decision by pointing out the evils on the other side. They inevitably will say that the stakes are “too high” to do anything but vote the way they were going to vote anyway.

Catholics on both sides will use identical arguments, merely choosing a different “non-negotiable” issue that disqualifies the other side, and condemning the other side for refusing to think like them… even though they think identically in terms of arguments used in justifying themselves. In other words, for many Catholics, the elections involve who they plan to vote against, and whoever votes in a way opposed to how they plan to vote is condemned as willfully standing on the side of evil.

And God help the bishops when they speak out on an evil that one of the parties embrace. Catholics of that party invariably attack their bishops as being partisans for the other party. If the bishops speak out on abortion and the defense of marriage, they’re called “The Republican Party at Prayer” (an attack used in the 2008 and 2016 elections) or accused of being “played” by Trump. If they speak out against the treatment of migrants and the support for torture, or for military action that violate the teaching on Just War, they are accused of being Democrats. In 2016, the bishops were accused by Catholics on both sides of belonging to the other side. 

While I have been aware of this behavior for as long as I have taken my Catholic faith seriously (I’m sure it’s been going on far longer than that), what I seldom see is Catholics taking a serious look at the state of their preferred political party in light of the teachings of the Catholic Faith. While Catholics might ask the other side how they can possibly justify a vote based on their violation of teaching X, they usually deny or downplay the importance of the teaching that their party rejects.

But, if we are called to be the Salt of the Earth, and the Light of the World (cf. Matthew 5:13-16), then we must work to make the Christian message known to the world, not only by our words, but by our actions. If we want the world to see the Christian message as truth and not as another political position, we need to judge the political parties by our Catholic Faith, and not the Catholic Faith by our political parties. That means that, even if we decide that Issue X is more immediately dangerous than Issue Y, this does not absolve us from holding our party accountable for supporting Issue Y and fighting to change the policy.

If we will not do this. We should keep in mind, Our Lord’s words in Matthew 7:3-5.

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. 

If we want to avoid judgment from The Lord, we must remember that whatever standard we hold Catholics in the other party to, we must hold ourselves to the same standard. If we want Catholics in the other party to stop tolerating evil, we must stop tolerating it in our own. Otherwise, we will be opening the Church to charges of hypocrisy by those outside the Church who see our individual double standards and assume the whole Church is guilty. In fact, we risk causing scandal by letting others think that what we do justifies their own actions. Since God warned us about scandals and millstones (Matthew 18:6-7), we can be certain that if we cause others to justify their own inaction, we will certainly be called to answer for it.

None of this should be seen as justifying a relativistic “vote for whoever you want.” I do believe that certain positions should be a disqualification. What I am calling for is that we practice what we preach. If we are so outraged that Catholics of the “other party” are tolerating a great evil, then let us look at what our own party supports and stop making excuses for our inaction. If we want the “other side” to start challenging wrong in their party, then let’s do the same.

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(†) Readers from outside the United States, who often have a large number of political parties, need to keep in mind that the majority of Americans are divided into two major parties and a number of inconsequential parties that only get noticed when the electorate views both with disgust. But then most of them vote for one or the other anyway.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Hatred as a Response to Mercy

At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them—in this case the Pope—he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint. (Benedict XVI. Letter of March 10, 2009)

Benedict XVI wrote these words in response to the backlash over the lifting of excommunication of the four illicit bishops of the SSPX and a call to reconcile them back into the Church. I recall the controversy of the time. In the now defunct Xanga version of my blog, I had written that while I personally had misgivings over the decision, I recognized his right to make this decision under his authority to govern the governing of the Church.

Recently re-encountering this letter, I was struck by the similarities between the message of mercy Benedict XVI had for the members of the SSPX who were (and, sadly, still are) at odds with the Church, and the message of mercy Pope Francis has for those at odds with the Church (like the divorced and remarried). But people seem to favor the outreach to one, but not to the other. In both cases, we have people willing to point out the wrongdoing on those unrepentant in the group and say that the Pope is in favor of their wrongdoing… otherwise he would never have opened the door to mercy. And, of course, it is easy to see the fault in the other side’s mercy while downplaying the problems that inevitably crop up with the mercy shown to a faction that we have empathy for.

Perhaps we should consider this when we look at those at odds with the Church. Whatever they have done, God desires our salvation, and calls on the Church to be His ordinary means to bring His salvation to the world. While we cannot force others at odds with the Church to accept that salvation, we must never tire of trying to be God’s coworkers for the truth (cf. 3 John 1:8), no matter what we think of the actions that have put them at odds with God and His Church… even if they should think that their wrong is “right.”

Yes, I hate how certain Catholics misrepresent the Pope through ignorance or malice. I also deplore how certain people misrepresent his words to lobby for “changes” that are incompatible with Church teaching. But I can’t treat them hatefully, even if I should speak against them forcefully.  Wherever I have failed in this, I must reconsider my attitude.

This isn’t a matter of factions. This is about making certain we do not fall into rash judgment or mercilessness in dealing with those at odds with the Church. We are called to be merciful to each other, forgiving seventy times seven because God is merciful to us, and if we will not be merciful, we cannot expect it from God (cf. Matthew 18:21-35).

Pope Francis warns against a Pelagian mindset in dealing with others. In Gaudete et Exsultate, he says:

49. Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, “ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.”

 And in the footnotes, he points to Evangelii Gaudium #94 where he writes:

A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.

This is something that happens across the factions within the Church. Catholics in America frequently classify what is reallyCatholic according to their personal preferences, to the point that you can identify the political views of the Catholic doing the judging. But we cannot write people off because their positions err. The task is to help them understand why their position is in error and help them to find the truth taught by the Church—not to compel them to embrace the political contrary of their position.

If we forget our role as individual Catholics and as members of the Catholic Church as a whole, we’ll be missing the point of our calling. We’re not called to play “goalies” keeping undesirables away from the Church. We’re called to play medics in a field hospital, bringing them to know Christ and why it is important to change our ways to follow Him. People tend to do a poor job detecting their own hypocrisy, but do a good job seeing it in others. So, if there is hypocrisy in our own behavior, rest assured others will see it and recognize that we’re not doing unto others what we would have them do to us or those we sympathize with.

This is why Benedict XVI’s words should be heeded. There are some people who hold things we abhor. We might want them to leave—or be thrown out of—the Church, and we might be scandalized when the Pope reaches out to them. But he’s doing what he must as the Vicar of Christ, and if we condemn him for doing so, we’re merely displaying our hatred of our foes, not our fidelity to the Church’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).

 

(†) The reader will have to decide how well or how badly I have done on this.

(‡) The disputes between the so-called “Original Pro-Life Movement” and the “New Pro-Life Movement” sometimes tends to say more about the party affiliation that the members subscribe to than their knowledge of the moral obligations which they often downplay when it’s inconvenient.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Government is not God: Wanting the State to Do What Only God Can Do

When he read the letter, the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed: “Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy? (1 Kings 5:7a)

More: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it? (Bolt, Robert. A Man For All Seasons)

Everybody wants the quarantine to be over. As it drags on, more people are getting more forceful in insisting the government end it. Others seem perfectly willing to declare that if only the Government had done X or if we had elected Y, we wouldn’t be in this state. Both of these groups seem to be forgetting that governments do not have power over disease. The best a government can do is implement policies in response that justly protect the common good.

The people protesting the quarantine seem to be forgetting is that the necessity of the quarantine depends on the reality behind the coronavirus. Both sides partially grasp this: If the threat remains high, ending the quarantine does not serve the common good. But if the threat is low, strict quarantines do not serve the common good.

Likewise, the arguments over what the government should have done in preparation, or what candidate should have been elected does not serve the public good. Regardless of what should have been done to reduce the impact, it’s clear that governments by themselves could not have spared us from the existence of the pandemic. Countries with both more and less government than the United States have been impacted by the coronavirus, and—regardless of what role you might think government should play in health care—countries with one form of government or economic system were not spared the pandemic compared to another.

That’s because governments are made up of human beings and human beings are finite in both knowledge and power. Even when served by competent people of good will, it is not guaranteed that they will be able to respond as needed. 

Government is not God. It cannot perform miracles. It can only respond to the crises as they emerge, trying to limit the threat as they become aware of it. We can pray to God to deliver us and to provide insight to scientists and leaders so they might find cures and more ways to mitigate the harm. But the debates over when to end the quarantine or who would have prevented the pandemic from beginning is to confuse Government with God.

Until we remember that fact, there will continue to be a lot of wasted debate over things that are actually uncontrollable. 

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(†) Personally, I have no way of knowing whether the COVID-19 virus will be curable or not. I certainly pray that it is.