Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thoughts on Catholics, Obedience and Pope Francis

Pope Francis faith in God

On this blog, I tend to write in blocs for a period depending on what seems to be most immediately an issue when it comes to opposition to the Church. This opposition can either come from outside the Church or inside the Church. It seems like lately, I have had to write about opposition coming from within the Church because it seems that certain Catholics today—especially ones who were noted for their defense of the Church in the past—have issues with Pope Francis.

It is a curious phenomenon. St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI spoke about economic justice and social justice during their pontificates, they had issues with disobedient Catholics doing scandalous things, and they had gaffes. But for the most part, there was respect for their teachings and patience. We knew there were bad Catholics, whether clergy, religious or laity, but we recognized that their teachings did not represent the Church. Sure, people grumbled at times at a bishop’s troublesome decisions and felt that the Church was under siege. There was even criticism of the Popes handling of matters, but it was generally recognized that the Popes were faithful Catholics and were faithful to Church teaching.

This is why I find the attitude of certain Catholics to be troubling today. Pope Francis has not taught anything that his predecessors did not teach. Nor has he failed to teach on issues which his predecessors taught on. Yes, we still have misbehaving clergy, religious and laity and we still have some Papal gaffes. But now, the Pope is seen as suspect by a growing number of Catholics, and whenever a Catholic misbehaves, the Pope becomes the primary suspect.

It’s not a new sentiment. Writing back in 1974, theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote on the attitudes towards the papacy:

“The papacy but not this pope” is a further step. Beginning with Gerson, Gallicanism attempted this step (with the best of intentions, theologically) by trying to differentiate between the sedes [seat], which is indefectible, and the sedens [the one sitting], who is not. This approach was mistaken and impracticable from the outset, as de Maistre pointed out. Gasser, in his final address at Vatican I, emphasized that infallibility is not a prerogative of an abstract papacy but of the pope actually reigning.

—Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (Kindle Locations 1039-1043). Kindle Edition.

In the past, this was a problem with Catholics who were openly dissenting from the Church (certain liberals and traditionalist groups like the SSPX). They were denying that the Pope they did not like had authority to teach in a way they disliked. But now, some Catholics who have always recognized the authority of the sedes of the Papacy are beginning to question the sedens of the Pope.

I think there are some reasons for this problem in the West (it does not seem to affect Catholics as much outside of Europe and Asia), some manmade and some supernatural.

Manmade Problems

I think the manmade reasons for this problem comes from the fact that some Catholics have assumed that political conservatism was synonymous with Catholic orthodoxy. The right to life is indeed the fundamental right as St. John Paul II said. Communism was indeed an evil, as the Church taught. These issues were considered politically conservative, and to some extent, it was considered that conservatism as a whole was orthodox. In addition, in the West, we tend to use either-or thinking where it is not appropriate to do so. For example, unbridled capitalism or unbridled socialism. Conservatism vs. Liberalism. If a person does not stand for the preferred political position, it is assumed he or she stands for the opposite position.

Thus, when Pope Francis spoke about the abuses in some areas of the capitalistic system, it was assumed that he was promoting socialism. When he spoke out on trying to reach out to people with same sex attraction or couples who were divorced and invalidly remarried, it was assumed he was seeking to overturn the teaching of the Church. These things do not logically follow, but people do think this way.

Another manmade reason for this problem is that people tend to give too much credibility to the secular media when it comes to reporting on the Church. An accurate assessment of what the Church says and what the Popes say does require knowledge of how the Church works. Even a person of good will can be confused and make an error about what the Pope means if they don’t have a solid grip on Church teaching he is referring to. Regardless of whether a media report comes from a person of good will or not, if they don’t understand the context, they will not report accurately. They could, for example, miss the significance of a term and only partially quote. They could jump to conclusions based on the meaning the reporter gives to words compared to how the Church understands them. So when we see the media reporting that the Pope is saying that the Church teaching on abortion or marriage isn’t important, that is the fault of the report, not the words of the Pope.

[I should add, that as I prepare this article for publication, it seems that certain members of the media are recognizing that the Pope is not somebody who is going to change Church teaching, and are beginning to turn on him. It will be interesting to see if this change in reporting is widespread and if so, whether certain Catholics will stop accusing him of being heterodox.]

This can be enhanced by the existence of antics by Catholics publicly causing scandal. When such a person seems to get away with things that strike us as wrong, some wonder if perhaps the Church is being lenient out of sympathy for the dissent. This is actually the fallacy of affirming the consequent, arguing:

  • If the magisterium sympathizes, dissenters will be active.
  • Dissenters are active
  • Therefore the magisterium sympathizes.
But even if the major premise is true, the sole fact of the minor premise (Dissenters are active) does not mean the magisterium sympathizes. It could mean that the magisterium does not have the temporal power to bring them in line, or that they are trying to deal with the people in error in a private way. The point is, the existence of active error does not require papal sympathy as a cause. Throughout the history of the Church, dissent, heresy and schism has appeared and even when challenged by saints, it could take centuries for such an error to die. Arianism was first condemned in the First Council of Nicaea, but did not become extinct until the 7th century. We have ongoing separation with our fellow Christians from the Orthodox and Protestant churches. So, we need to remember that the existence of those who disagree with or reject the Church does not mean the Pope and bishops are supporting it.
Supernatural Problems

Of course, these manmade problems have their roots. People are being deceived into accepting these assumptions. That brings us to the supernatural. Supernaturally, I am inclined to believe that people who want to be faithful to the Church are undergoing spiritual warfare. The devil exists (something our Pope constantly reminds us of) and he wants to separate believers from Christ’s Church. The means to do this is different from the means used to keep those who reject Church teaching away. In this case, the devil seeks to cause people not to trust the Church by drawing suspicion on things that seem different. If the devil can tempt the individual Catholic into being suspicious about the people with the authority to teach within the Church, then the ultimate result is to undermine the individual’s faith in God to protect His Church. Such a person has lost the peace of mind which comes with trusting God.

Once this doubt creeps in, it becomes easy for the devil to tempt a person into questioning whether a Papal teaching he or she dislikes is binding. For example, the outcry against the Papal encyclical on the environment coming out months before the actual encyclical is due to be released. Because of the instigated doubt against the Pope’s orthodoxy and people forgetting God’s promise to protect His Church, people assume it is going to be a disaster long before it ever gets released.

Anticipating an Objection

To some readers, this all may sound like an argument insisting we tolerate whatever doctrinal or liturgical abuse that may come along. Or it may sound like I am saying there are no problems. These assumptions would be false. When the majority of a bishops conference announce their support for allowing the divorced and remarried to go to confession and then continuing to live as man and wife, that’s a serious problem (This happened in Germany). When a bishop announces that he believes the Church should recognize same sex relationships as good, that’s a serious problem (this one happened in Belgium). When a priest announces he is homosexual and urges his parishioners to vote for a referendum legalizing “same sex marriage,” and receives an ovation from the parish, that’s a serious problem (this one happened in Ireland).

But don’t turn these serious problems into the fallacy of composition. If a part of the Church falls into error, that does not mean the whole of the Church is infected. Don’t make the post hoc fallacy either. If the Pope speaks out to the Church, asking them ways to find ways to reach out to people whose lifestyles have estranged them from the Church and certain people with an agenda try to advocate things incompatible with the Church teaching, that advocacy was not caused by the Pope.

Dissent is not new to the Papacy with Pope Francis. Rejection of authority is not new to the Church with Vatican II (Ever hear of Martin Luther?) either. Sometimes individuals or groups take advantage of the Church in transition, trying to hijack a legitimate proposal to make their own errors seem to have support. When the Church calls for insights as to how to best accomplish her Great Commission among a new generation (Matthew 28:16-20), there will be people who try to push something incompatible. That doesn’t mean that the wrong interpretation is welcome, or that there is no right ideas to implement.

We also need to avoid the arguments from silence and ignorance. The fact that we do not hear a public denunciation by the Pope does not mean no action is being taken. The fact that an individual has not heard of the Pope responding to something wrong, does not mean the Pope did not respond. I have seen too many people in combox arguments ask “Why didn’t the Pope condemn ISIS?” "Why didn’t the Pope defend the Christian concept of marriage?” The answer is, “HE DID,” but too many people assume that because the secular media didn’t cover it, he said nothing.


The problem is, some Catholics are being misled into thinking that a problem existing in the Church must mean that the Pope is at fault. That isn’t necessarily so. There are many other possibilities that are not being considered. While there are some areas of the Church that don’t fall under the categories of doctrine and morals and thus are not infallible, we need to remember that our generations in the Church are not given a free pass to disagree with the lawful authority of the Church under the Pope. When the Pope teaches formally, even if not teaching ex cathedra, his teaching requires us to give assent (see CCC #892). When the Pope can teach in a manner that requires us to give our assent, there are two possibilities. Either:

  1. We can trust Our Lord to protect the Church from teaching error in a issue where we are required to obey, or…
  2. The Church can teach error, and we have no way of knowing whether the Church has ever erred in other teachings—such as the Trinity.

The second choice is asinine, and we need to put our trust in God that He will protect His Church. If we lose our trust that the Church can be protected from error by God,  we have no way of knowing whether we are doing what is right before God. Obedience is not always easy when the teaching of the Church goes against what our cultural values prefer. But we must obey God, rather than men, and sometimes our cherished political and cultural views do not match what our faith calls us to do. Then we have to choose between God and the world—and choosing God means following His Church under the living magisterium of a real Pope, not the hypothetical magisterium of a papacy.

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