Saturday, May 15, 2010

Deus Vult! (Therefore the Church MUST be wrong): Reflections on Cafeteria Catholicism


[Preliminary Note: In this article I am dealing with the attacks on the official teachings of the Church and not the actions of an individual who is in a Church office who does wrong in the application of what the Church teaches.]

In a past article I dealt with the issue of authority in the Catholic Church, and how the belief that the Church was established with the authority to bind and loose.  I asked then, why a person would want to belong to a Church which claimed this if they did not believe it, because if it was not true, it is a pretty monstrous claim.

Yet we do have a phenomenon within the Church which we know as "Cafeteria Catholicism."  The principle is a person accepts only those parts of the faith they believe in, and reject those issues (normally of morality, but sometimes on doctrine too) they disagree with.

In all of these cases, we see that the Church is claimed to be in the wrong when it disagrees with person X on their behavior.

Thus we see things like the Pope is called "cruel" for not allowing condoms to prevent AIDS.  We see the Church called cruel for requiring Catholics to behave morally, for opposing “gay marriage” and so on.  We see the Church position on contraception and abortion called "cruel" because it "forces" a woman to die in childbirth or have too many children.  We see the Church position on divorce and remarriage "cruel" because they insist that Christ forbids divorce if the marriage is valid.

In all of these cases, we see people claim “God must want me to do X "because I would be unhappy if I did not get my way.”   The enthymeme (unspoken assumption) of this argument being, "God wants me to be materially happy."  Thus we see people say in effect Deus vult! (“God Wills It!”) If the Church disagrees, then the Church must be wrong.

There is a problem in all of these cases, but the problem is not with the Church.

Anger  is Directed at the Church for doing what she believes she must do

Many of the stances the Church holds, she holds simply because she believes she must do so if she is to be faithful to Christ. She rejects certain positions set forth by the world, such as not accepting the use of condoms to “stop” the spread of AIDS; such as refusing to sanction the marriage between two individuals of the same sex; such as refusing to sanction remarriage if the first marriage was valid and both spouses are alive.

Now I have no doubt that many people think an “exception” should be made or the Church “policy” [a loaded term to make it seem like a merely human rule], and in many cases the emotion they feel is quite real.

All the sad stories about AIDS sufferers, Lesbians in Love [ever notice how it’s always two women who are used as an example… never two men?], divorced persons wanting to remarry have the same refrain: “The Church won’t let us do X!

The problem with this tired old refrain is the Church believes she cannot change what she says because to do so would be unfaithful to God. Therefore, the demand for the Church to change is in fact a demand that the Church be unfaithful to what she believes God requires.

This is, in a word, selfishness.

A person may disagree with what the Church believes of course, but they can’t claim their view is “more Catholic” in doing so. Let’s go back to the premise of how Catholicism differs from other religions. We believe that the Catholic Church is the Church directly established by Christ with a visible head with the authority to bind and loose. This does not mean that the Church can go and abolish one of the Ten Commandments tomorrow. The Church believes her authority to bind and loose can only be used in service to God, and not independently of God.

The Misinterpretation of “God is Love" (and therefore He wouldn’t stop me from doing what I want)

One of the most annoying counterarguments against the Church is the taking out of context of “God is Love.” (from 1 John 4:16). Taken from the concept of we must love our brother, “God is Love” is turned into saying “God is Nice.” God, in this view, is non-threatening, He makes no demands. He only wants us to be happy here on Earth and is willing to bend His rules even though His silly Church won’t.

Excuse me, but this is not the God of the Bible at all. This is the God of Hallmark sentiments. It is actually a blasphemous view of God which negates what Christ did on the Cross for us.  It ignores the possibility of our being sinners.

God does indeed love us. When Adam and Eve broke away from God, God was under no obligation to bring salvation to us. Yet He did send His Son to save us. However, the message of Christ was not “An’ ye harm none, do what you will” (a popular Wiccan saying). It was “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). God loves us unconditionally to be sure. When one of us falls away, He desires to bring us back (see Luke 15:4). However the imagery God uses is that He goes out and brings back. We who sin are in the wrong place, and He goes to bring us back to the right place.

Love is not sentimentalism. Love seeks the greatest good for the beloved. Sometimes, it must be “tough love.” Love cannot sacrifice truth because no falsehood can be good, and no good thing can be false. So when the beloved wants something harmful, the lover must at times say “Because I love you, I cannot do X.”

The Church Has Other Motivations Than “Being Mean.”

Now, agree with the Church or disagree, at least accept that when the Church draws a line in the sand, it is not for the sake of being “cruel.” Rather it is because she believes that this is the right place as decreed by God.

Disagreement with the Church is therefore a rejection (whether intended or not) of the Church values and a demand she behave differently because what the Church believes is “not important” in relation to what the individual wants.  Thus the argument that the Church should permit condoms is a claim that continence is unimportant because we can’t help acting like crazed weasels in heat. The claim that the Church should permit remarriage if a spouse has been unfaithful is a rejection of the Church belief that if a marriage is valid, the Church cannot remarry a person already married. If the Church refuses to sanction homosexual “marriage” it is because she believes God has forbade homosexual acts.  If she condemns abortion as evil, it is not because she wants to control women.  It is because she believes the unborn child is a living human person.

All the appeals to emotion one wants to dredge up are irrelevant.  If God has commanded certain things are intrinsically evil (always wrong) then the Church may not make changes with them.

In all of these cases, we see the insistence that the Church act in defiance to what she believes God commands. This is not calling on the Church to become “more like Christ.” It is (willed or not) the non servium of the Devil saying “I reject the value you insist on!”

“But… God wants me to be happy!”

This is another argument which is thrown around, which makes God into a fuzzy Santa Claus. God desires us to be happy yes. However He knows that not all things we desire will make us happy in the light of the fact we possess an immortal soul. We were made for eternity with God. We were also made with free will. Because of this, we have the ability, but not the right, to behave in a way contrary to what He decrees.

Temporary happiness which will lead to separation from God for eternity is not something God wants for us.  God is good, and there is no evil or imperfection in Him. We, on the other hand, are imperfect and sometimes desire worthless or harmful things with the thinking it is a good thing. The wicked things will not bring us closer to God, regardless of whether it “feels” right or not. How many times have we seen children want what is harmful for them? They think the parent is “mean” because he or she will not indulge the child. However, sometimes the parent must refuse the child something which will not be good for the child.

Sometimes God must command we do not do a certain thing, much as we might want to. The Church, believing what Christ says about “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” must be faithful to what she believes God commands.

Misunderstanding what the Church Teaches

Not all dissent is born of defiance. Some is born out of ignorance. There are many times when a person does not understand why the Church holds a thing and thus claims what the Church does must be wrong. While the motive might be less willful, it does not excuse the person for rejecting what the Church holds.

GK Chesterton once wrote, in the article "The Drift from Domesticity" found in the book Brave New Family (Ignatius Press. 1990. Page 53):

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This is an excellent point. “Reform for the sake of reform” is foolish. Before one can make a change, one must remember that one needs to understand the intent of the original position. Otherwise the result is “unintended consequences” and the like.

This is the difference between Vatican II and the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II.” In Vatican II, the Church understood that there were some important beliefs of the Church being smothered in an attitude of clericalism (“let the priests do it”) and laity wrongly elevating certain customs to the level of dogma. In the “Spirit of Vatican II” we had some clergy and laity say, “I don’t see the sense of this… let’s get rid of it.”

However, before putting oneself in opposition to a Church teaching, one is obligated to find out what the Church teaches and why.

If one has a problem, one has to see why such a rule was made, rather than employing the "argument from silence" fallacy and assuming that because one does not know the reason for a rule it must be arbitrary.

By all means ask for help in seeking understanding.  But recognize the possibility of error in your own a priori assumptions as well.  If the Church is given the authority to bind and to loose and the Church is protected from teaching error (Look up Humani Generis #21: This is not limited to ex cathedra pronouncements), then the person who disagrees with the Church needs to ask whether the disagreement stems from the Church being fundamentally wrong or whether it stems from the individual being fundamentally wrong.

A Personal Example of Not Knowing Why

Here's a personal example.  Back in the late 1990s I was doing a paper on Charles Curran.  One of his arguments against the Church position on contraception was that because the Church position on money lending had changed, the position on contraception could be changed as well.  I couldn't find an answer to this question, though it sounded wrong.  For about seven years I could not find an answer to this quandary.

In the end I did find the answer.  Curran was making a fallacy of false analogy and misrepresenting what the Church had done.  The Church always condemned usury.  However, in the Middle Ages where wages were set by law, it was essentially impossible for a person to get out of debt.  Later when the structure of economics shifted from feudalism, it became possible for a person to improve their social standing and become wealthier.

Usury was condemned in both cases.  However, in Feudalism, any money lending was usury because it was impossible to pay back any interest.  Later, it was possible to pay back reasonable amounts of interest.  So there was not a change in doctrine.  Just a change in what was possible to pay back.

If I had relied on my own beliefs as being infallible, I might have felt I had to leave the Church.  Instead, I trusted the Church and, in time, learned why she did as she did.

The Fork In the Road: WHAT Do You Believe about the Church?

If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.  (Joshua 24:15).

I don’t want people to misinterpret these next sections. I am not saying “Love it or leave it!” (Indeed I am praying the reader in this situation will not leave her). Rather I am appealing to all Catholics to recall what they are called to believe about the authority Christ gave His Church.

However, for all people who dissent from what the Church believes on certain moral issues, they must go back to the underlying fundamental principle:

We believe that the authority which the Church possesses comes from Christ Himself and cannot be used in defiance of what He wills. We believe that the obedience of the Church is required by God (see Matthew 18:17)

Aut verus Ecclesia aut diabolical (Either the true Church or Diabolical)

[Yes I did this through machine translation. Latin purists may have a better way to translate this. Feel free to suggest a correction].

So here is the fork in the road. So here is what the dissenter must ask: Do you believe the Catholic Church, under the headship of the Pope, has the authority to teach in God’s name and is protected from error in doing so?

Do you believe this or do you not?

If the answer is yes, then logically one must consider the possibility of being in error himself. If the answer is no, then the question is Why remain in a body you think is false?  To borrow from Joshua 24:15 above, if you will not accept the notion that the Catholic Church teaches through the authority of Christ, it is time to ask who does.

Anti-Catholics are, in this respect closer to the truth than the Cafeteria Catholic. Does this statement shock you?  They at least recognize that if the Catholic Church is not what she claims to be then she is making a diabolical claim, even though they err in their conclusion.

However, if you believe the Catholic Church is wrong (or, in the case of Cafeteria Catholics, wrong in "some parts") then YOU must be prepared to justify the authority YOU invoke. I’m not a fan of ipse dixit.

The Problem of appealing to personal Mysticism over the Church: It starts in “Mist,” centers on “I” and ends in “schism.”

Ultimately most acts of dissent against the Church, most acts of refusing to accept the authority on an area is based on a form of focusing on the self. If I want it, it means God wants it. So if I want to marry another man, if I want to contracept or abort, if I want to divorce and remarry… then obviously God must want it too!

Such a view ignores the fact that we are tainted with original sin. As St. Paul put it in Romans 7:15, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” We can, at times, do what is wrong and we can, at times, delude ourselves into thinking that we want is right. Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, has wrote:

It is strange that some theologians have difficulty accepting the precise and limited doctrine of papal infallibility, but see no problem in granting de facto infallibility to everyone who has a conscience. (On Conscience, 3)

If we have a weak and relativistic view of morality (the "mist") which centers on the self (the "I") the end result is usually a de facto schism even if one insists they are a perfectly good Catholic "where it matters."

Thus even if it "feels right" it does not mean it is right.

Conscience Must Be Formed

Conscience is not an infallible guide.  It must be trained.  A person living in a place which has never known Christ, might have a deformed conscience.  Vatican II has spoken on this, saying, in Gaudium et spes:

16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. (9) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. (10) In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. (11) In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. (Emphasis added)

If we do not even look for what is right, we cannot plead ignorance on the day of judgment.  Thomas Aquinas makes the distinction between invincible and vincible ignorance:

Now it is evident that whoever neglects to have or do what he ought to have or do, commits a sin of omission. Wherefore through negligence, ignorance of what one is bound to know, is a sin; whereas it is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called invincible, because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand, vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about matters one is bound to know; but not, if it be about things one is not bound to know. (ST I-II, Q76, A2)


So we are back at the crossroads.  Either the Church is what she claims to be or she is not.  If what she claims is true, then obviously, to do the work of God, one must do so in obedience to what the Church binds and looses.  If she is not, then it is senseless to demand the Church "change" when her teachings are based on an authority which one rejects as false.

However, one should remember the words of Christ as well in Matthew 18:

6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

7 Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!

8 If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire.

9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna.

These are not the words of a fuzzy, lax God.

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