Monday, August 30, 2010

St. Augustine Says it Best

While writing to the Manichaeans (Of the Morals of the Catholic Church Chapter 10.  #16), this quote from St. Augustine pretty well rejects the attacks against the Catholic Church from numerous assailants:

…you act impertinently in trying, though vainly, to attribute to us views and opinions altogether unlike the wholesome and profitable doctrine we really hold. Nor can your silly and profane discourses be at all compared with the expositions in which learned and pious men of the Catholic Church open up those Scriptures to the willing and worthy. Our understanding of the law and the prophets is quite different from what you suppose. Mistake us no longer. We do not worship a God who repents, or is envious, or needy, or cruel, or who takes pleasure in the blood of men or beasts, or is pleased with guilt and crime, or whose possession of the earth is limited to a little corner of it. These and such like are the silly notions you are in the habit of denouncing at great length. Your denunciation does not touch us. The fancies of old women or of children you attack with a vehemence that is only ridiculous. Any one whom you persuade in this way to join you shows no fault in the teaching of the Church, but only proves his own ignorance of it.

Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV. St. Augustin: The writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists. (46).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Reflections on Dissent within the Catholic Church

Preliminary Disclaimer: This is not part of the series on infallibility. 

Non Catholic readers are always welcome here of course, but should be aware that this article presumes the authority of the Church is binding on the faithful, and that logically if one disagrees with this, one cannot call themselves a faithful member of the Catholic Church.

Obviously not all who dissent do so from malice.  No doubt some may feel trapped in a hopeless situation.  To those individuals, I ask them to trust in God and to seek help in understanding what they are called to do, and I pray for them.  Any reader who believes I am judging them personally has missed the intent of this article.

Introduction: Yesterday, when doing the Office of Readings, I came across this passage from St. Louis of France, writing to his son:

"You should permit yourself to be tormented by every kind of martyrdom before you would allow yourself to commit a mortal sin."

This statement is a masterpiece of simple truth.  If Mortal sin be understood as willfully doing a thing which is a grave offense against God, we ought to prefer death to choosing to offend our Lord.

The Problem of Dissent

Unfortunately, there is in the West, a spirit of laxity which leads to spiritual weakness and hostility to anyone who challenges this attitude.  The spiritual laxity seems to run along these lines of assumption:

  1. God doesn't want me to be unhappy
  2. Situation (X) would make me unhappy.
  3. Therefore God opposes Situation (X)

Situation (X) can be any sort of negative situation.  Usually when dealing with dissent, Situation (X) is what the dissenter thinks must happen if they have to follow Church teaching on an issue.  Thus, the Church is accused of going against God.

The problem is in the major premise, "God doesn't want me to be unhappy."  This is to misunderstand God and to limit Him to providing material happiness.  Such a view forgets that God desires what is truly good for us.  When we form an attachment to something harmful to ourselves, sometimes He must play the role of the dentist, causing us discomfort as He removes the cavity.

Since the greatest good is to spend eternity with God, and since our task is to know, love and serve God, we must realize that when this greatest good is at stake, if what we want is incompatible with this greatest good, we must accept God's correction.

Self Deception, Self Centered, Self Serving

St. Josemaria Escriva once said:

[Y]our own spirit is a bad advisor, a poor pilot to steer your soul through the squalls and storms and across the reefs of interior life. (The Way #59)

We need to recognize that not everything that seems good to us is good in the sight of God.  Yet often the arguments made on why one should be permitted to dissent from Church teaching are phrased in a way which is intended to sound altruistic but is in fact self centered and self serving.  It's like the old saying, “When someone says 'it's not about the money, it's the principle' it's about the money.”  The invocation of a tragic situation to which the dissenter invokes a theoretical, almost always involves a situation the dissenter is in or wants protection from in the future.  Thus we see the same tired arguments trotted out again and again:

1) The person who wishes to legitimize contraception may invoke an image of hardship: The family with 10 children or the mother with medical problems.  They say it is "unreasonable" for the Church to insist on periodic or total abstinence from sexual acts instead of permitting contraception.

2)The person who wants to legitimize abortion may invoke an image of financial or health hardship.  They may invoke the imagery of rape or of a deformed child.  They point to these things as a reason why abortion should be allowed in all circumstances, and accuse the Church of being cruel or irrational for saying that the unborn is a person and therefore may never be killed.

3) The person in a valid marriage who wants the right to divorce and remarry invokes the image of the unfortunate spouse "denied happiness" for life and "damned forever" if they remarry outside the Church.  The Church is then called unjust for saying that if the marriage was valid, she has no authority to end it and permit another.

The problem is, the dissenter is *not* speaking out on behalf of these individuals.  The dissenter is making use of the appeal to pity fallacy and the underlying principle the dissenter is making in the above cases is:

  1. I want access to contraception if I need/want it.
  2. I want access to abortion if I need/want it.
  3. I want access to divorce and remarriage if I need/want it

Since the Church opposes the legitimacy of these things, saying it goes against what one is required to do in knowing, loving and serving God, the Church is accused of being wrong, and often maliciously wrong on each subject.

The Argument by Proxy

There is another tactic the dissenter uses, which I term the argument by proxy, which is both a red herring and a non sequitur when it comes to the issue in question.

The argument by proxy is to take another issue (Which I will term [Issue A]) which the dissenter believes is easier to attack as a way to justify disobeying the Church on the issue they want to dissent from (Which I will call [Issue X]).  They attack the Church on [Issue A] to justify dissent on [Issue X].  The dissenter claims (but does not prove) that because the Church is wrong on [Issue A], they need not listen to the Church on [Issue X].

This simply does not logically follow.  Even if one wished to invoke Issue [A] to claim that the Church teaching is not binding in all things, this overlooks two things:

  1. The Argument that the Church is wrong on [Issue A] needs to be proven and defended against objections.
  2. Even if the Church were wrong on [Issue A] (which needs to be proven see #1), that has absolutely no bearing on whether the Church is wrong on [Issue X]

What the Dissenter Fails to Consider

What the dissenter fails to consider is the possibility that he or she is in error instead of the Church.  If we recognize that human beings are sinful, and if as Catholics we believe the Church magisterium has the authority to bind and to loose and what it binds and looses on Earth will be bound and loosed in Heaven (See Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 for example) we are forced to consider this: The dissenter who ignores the possibility of their own error does so to their own peril.

If we recognize that the Church does not teach as it does out of malicious error, but because she believes she must teach this way to be faithful to God, the self-centeredness of the dissenter who demands change becomes clear.

Remember, we are not speaking of the actions of the individual churchman who acts wrongly.  We are speaking of the Church teaching itself, that certain behaviors are incompatible with being a Christian, and the Church has no authority to permit such behaviors.

Serving God as He Wills

St. Josemaria Escriva once wrote:

When I made you a present of that Life of Jesus, I wrote in it the inscription: "May you seek Christ.  May you find Christ.  May you love Christ."

These are three very distinct steps.  Have you at least tried to live the first one? (The Way #382)

To follow these three steps also means seeking to learn what He wills.  We should remember Psalm 111: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom."  We do not dictate to God what we will do.  To be faithful to God means doing as He commands.  We should consider the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram in Numbers 16.  Saying, “Enough from you! The whole community, all of them, are holy; the LORD is in their midst. Why then should you set yourselves over the LORD’S congregation?” (Numbers 16:3), they refused to accept the leaders appointed by God.  God however made clear He is not to be approached on man's terms, but on His terms.

Scripture teaches:

  • If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15)
  • If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. (John 15:10)
  • If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17)
  • He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me. (Luke 10:16)

As Catholics, we believe that obedience to the Church is a part of following Christ, and the Catholic who claims the Church is wrong and may be disobeyed must ask themselves this:

On what basis do you claim the Church is in error while you are in the right?  How well do you understand the teaching of the Church which you oppose?

If one's sense of right and wrong are based on the fear of suffering discomfort or feeling something "just is" wrong, this is living by one's passions and emotions which cannot be trusted.  Otherwise anyone who acts on strong feelings has equal claims to right and wrong.

Of course people can be led to do great wrong in the name of their feelings (what "seems right"), even if they are sincere, and often do contradictory things and even harmful things in this respect.


As Catholics we do believe that truth is knowable and is objective, and that which is true will never contradict what God teaches.  As Catholics we believe that Jesus established the Church, promising to be with her always and protecting her, and making obedience to her necessary.

If one does not accept this, then the question arises, "Why be Catholic?"  If one believes the Church teaches falsely, why remain in a Church which teaches falsely when one is required to seek and do what God commands?

Conversely, if one believes the Church is the true Church, why be so cavalier in choosing to pick and choose what to obey?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Reflections on Scripture Disputes Between Christians

Sometimes a way seems right to a man, but the end of it leads to death! (Proverbs 16:25)

(I think this article needs to be written before going on with my Infallibility series, based on certain accusations that Catholics "ignore" Scripture)


There is an old joke which runs as follows:

Two ministers of rival denominations found it necessary to share a cab, and as they travelled, they began to converse.  Both were surprised to learn they shared mutual interests and they had a pleasant conversation.

Arriving at the first destination, the first minister said, "You know I don't see why we can't get along.  After all, we're both trying to serve the Lord, aren't we?"

Getting out, the second minister said, "That's true.  You serve the Lord in your way, and we serve the Lord in His."

There is a truth to this anecdote which we would do well to remember, and that is we must serve the Lord in His way and not in ours.  Who accurately interprets Scripture and who errs?  Remember that with contradictory claims, one must be wrong and the other right, while with contrary claims, both can be wrong, but it is possible neither is right.

Now, between Catholics and Protestants, and between different denominations of Protestants, (or for that matter between Christians and Jews concerning the Old Testament) there are disputes over the meaning of Scripture, where conflicting claims are made as to the teachings, and such disputes are a stumbling block for the world to whom we have been required to preach the good news to.

A Common Assumption

There are times when I receive comments from a person who is quite sincere in his or her belief attacking the Catholic position on the grounds that the Catholics "ignore" certain passages of the Bible.  The problem is, this accusation makes a certain assumption:

  1. When I [Read the Bible] I see [Teaching X]
  2. [Catholics] don't believe [Teaching X]
  3. Therefore, [Catholics] don't [Read the Bible]

Why is this assumption a problem?  Because it assumes [Teaching X] is true, when this is actually a matter to be proven.

The question is: Is [Teaching X] true?  If Catholics [Read the Bible] and don't see [Teaching X], then it comes down to an issue of who is authorized to interpret Scripture to make a decision on [Teaching X].  Catholics believe the Church in communion with the Pope has that right.  Other denominations deny this, and insist on things like the Plain Sense of Scripture and Personal Interpretation.  However, just as Catholics are called on to prove their position, it follows that those denominations who deny it must prove their own position on the authority to interpret Scripture.


I don't expect this article will lead people to accept one view over another.  Rather, I post this in the hopes that when it comes to comments to articles, people will realize that the issue under dispute is ultimately over the issue of interpretation and not over accusations of "You're ignoring verses x:xx from the Book of Y in the Bible."

One needs to recognize the truth of what Bertrand Russell once said on slanting the language: "I am firm, you are stubborn, they are pig-headed."  Also, the wisdom of GK Chesterton: "It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong."

It is easy to assume one who disagrees with you is wrong.  However, the question which must be asked is, On what basis do you hold you are right?

This is the real dispute between Christians.