Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On Obedience and Dissent Within the Catholic Church (Part I)

STLUCIFER2  (In too many places, this is the unspoken assumption today)


One thing I find especially interesting within the Catholic Church is the tendency to emphasize the teachings, and speak against those teachings we point out… until we run afoul of those teachings we dislike or disagree with.  Then of course, the Church is wrong and we consider ourselves to be justified in our dissent against the Church.

Of course, in all cases, the dissenter never says, "To hell with this, I just don't feel like obeying."  Instead, they always justify their disobedience in some way.  Let's look at some of these ways.

Justification #1: "The Church is Out of Touch With the Real World"

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone argue that the Church was "out of touch" with the real world or with the laity and therefore we didn't need to heed an unpopular teaching, I'd probably be doing something other than blogging right now.  This is an argument which runs as follows:

  1. If the Church understood the real world, they wouldn't make [teaching X]
  2. The fact that they demand we follow [teaching X] shows they are out of touch with the real world
  3. After all… [Go to #1]

This is arguing in a circle of course.  The Church is claimed to be out of touch because they teach such, and if they weren't out of touch, they wouldn't teach this.  The argument assumes the teaching is "out of touch" and repeats the premise as a conclusion.

However, "If the Church understood the real world, they wouldn't make this teaching" is something which needs to be proven.  Remember that the "real world" is afflicted with sin.  We might remember a little something that St. Paul mentioned:

19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written: “He catches the wise in their own ruses,”

20 and again: “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.” (1 Corinthians 3:17)

So the question becomes, "By whose standard is the Church out of touch?  God's standard or Man's standard?  According to the wisdom of the world, the cross of Christ is foolishness, while St. Paul tells us in Romans 12:2, "Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect."

So the question is, On whose authority do we claim the Church teaching is "out of touch"?  If we claim it is out of touch with God's standard, we are justified in asking what authority one invokes to make that claim.  If we claim it is out of touch with man's standard, then the question is, how is the preference of the sinful man a criterion for deciding right and wrong?

Justification #2: "The Church is being dominated by Liberals/Conservatives who are trying to force their agenda" (OR "The Church is "Pro-X or Anti-Y")

This one is similar to the "Out of touch" justification.  Such a person who makes this argument seeks to cling to the appearance of obedience to the true teaching of the Church, but this Pope or the bishop teaching in communion with him is obviously a sympathizer or trying to hijack the Church to their own agenda, right?

Such an argument is in effect the denial of the infallibility of the Magisterium and instead claims that the individual knows better what is the true good of the Church.  It too is arguing in a circle:

  1. The Church must be dominated by Liberals/Conservatives because they teach [X]
  2. They wouldn't teach [X] if they weren't dominated by Liberals/Conservatives

Now of course we have to distinguish between Church teaching, and the dissenting priest or other who does allow his teaching with a political viewpoint, but this is hardly a new thing.  400 years ago, there were accusations of the Church favoring France or Spain against the Holy Roman Empire, and indeed there were people within the Church who did indeed put ideological concerns over the teachings of the Church (Look up Cardinal Richelieu for example).  However, such people were acting against the teachings of the Church, and this is quite different than someone alleging that the Catholic teaching on contraception or the reform of the Liturgy means the teaching authority of the Church is controlled by a faction which is contrary to the will of God.

Justification #3: "The Church teaching is based on an out of date world view."

While I dealt with this one in my article Chronological Snobbery, I think we need to take a look at this in context of dissent and not just in the rejection of religion in general.

This argument again, argues in a circle:

  1. The Church teaching is based on an out of date world view.
  2. If the Church wasn't out of date, they wouldn't be teaching this

This is sometimes invoked in the disagreement with a moral issue.  St. Thomas Aquinas' comments on morality are considered based on the lack of knowledge at the time, and if he had up to date knowledge he would have made a different decision.  The irony of course is when people who make this argument also cite him as permitting abortion within the first 40 days of conception (false: He still considered it a grave sin, but thought it a different sin than after the 40th day).  What this argument (which is actually the appeal to newness fallacy) fails to recognize is that the Church has made use of scientific discoveries to deepen the teachings of moral issues.

In other situations, this is invoked against doctrines.  The argument is that the Catholic belief in Transubstantiation was based on an outdated Aristotelian system of essence and accident, and that studies in the fields of atoms makes it obsolete.

Actually it does not.  Transubstantiation is the belief that while the appearance (accident) of bread and wine remain, its essence (substance) is changed to being literally the body and blood of Christ.  Appeals to sub-atomic particles are irrelevant, because the essence is not something which cannot be determined by science.

We can look at it this way.  Science can define the human being biologically as Homo sapiens.  It cannot define the essence of the human person which has human rights.  In different times, nations have ruled certain human beings to be "non-persons" because of melanin in the skin, or gender, or being mentally deficient or possessing certain ethnic traits.

The Church would hold, however, that those elements of ethnic differences or differences in ability are merely the appearance (accidents), while the essence (substance) of the human person exists regardless of the difference in the appearances.  Any being which holds the essence of being a human person, is a human person regardless of the accidents of the individual.

Justification #4: "The Church changed Teachings before.  It will do so with this eventually."

This is the first justification which is not arguing in a circle (though it sometimes bases its assumption on one of the above).  However, it does show a gross misunderstanding between things which cannot change and things that can.  To understand this, we need to recognize the difference between doctrine and discipline.

Doctrine are these teachings the Church has no right to reverse, because to do so would be to contradict the God we believe in.  We cannot change beliefs about the nature of Christ and the Trinity.  We cannot change teachings on morality (the Church will never say it is OK to have premarital sex, for example).  We cannot change the substance of the sacraments.  The Church cannot ever sanction "Gay marriage" or say we can celebrate the Eucharist using Pizza and Coke, or ordain women to the priesthood.

The reason we cannot do any of those things listed above is this would be to contradict the teachings and nature of the God we believe in.  What God has established to be followed, we do not have the authority to contradict.  We may in time deepen our understanding of a doctrine, but we will never go from believing [A] to believing [Not-A].

Discipline on the other hand are teachings which the Church can change if they see a good reason for it.  The use of Latin vs. the Vernacular in Mass is an accident.  Changing the language does not change what the Mass is.  The Church could change the discipline on unmarried priests for a serious enough reason.  We do recognize it as possible (Eastern Rite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox permits the ordination of married men).  The receiving the Eucharist under both species can be permitted or denied depending on the needs of the faithful (for example, when an erroneous belief came up that one had to receive both or it did not count as a valid reception, the Church has restricted the chalice from the laity).

Changing disciplines are changing of the appearances/accidents and do not change the essence/substance of the Church teaching, and this is what makes the justification of "The Church changed before, and it will eventually change here."  It confuses the changing of a discipline with the belief that a doctrine can be changed, and thus looks with hope to the election of a new Pope with the assumption of Justifications #1-3 above.  The Hope is that this new Pope will "be in touch," will not be "dominated by liberalism/conservatism" or will have an "up to date world view."

This is what happened with the hostility to the 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae.  The intent of the investigation was over whether the Birth Control Pill was to be considered contraception, because it operated differently than previous forms of contraception (which were largely the "barrier method.")

In other words, the question was whether the essence of the Pill was different than the essence of contraception, or whether the difference between the Pill and things like the diaphragm and the condom were merely differences of accident.

Once it became clear that the "Pill" was indeed contraception (that is, they shared the same essence), the Church reiterated its teaching on contraception.  Many people, believing the Church was going to change its teaching on contraception itself became angry, and accused the Church of "being out of touch," of "being dominated by conservatives" and "having an out of date world view."

So the danger of this justification #4 is that it assumes that the Church has the ability to change anything and that it can see the change as a good thing.  In reality, if the Church recognizes that to make a change is something she has no right to change or if the Church sees that there is no good which will come from such a change, the person who justifies their own disobedience by saying a change will come eventually is extremely presumptuous.

Justification #5: "The Church Leaders are Hypocrites."

This one is essentially a tu quoque fallacy.  It assumes that because some individuals within the hierarchy fail to live up to their obligations, it means that we are not bound to listen to them.  However (and this is the flaw of all tu quoque arguments), just because a person fails to live up to their obligations does not prove that the Church teaching itself is false.

Now, if it was believed the authority of the Church was merely that of a human institution, invoking the piety and right behavior of the leaders as the right to decree behavior one might be able to argue that the evidence of hypocrites within the Church Hierarchy meant there was not obligated to heed their teachings.

However, if we acknowledge that the head of the Church is Christ, and the Pope is merely his Vicar (the term means "a representative or deputy," and we believe that Peter and his successors are established as a representative for Christ, to whom He too must obey), then the authority the Church possesses is given the Church by Christ (See Matt 28:18-20, John 20: 21-23) and the rejection of the authority of the Church is the rejection of the authority of Christ (See Luke 10:16).

I recognize the non-Catholic will most probably reject this.  After all, they do not believe that the Catholic Church was established by Christ, but rather came later.  (I reject this view of course, but this is not the topic of discussion).

However, for the Catholic to reject this view is to deny something which we are called to believe  as being taught by Christ, and the obvious question is why they remain within if they think the Church is wrong on the teaching of herself.

If we believe that the Church had the power to bind and to loose (See Matt 16:19 and 18:18), and that she would be protected from error (see Matt 28:20), then it follows that when the magisterium teaches formally, we do not have the right to loosen what she binds, nor to bind what she loosens.

Justification #6: "The Church doesn't understand the real meaning of the Scriptures, and therefore is 'cruel'."

While this is one of the "arguing in a circle" arguments, it usually follows from #5, so I place it here.  This attempt to justify dissent essentially claims:

  1. the Church doesn't understand the real meaning of Scripture or it wouldn't be so harsh
  2. The Church teaching is harsh because it doesn't understand the meaning of Scripture

Left unanswered is on what justification the Church teaching is to be considered "harsh" in the official teaching authority compared to the wrong behavior of some of her members.  The question is who has the authority to determine what teachings are just and which are unjust.

Usually, the person invoking this argument looks at half the meaning of Scripture.  We have a God who loves and rewards good.  However, we also have the unmentioned half of Scripture: The God who commands that we be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2), and warns of Hell for those who fail to heed His words (see Matt 25).

Indeed, the person who says the Church is cruel probably has an interesting view of Scriptures:

In a recent rather hawkish and Inquisitorial outburst, our august liberator Moses was seen smashing a couple of stone tablets and gesticulating furiously as the people gave vent to a little midsummer revelry. Fresh from an extended vacation on Mt. Sinai, the Egyptian blueblood turned theocrat ordered that the whole festival be repressed. Within minutes, the fleshpots had been confiscated, and the couples ordered to re-clothe. This evidently not being enough, Moses then decreed that the Golden Calf (an important part of the new multifaith service) be melted down and put on the Index of Forbidden Items. Witnesses at the scene felt thoroughly oppressed by the apparition, and there was even talk of someone's inner child having bled. One freethinker noted that if a little merry-making after the rigours of the desert were to be forbidden, then "we might as well all just go and beat ourselves to death in our graves."

"As a Chosen Person I feel ashamed" his liberated beau added, "The destruction of the Golden Calf goes against the values of diversity, tolerance, and inclusivity, which progressive Israelites pride themselves upon." A chorus of similar opinions were aired as camp psychologists distributed emergency crying towels.  Only a few loyalists supported Moses' actions. "When we hear that the Lord is a jealous God" his publicist stated, "it doesn't mean that He is petty and vindictive, just that He is zealous for His own people's good." But 90% of Israelites surveyed agreed that such hairsplitting is hypocritical, and that the Golden Calf should have been placed beside the Ark of the Covenant in celebration of peace, love, and  tolerance for all.  However, one staunch pre-Calf of the old establishment wagged his beard in disagreement. "Going to the dogs" he said, pointing to the youth. "It's worse than Egypt. At least there we had rods for them." Such crusty opinions are representative of the Mosaic Right, and form a largely reactionary response to Goldencalfism.

The general consensus in the camp seemed to be that while Moses and conservatives like him are well within their rights to worship the Lord God, it is nothing short of reptilian prudery to demonize people's sexual preferences, and nothing less than crass dogmatism to ban a revered symbol of the Egyptian Faith. As a sweet-voiced orator with a trim goatee and the odd addition of something like red horns (he is not therefore to be discriminated against) so brilliantly put it: "What is "idolatry of a graven image" to one man" he said, "might in the final analysis just be the necessary precursor to a pluralistic society founded upon the universal values of tolerance, acceptance, and freedom of conscience for all. Let the spooky old prejudices of a bygone era keel over like a palsied brontosaurus.  We have today the opportunity to build a brave New Israel which respects the native spiritualities of the Egyptians, the Canaanites, and the Babylonians, weaving together a rich multicultural tapestry - a land flowing with milk and honey indeed."

(See here and here for more examples)

Essentially the problem with this justification to dissent is that it assumes that the teachings of the Church are merely manmade and can err, while the person who dissents assumes he or she cannot err.  So the question to be asked is On what basis do you claim your personal feelings are not in error?  Let's face it.  People exploit our emotions all the time.  Pity, fear, desire, anger.  Politicians do it, we deceive ourselves.  Many tragic events of history came to be through a demagogue appealing to our emotions instead of to our reason.

Essentially, this justification is nothing more than the denial of the authority of the Church to teach in a binding way, which brings up the question, why be Catholic to begin with if you reject they possess the authority they claim?

To Be Continued

While in this article, I dealt with some of the justifications used (there are more), next time I would like to look at some of the motives that lead people into dissent.  Not all of those who fall into dissent do so out of malice, after all

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