Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reading What the Magisterium Says Critically


I mentioned the other day that I had problems with certain bloggers who were Catholic—ones who presumed they had superior knowledge to the ones they criticized on whatever topic. One of my offhand comments could be summed up as "...and your qualifications to judge are...?" A person must know about the subject he or she is speaking about and also must know what the subject intended to say. Otherwise, the reliability of the critic is very much in doubt--even if he or she is knowledgeable in other areas.

I can say this because I have been there. In the early Xanga days of this blog, I was quite contemptuous of the American bishops. I thought they were largely idiots with a liberal bent. I bought into and spread that attitude. (Those articles have been no longer available ever since the original Xanga went defunct, and though I recovered my files, those particular articles will never see the light of day again).

My conversion of attitude came from a combination of reading Christus Dominus and witnessing the response of the bishops to the 2008 visit of Pope Benedict XVI. In these events, I was reminded that the bishops are the successors to the Apostles and I saw that the bishops were strengthened by the visit of the Pope—that they had been previously demoralized by their facing continuous dissent.

From that perspective, I found that many of their documents which I previously dismissed as worthless did have good things to say.  I recognized that my problem was I accepted what others said about the bishops without evaluating if what they said was correct.

I think it's a real issue to consider: the concept of critically assessing what members of the Magisterium say vs. what bloggers and news sources think they say.


The first issue is context. When facing news reports or a blog speaking on what the Pope or bishops said on an issue, my first question is to ask "What is the context of what was reported?" The thing is, even news agencies and bloggers of good will can only quote so much. So they try to pick what they think is the most important part.

The problem is, the quote might require some more of the article to get the full sense of what was said. The news reporter or blogger might actually be editing in good faith. He or she might think that the quote represents the whole statement accurately.  But, if you ever come across a WTF? moment where a quote sounds bizarre, the odds are very good that something got left out.

Interpretation and Intention

Another part of critical assessment is making sure that the interpretation of what was said matches the intent of what the speaker or writer was trying to say.

It is a problem today that people try to interpret a statement based on what they believe.  But that's exactly the opposite of what we must do. When a person uses a term, we have to understand what it means to the writer/speaker.

Here's an example. When St. John XXIII wrote his encyclical Pacem in Terris, many interpreted what he had to say on the topic of peace as if he was supporting the Soviet meaning of the term because the Soviets spoke constantly about peace in a way that benefited them. But that wasn't what St. John XXIII meant.

Or consider how people interpret Matthew 7:1ff. People who don't want to have their behavior declared wrong interpret judging to mean saying something is right or wrong. But that's a meaning imposed by the reader. It would be wrong to blame the Scripture verses for a meaning not intended.

The thing is, we interpret a text or speech based on what  the speaker/author intends and critique it based on our own views. This means that before we critique, we have to make sure that we interpret correctly. Bad Interpretation, bad critique.


The thing we always have to remember is when we read an article written about a bishop or about the Pope, we have to consider whether the person who wrote the article has fully addressed what the bishop or Pope actually had to say about the subject or whether or not the author omitted something important—it doesn't have to be malicious omission.

We must also remember that even when we do see the quotes do exist in context, we have to ask whether the blogger commenting or the reader of the Papal statement has in fact interpreted the article as saying what the Pope intended it to say. If the critic or reader has not correctly interpreted the article or statement, then the criticism is starting from a false assumption. If the premises are false, the conclusion is not proven true.

Recognizing these things, we have to realize our responsibility as a reader to accurately understand what was actually said and what was intended before judging the Magisterium for doing wrong—it might turn out the fault is not with the Pope or Bishop after all.

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