Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Problem With the Church is not the Pope. It's Us

19 You give your mouth free rein for evil; 

you yoke your tongue to deceit. 

20 You sit and speak against your brother, 

slandering your mother’s son. 

21 When you do these things should I be silent? 

Do you think that I am like you? 

I accuse you, I lay out the matter before your eyes. (Psalm 50:19-21)

So I started to see some Catholic blogs publish articles that take a different slant about the Pope. Now, instead of accusing the Pope of being heterodox, this tactic takes the truth that not everything the Pope says is an authoritative teaching and uses it to attack people defending the Pope as if they argued everything authoritative. They say that it’s OK to be upset by certain comments the Pope makes, and apologists shouldn’t be defending the Pope in those circumstances.

However, that is not the problem. The problem is that some authors use controversial phrases from press conferences to imply (or state outright) that the Pope is heterodox. Some do it subtly. Others come right out and say they think the Pope is not Catholic. But either way, they argue that the Church is worse off because Pope Francis is Pope. That’s different from saying “I like St. John Paul II better.” We’re not talking about a person who prefers the style of one Pope over another. We’re talking about a person who thinks Pope Francis is a menace and needs to be opposed.

That’s an important distinction. One can wish the Pope did not say or do a certain thing because of the confusion it caused without being a bad Catholic. For example, I recall two incidents during the pontificate of St. John Paul II which I find regrettable: the 1986 Assisi conference and the kissing of the Qur’an. I recall being unhappy with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and his lifting the excommunications on the bishops of the SSPX and his ill-advised example of the “Gay male prostitute with AIDS” in the book interview Light of the World. These things caused scandal. But these things did not mean that these two Popes were heterodox. When foes of these Popes tried to accuse them of heresy, [1] that’s when those foes were in the wrong. These were simply examples of Popes being human and making mistakes in judgment that did not involve the teaching authority of the Church.

Likewise with Pope Francis. We’ve had cases where he said things that sounded confusing in soundbites, but turned out to be legitimate when read in context. We’ve also had a few instances where he confused Catholics who couldn’t figure out what point he was trying to make. Those things are unhelpful for the life of the faithful. Nobody denies that. What we do deny is the claim that these instances “prove” the Pope is heterodox.

I think the problem is that we have forgotten that the media was also scrutinizing the words and writings of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, constantly asking if an unfamiliar phrase meant a change in teaching. We have forgotten that these two pontiffs have also spoken about social justice, immigration and the environment (back then, they called it ecology), and spoke against the excesses of capitalism just as much as they spoke against communism.

Back then, it was easier to overlook the Papal statements on issues outside of the right to life and sexual morality. From an American perspective, we saw the statements  on these issues mostly as an indictment against our political opponents. Since the Popes spoke on the right to life and about sexual morality, we could point to the Papal statements in order to condemn our opponents—especially if those opponents were also Catholic (like Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro back in the 1980s). The problem was, we overlooked the fact that the Popes warned against other injustices as well. (For example, from what I recall, the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis was dismissed as being out of touch or even anti-American).

In other words, we approved of the Popes when they said what we wanted to hear and we ignored or dismissed the Popes when we didn’t like what they had to say. Also, at this time, the media took the attitude of trying to portray the Popes as being “neanderthal” in their stand against “choice.” They seldom covered the other topics that the Popes taught on except to ask whether the Church was beginning to “liberalize.” Then midway through the pontificate of Benedict XVI, tactics began to change. The media began to report on Papal addresses and encyclicals by picking out the elements that seemed to mesh well with the desired political slant. His writings began to be promoted as anti-capitalistic and in favor of more government intervention. This tactic was solidly in place when Pope Francis was elected Pope. Even though his actual words did not support it, the media invented an image of a “liberal Pope” who was “overturning Tradition.” And many Catholics bought into the lie.

Another factor was the access to information. We forget that what we take for granted now was not as wide reaching during the reign of Benedict XVI and absent for much of the reign of St. John Paul II. Without the instant access to smartphones and the like with access almost anywhere, we did not have instant access to all the misinformation that now gets transmitted across the globe by a reporter who wants to be first with breaking news about the Pope “changing teaching.” A reporter had to get a copy and actually read the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (or get someone to read it for him) to report on it. Media reports on the documents were quickly followed by in depth Catholic analysis. Information didn’t move as swiftly, so there was more time to respond.

Now, instead of looking to theologians to help explain to people what could be misunderstood, now people think that they can read unofficial translations of quotes—often devoid of context—and understand the “plain sense” of the words. When someone tells them that the context does not justify this, the response is to charge the person of “explaining away” the words. In other words, people don’t want to be told they made a mistake about interpreting the words of the Pope or that they are doing wrong in how they apply them.

So I’d ask the reader to consider this. With all these factors in play, do you really think we can justly claim that the Pope is to blame? Or is it more likely that our own antics in speaking against him are creating far more chaos than anything he said? I’ll be honest. I think the answer is the second one.

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Notes

[1] People today seem to forget that St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were bashed as being “modernists” when they took a stand that these critics disliked. It only changed for Benedict XVI after he issued the motu proprio about the extraordinary form of the Mass.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Calm Down and Discern the Truth

Tell me if this sounds familiar...

Pope Francis has a press conference on a plane trip. The religiously illiterate media, which generally disagrees with Catholic teaching, rushes to get a scoop on something he says and gets it wrong, reporting that the Church is changing her teaching. Catholics read this religiously illiterate news report and assume it is true. They either get excited or get angry over the news. The Catholic apologists begin researching the issue and discovers the media reports are garbage, providing information to the actual translations of the transcripts. The media and the excited Catholics ignore these and continue to repeat the misrepresentation. The angry Catholics claim that the apologists are blind Pope worshippers “explaining away” the actual words of the Pope. Repeat the next time the Pope makes a trip.

When it comes to the Catholic Church in the pontificate of Pope Francis, there are two vocal factions that tend to drown out everyone else. One faction is those people who desperately want the Church to change things from saying “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” The other side is convinced the Pope is a menace out to give the first faction everything they want. Basically both factions look at Vatican II. The faction that wants to change things thinks that Vatican II didn’t change enough and needs to go further. The faction that mistrusts the Pope thinks Vatican II has gone too far and needs to be rolled back.

They’re not the only factions. I don’t think they’re even the largest factions. But they are the loudest and tend to be the most influential on social media. Why? Because when things are stated forcefully, people tend to believe them. So the faction that wants impossible change leads people who agree with them to false hope, and the faction that dislike the Pope leads others to worry that perhaps there is something to their claims. People trying to be faithful Catholics see this fight and begin to wonder whether at least part of the problem is with how the Pope says things or whether he is truly faithful.

It’s a danger which affects Catholics who seek to be faithful to the Church by attacking their faith in the Church. Either they begin to doubt the mercy of the Church (if they’re swayed by those who think the Church should change her teaching) or begin to doubt that the Church is protected from teaching error (if they’re swayed by those who believe the Pope is a heretic). Once these concerns are established, they become the way in which these Catholics view what the Pope says. They tend to start trusting the reports of those who fall into one of these factions and stop reading the actual transcripts or documents.

We do not want to be under the sway of either faction because neither faction speaks the truth about the Church. To use Aristotle’s definition of truth (join in and say it with me boys and girls), To say of what is that it is, and to say of what is not that it is not, is to speak the truth. Since these groups say of what is that it is not, and say of what is not that it is, they do not speak the truth.

So, the next time the Pope appears to say something contrary to the teaching of the Church, the Catholic seeking to be faithful needs to ask a few questions.

  1. Did the Pope, in fact, say what the Media claims he said?
  2. Do I, in fact, properly understand what the Pope actually said?
  3. Do I, in fact, properly understand what the Church has taught in the past compared to what the Pope says today?
  4. Do I, in fact, properly understand that a freaking press conference is not an ex cathedra (or any other kind of) Papal teaching?
  5. Do I, in fact, make sure my political views and personal preferences are not prejudicing my assessment of what the Pope said?

Most of the time, the person who hopes or fears that the Church is changing teachings never considers the possibility of being mistaken. They assume they are correct and that the Church must be in the wrong, concluding that the Church must embrace what they hold to get out of error. In other words, such people trust in themselves more than in the Church God promised to protect. But that is precisely how we must not think!

Because we believe that God has promised to protect His Church, we can trust that the Pope will not invent some binding teaching which will contradict the previous teaching of the Church. We don’t believe the Pope won’t teach error because we believe that the Pope is flawless. We believe it because we believe that God protects His Church. Yes, we’ve had bad Popes in the past (and I reject the claim Pope Francis is one), but such Popes have never taught that evil is good nor that good is evil. They’ve simply not behaved like Popes. We’ve never had a heretical Pope. Even Pope John XXII (commonly cited by those questioning Papal authority) never taught error as Pope. He merely gave a regrettable homily. Yes, he had some wrong ideas about the Beatific vision, but he never intended those ideas to be considered Catholic teaching.

I think that if we honestly consider the list of questions above when we hope or fear that the Pope is “changing” Church teaching, I think we will find that we have to answer at least one of those questions with “No.” I believe that if we recognize that God watches over His Church and can answer the above five questions with “Yes,” we will not have a problem with hoping or fearing that the Pope is going to change Church teaching. We might wish he said things differently perhaps, but we won’t be misled by false hope or fear.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Proportionate Reasons and Voting: Understanding the Ratzinger Memorandum

73. Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. From the very beginnings of the Church, the apostolic preaching reminded Christians of their duty to obey legitimately constituted public authorities (cf. Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–14), but at the same time it firmly warned that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

 

 John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995).

During every election season, we have to watch certain Catholic voters try to justify their intent to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, saying that the Church actually permits their action. So inevitably, people will march out the the words of then Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2004 memorandum on the issue of politicians and whether or not they could receive the Eucharist. The final section of this document, in brackets, addresses the issue of the Catholic that votes for the politician who supports abortion and euthanasia. The words in question are:

[N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.] 

The problem is, people are giving this paragraph an interpretation without even knowing what the terms in question actually mean. Instead, they treat it as if the then cardinal meant that it was OK to do what they feel like doing. But that is not what the terminology means.  There are three categories to consider:

  1. Material Cooperation (as opposed to formal cooperation)
  2. Remote Action (as opposed to direct action)
  3. Proportionate Reason
In order to properly interpret this section of the memorandum, we need to understand what these concepts mean. They’re not mere words. They are in fact categories of moral theology which are used to determine whether or not we should do something. So let us look at each term and see what they mean.
 
Understanding the Terms
 
Those who were going to vote for a pro-abortion candidate anyway (even if not for the issue of abortion) cite this memorandum as if it meant that so long as the person does not vote for the candidate because he is pro-abortion it means a person can vote for him for other reasons the person thinks are important. But that is to miss the point of what material cooperation is. Moral theologian Germain Grisez describes material cooperation this way:

Obviously, if the act by which a person materially cooperates is itself sinful, the material cooperation also is sinful. But even if that act otherwise would be morally acceptable, the material cooperation sometimes is not permissible. Material cooperation in others’ objectively wrong acts involves accepting as side effects of one’s own acts both their contribution to the wrongdoing and its harmful effects; however, one is responsible not only for what one intends and chooses, but also, though not in the same way, for what one accepts as side effects (see CMP, 9.F). In materially cooperating in others’ wrong acts, therefore, a person bears some responsibility, and it is necessary to consider whether one is justified in accepting the bad side effects or not.
 

The engineer, the locksmith, and the legislators of the preceding examples may well be justified in their material cooperation. But suppose the owner of a gun store happens to learn that a regular customer uses guns and ammunition purchased there to fulfill contracts for murder. In continuing to sell the merchandise simply for the sake of profit, the owner would only materially cooperate in bringing about the victims’ deaths, but would hardly be justified in accepting that side effect.
 

Assuming cooperation is material and the act by which it is carried out otherwise would be morally good, the question is whether one has an adequate reason to do that act in view of its bad side effects. Often, one bad side effect of material cooperation is the temptation to cooperate formally. For someone who begins by cooperating materially in many cases already has or soon develops an interpersonal relationship with the wrongdoer and thus is led to deeper involvement, including a sharing of purposes. For example, whenever friends, relatives, or members of any group or society materially cooperate, solidarity inclines them to hope for the success of the wrongdoing which they are helping. Thus, material cooperation easily becomes the occasion of the sin of formal cooperation. Then it should be dealt with in the same way as other occasions of sin (see 4.D.3), and may be excluded on this basis alone.

 

 Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Volume Two: Living a Christian Life (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1997), 441–442.

To apply it to our issue, voting is not a sinful act by itself. But the way we vote may indeed be sinful if we cause harm in doing so. Just because a voter may not be voting for a pro-abortion politician because of their stand on abortion, this does not excuse the voter’s action. One has to consider the consequences of their vote, even though they do not personally support that consequence. Given that abortion in America alone takes over one million human lives each year, that’s a pretty serious reason that has to exist to justify voting for a politician who openly states they will continue to keep this legal.

Likewise, remote cooperation involves actions which do not directly cause the act, but still make it possible for the act to happen. If a person knows the results of his actions will bring about evil, even if unintended, the person has an obligation to try to avoid causing that evil to the best of their ability.

Finally, the term “proportionate reason” does not refer to the personal opinion of what an individual wants. It works more like this—if a limb is gangrenous, removal of that limb is a proportionate reason for amputation. If the limb is healthy, removal of the limb is not justified. So, when it comes to voting for a pro-abortion candidate, one has to ask what sort of condition exists that gives a proportionate reason for voting for a pro-abortion candidate. 

So, when we see then Cardinal Ratzinger’s phrase, “it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons,” what it really means is this:

The action of voting for a pro-abortion politician without directly supporting abortion does make the moral evil possible (material cooperation). That action is remote because, while it does not directly cause abortion, it still makes the continuation of abortion possible. Therefore, a vote for such a candidate requires a reason that justifies electing a person who will defend the right to abort over one million babies a year.

Conclusion

Archbishop Chaput has really laid it out on the line on what this proportionate reason involves, and his description really points out how superficially people have interpreted the memorandum. In 2008, he wrote:

One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false “right” to abortion. We sin if we support “pro-choice” candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so—that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions—as we someday will.

Chaput, Charles J. (2008-08-12). Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (pp. 229-230). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And that is the long and short of it. Exactly what is the reason that is so serious that it justifies temporarily setting aside the fight against the evil of abortion? It would have to be a serious reason. But when you ask the Catholic who plans to support a pro-abortion candidate what this great evil is, they don’t answer. Why aren’t these people sharing their information with the rest of us?

I think what this behavior shows is that the Catholic who votes for the pro-abortion politician “for other reasons” [†] is not really convinced that abortion is such a grave moral evil. Perhaps they give the teaching lip service, but they think that it is only one issue among many. They misuse the seamless garment imagery by promoting the causes they care about as being equally important as abortion, when they are not. Indeed, all other rights depend on the right to life. St. John Paul II made clear that without the defense of life, the rest of the issues become meaningless:

38. In effect the acknowledgment of the personal dignity of every human being demands the respect, the defence and the promotion of therights of the human person. It is a question of inherent, universal and inviolable rights. No one, no individual, no group, no authority, no State, can change-let alone eliminate-them because such rights find their source in God himself.

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fĂ­nds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights-for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. (Christifideles Laici #38)

I’ll leave you with this thought: St. John Paul II called the other concerns “false and illusory” when the right to life is not defended. I think that, if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot call our current partisan political concerns a proportionate reason to justify a vote for a pro-abortion candidate. Yes, all of the current slate of candidates fall short on one issue or another and, regardless of who is elected, we have to oppose that person where they fall short. But we cannot set aside the issue of life in favor of our favorite positions. We cannot let our ideology take priority over our moral obligation as Catholics, even if it means we have to make hard decisions on how to cast our ballot.

 

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Digressions

[†] The Catholic who votes for a candidate because they support “abortion rights” is guilty of formal cooperation with evil and therefore shares in the crime.