Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Seeing Clearly: Church Teaching and Politics

One of the big problems I see with how the Church is viewed in America seems to come from the belief that similar positions must share the same political mindset. The idea that if the Church has a position on X (X being whatever issue is controversial at the moments) and a political party has a similar position on X, it must mean that the Church is sympathetic to that political party. Similarity must mean a one came from the other, right?

In logic, we call this the cum hoc fallacy (from the Latin cum hoc ergo propter hoc—with this, therefore because of this). An example of this might be:

  1. The President announces an executive order which will legitimize same sex “marriage” across the nation (it could happen).
  2. The Bishops of the Catholic Church, seeing an attack on what the meaning and nature of marriage is supposed to be, speaks out on the subject defending the traditional understanding of marriage and saying that no government has the authority to change the meaning of marriage.
  3. At the same time, members of the Republican party speak out from a variety of motives (personal moral beliefs coincide with Catholic view, some shoring up stance with base, etc.) against this executive order.
  4. Members of Democratic party accuse the Church of "violating the wall of separation” alleging the Church is pro-Republican.

But the point is, the Church speaks out of her own sense of moral obligation while the Republicans who speak out do so from their own motives. The Church position is not made because of the Republican position, but independently of the Republican position. We can switch parties in this role (for example, the Church speaking out on immigration or social justice is similar to Democratic views, and in these cases, Republicans make the same accusations). Even though there is similarity of position, the positions are not identical, and the motive for holding the positions are not identical.

This tactic is basically treating a moral obligation as a political obligation, and accusing the Church of being political when she is speaking out on a moral issue which is in the media. The fact that the Church has spoken about this issue at times it was not part of the media attention is ignored. Both the Church and the Democrats/Republicans spoke out on this issue. Therefore the Church is accused of sympathizing with the political position (though a few generations ago, the party would have been accused of being under the control of the Church).

This is an error that can be made by both secular opponents who see the Church as an enemy and by Catholics who fear that the Church may be embracing an enemy. Those individuals and groups who know their position is in opposition to Church teaching tend towards discrediting the Church. Those members of the Church who are attached to a political view that is not in keeping with the Catholic view might prefer to think of this teaching as a change so as to excuse themselves. Or, on the other side of the coin, a person might choose to cite a Church teaching which is similar to the political position to give added support to the entire political platform.

As I see it as a matter of what one uses as the focus. If one uses a political ideology as the “center,” then the Church can look schizophrenic. Sometimes she adopts a liberal position and sometimes a conservative one. How can she be so inconsistent? But, on the other hand, if one uses the Church teaching as the center, then we see a view where political parties sometimes gets things right, and sometimes goes very wrong. It’s when we see things with this latter view that the Church begins to make sense. The Church is a signpost pointing to God, and political parties, being determined by men and women who can only see things from a limited perspective, tempted by sin, can put the wrong priorities on things and call evil good and good evil. It is only through this understanding that we can avoid the ludicrous idea that the Church can simultaneously be a left wing group and the “Republican party at prayer” because of her positions.

I think these considerations can be useful to people who want to be faithful Catholics, but are scandalized by the Church teaching on certain issues that do not fit into the favored ideology. It’s never comfortable to suddenly be faced by the idea that perhaps you’ve fallen away from what the Church position requires, or that perhaps a position you staked out as being morally wrong is more nuanced in the eyes of the Church.

Of course, we need to distinguish between the Church teaching and the individual interpreting the Church teaching. When the Church teaches abortion is always wrong, a person within the Church who tries to say that a Catholic can support abortion as good is not passing on authentic Catholic teaching. There will be Catholics who do misrepresent their personal error as Catholic teaching. But we must make the distinction between what those who have the authority to make binding teaching say, and what those who misrepresent it say.

It’s easy to see the secular media giving the Church a positive or negative spin based on ideology, and being influenced into thinking the Church is going astray, and I think this is destroying the peace of mind of Catholics who want to be faithful, but are afraid to trust what was said. If the Church seems to sound goofy, is it the fault of the media, the faithless teachers or the magisterium itself? How do we know what to trust?

This can be difficult to unwrap. With false teachers saying they are true, one might despair of knowing the truth. I think the key is that, when we are faced by one of those “What in the hell?” moments, where the media is reporting something that sounds so bizarre, we need to start asking whether what was reported = what was said. We also need to look at how reliable the source has been in the past in reporting on the Church. For example, if the source has showed itself grossly uninformed on the Church teaching (even if it has been reliable on economics or politics), then we should consider the possibility that we should look to another source to confirm or deny their interpretation, rather than assuming it to be true.

Of course, we want to avoid the genetic fallacy, rejecting all news because of the source. What we are talking about is determining the knowledge the source has about Catholicism and its tendency to report accurately or through an ideological lens. That’s not always easy. Especially if it is a source which one has previously trusted on other things. So we need to avoid the opposite fallacy as well—the irrelevant authority. A news source which might be quite knowledgable in political or economic issues might not have a good understanding of religious news, and in fact, might try to judge the Church teachings from those categories of economic and political experience.

What we need to remember is we need to be informed on the subjects we speak on. If we want to speak on what the Church does or says, we need to be clear on what she said or did. When we hear something alarming, we need to ask ourselves:

  1. Who reported it?
  2. Was it a transcript or a summary?
  3. Is the source knowledgable on Catholic teaching?
  4. Does the source have an axe to grind in this area?
  5. Do I properly understand the news reported.

These are important issues. For example, with issues 1-4, the Vatican newsfeed can be considered a more accurate source of news about what the Pope had to say than the local secular news or a blog or a political analysis site. Issue 5 shows the other side of the equation. Even if the news is reported accurately, the question still remains as to whether the individual understands what was read. It’s widely assumed that there’s no problem with the listener, so if there is a problem, it’s the fault of the speaker. But that ignores things like the cultural experience of the speaker and the listener as well as the possibility of different languages run through a translator. We can show this through a simple graphic:

Communication Barriers

What we see is a case where the listener needs to be aware of the fact that A speaks through his own experiences, that may be different from ours and we listen through our own experiences that may be different than his, and we may need a translator which may change the emphasis slightly (if done well) or greatly (if done badly). Keep in mind that ideology can be part of the cultural experience, so can our biases, and so can the orthodox faith for one unfamiliar with it. So we can see that there is a lot of areas where the listener can get it wrong, simply by not being aware of the difference—they assume they heard rightly because they do not consider that these filters are in existence.

So, this is why I try to encourage my fellow Catholics not to be discouraged because of what is reported about the Church. The media takes relish in trying to contrast Pope Francis with his predecessors. radical traditionalists take relish in trying to portray him as someone who can be ignored, but both are misreading the Pope and misleading others because they do not consider the fact that the meaning the Pope gives to his words do not have the political baggage that the listeners give to it.

Let’s just remember that when we see something reported in the news about the Pope that seems like a huge problem in relation to our faith. It may turn out (and thus far always has turned out) that people have misinterpreted what he has to say because of their cultural blinders.

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