Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Thoughts on the Ideology of "Progress"

Some people have a bad habit of praising things they like as “progress” and treating things in opposition to their likes as opposition to progress. Using such labels, it becomes easy to praise or vilify things via the poisoning the well fallacy. Define an idea as “progress,” and label opposition as opposition to “progress.” Portray that opposition to “progress” as “intolerance” and you can portray your opponents as bigots. Regardless of how well they refute the claims of “progress,” society paints them as “bigoted” before they open their mouths. Hence the religious freedom bills which are called “homophobic” on the grounds that they insist on the right to refuse participating in something they call morally wrong. Since “bigotry” is the only moral wrong in today’s society, labeling a person as a “bigot,” the person who opposes what is approved of by society can be ostracized, fired, sued, fined or jailed for daring to disagree.

The problem is, the term “progress” confuses technical progress with the improvement of society in general. We assume that things are better now than in the past, both because technology improves the quality of life, but because we see that a previous moral flaw in society has been eliminated and assume that the present is always better than the past. So people point to medieval concepts of punishment and the American legacy of slavery and segregation and argue that because we don’t do those things now, we have made progress in all areas and the past has nothing to teach us—except perhaps to serve as a bad example.

I believe this is a false view on how to look on things. Technical progress doesn’t mean moral progress. Hitler’s Germany and Stalinist Russia are proof of that. It is a mistake to think of “Past behavior = BAD and Current behavior = GOOD.” What is really the case is that every era (including ours) embraces vicious customs which promote immoral and unjust behavior. In one era, it was burning at the stake; in another era, it was slavery; currently it is abortion, euthanasia, same sex “marriage,” and children born out of wedlock (among others). In the era which is caught up in it, people see nothing wrong with the vice and tend to be hostile to those who oppose it.

Benedict XVI, before he was Pope, wrote about the problem with this assumption, showing that we now have problems that result from problems we did not even have in past centuries:

I recall a debate I had with some friends in Ernst Bloch’s house. Our conversation chanced to hit on the problem of drugs, which at that time—in the late 1960s—was just beginning to arise. We wondered how this temptation could spread so suddenly now, and why, for example, it had apparently not existed at all in the Middle Ages. All were agreed in rejecting as insufficient the answer that at that period the areas where drugs were cultivated were too far away. Phenomena like the appearance of drugs are not to be explained by means of such external conditions; they come from deeper needs or lacks, while dealing with the concrete problems of procurement follows later. I ventured the hypothesis that obviously in the Middle Ages the emptiness of the soul, which drugs are an attempt to fill, did not exist: the thirst of the soul, of the inner man, found an answer that made drugs unnecessary. I can still recall the speechless indignation with which Mrs. Bloch reacted to this proposed solution. On the basis of dialectical materialism’s image of history, she found the idea almost criminal that past ages could have been superior to our own in not wholly inessential matters; it was impossible that the masses could have lived with greater happiness and inner harmony in the Middle Ages—a period of oppression and religious prejudices—than in our age, which has already made some degree of progress along the path of liberation: this would entail the collapse of the entire logic of “liberation”. But how, then, is one to explain what has happened? The question remained unanswered that evening.


 Joseph Ratzinger, A Turning Point for Europe?: The Church in the Modern World: Assessment and Forecast, trans. Brian McNeil, Second Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 24–25.

He raises a good point. The person who believes in the ideology of “progress,” cannot accept that the past could have done anything better than the present and cannot admit that the present has flaws because it abandoned values from the past. Drug addiction is a modern problem with causes rooted in modern times because these times cannot provide for something it has lost.

The fact of the matter is the 20th century, which was touted as the century of progress, was the bloodiest and cruelest in history. Germany murdered six million Jews specifically because of what they were and victimized other groups as well. The Russian purges killed millions (something people denied until the collapse of the Soviet Union), the Chinese Cultural Revolution killed millions, Pol Pot killed over a million. In contrast, the Spanish Inquisition killed maybe a thousand people—over a period of 400 years. If mistreatment and suffering is the opposite of progress, then the “century of progress” was very regressive indeed.

I’m not saying that the era ought to be judged by the number of people killed of course. The point is we need to avoid the post hoc fallacy equating time with improved moral knowledge and assuming we have less evil in our time than in past centuries, and we need to stop thinking that opposition to the vicious customs of our era is opposition to progress. In this context, “Progress” is nothing more than an ideological label used to portray opponents of that ideology as being against progress and being worthy of our ire.

If we want to truly become enlightened as a society, we need to stop evaluating ideas with a calendar and start evaluating them on the basis of whether the assumptions are true, and if the assumptions are false, to reject those ideas.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Thoughts on Catholics and the Major Party vs. the Third Party Debate

Stephen before the council(How we think we look debating others)


I have encountered some hostility between Catholics who debate over whether to vote for a major party, third party, write in or not vote in the 2016 elections [†]. Since all of the candidates seem flawed in a major way in this election, I’m not going to attack their decision as sinful when it is obvious they are seeking to apply the Catholic teaching and their conscience [*] to what is a bad situation. But I do think some of the arguments given for voting their way are flawed and need to be rethought. Rethinking may cause some to change their minds and may cause some to develop better reasons for their positions. My hope is that my fellow Catholics will practice constant discernment of the issue between now and November so they might make the best choice as Catholics on how to vote.

The major dispute over choosing the major party vs. the third party is over who is the worse evil. Some insist there is absolutely a greater evil in the choice between the two major parties. Others claim they are both equally wrong. Those who hold there is a greater evil between the two choices point out that a third party vote is essentially a vote for the party they ordinarily oppose. Those who deny that one is worse than the other essentially say that they refuse to vote for a candidate they see as promoting evil, and since they think the two are the same, they will not vote for either one.

The acrimony over this debate involves the issues of intrinsic evil. The fact is, we have one party which openly champions things like abortion, the contraception mandate, and “same sex marriage” while the other party holds views on immigration, war and torture which are not compatible with the teaching of the Church. In other words, both parties are wrong about some serious things. The argument is over whether one is worse or both are equivalent. The person who holds one is worse than the other generally advocates one party. The person who says they are equivalent tend to support the third party option. 

The Major Party Consideration 

The question a person needs to ask before supporting a major party candidate is, “How does this candidate match up to the Catholic teaching, and are there any disqualifying factors?  The US bishops wrote:

42. As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support. Yet if a candidate's position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.


USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, (2015)

So, we can’t support a candidate solely on one issue while ignoring their stands on other issues, but some positions do disqualify a candidate from our support. Those positions that disqualify a candidate cannot be weighed against other issues as if ten social issues outweighed abortion. As St. John Paul II wrote:

[38] The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds 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.


 John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

The point is, we need to discern which candidate is more likely to work for (or at least less likely to work against) the defense of life. The argument that "candidate X may be pro-abortion, but his positions on other issues make him more ‘pro-life’” is not an argument a Catholic can make.

The Third Party Consideration

On the other hand, the question people who support the third party option need to ask themselves is whether they are giving full consideration to the issues or whether they have a personal repugnance for one of the options that prevents them from being objective. If it is the latter, a person needs to look beyond preference to evaluate the real issues. The reason I say that is because: the third party vote is not a vote free of consequence. About the only way we can have a third party candidate elected president is if America underwent a King Ralph situation, but the third party vote is still influential. Why? Because when a person who ordinarily votes for a major party chooses to vote for a third party, the party he ordinarily votes for gets less votes while the opposing party gets about the same number [§]. The result is often that the major party with voters who defect to a third party will wind up with fewer votes than the opposing major party, resulting in the opposing major party winning the election.

This actually happened in the 2000 elections. In Florida, George W. Bush was elected with a majority of 537 votes. Now regardless of what your views were on hanging chads and butterfly ballots and how the recounts were handled, there is one fact that made this possible—97,488 people who normally voted for the Democratic Party instead cast their vote for Ralph Nader and the Green Party. Given that the Green party is to the left of the Democratic party, few (if any) of those voters would have voted Republican. The vast majority would have probably voted for the Democratic party. If they had, Al Gore would have carried the state by slightly less than 97,000 votes and would have been President over George W. Bush [∑].

We Have to Consider the Ramifications of our Choices—Even if we Dislike the Options

That’s the kind of thing the Catholic opting for the third party vote needs to consider—are they willing to accept the election of the party they normally vote against and all the consequences of not preventing a party that goes against the right to life that goes along with that result? Ultimately, that is a decision of conscience. As Archbishop Chaput puts it:

The fact that no ideal or even normally acceptable candidate exists in an election does not absolve us from taking part in it. As Catholic citizens, we need to work for the greatest good. The purpose of cultivating a life of prayer, a relationship with Jesus Christ, and a love for the church is to grow as a Christian disciple— to become the kind of Catholic adult who can properly exercise conscience and good sense in exactly such circumstances. There isn’t one “right” answer here. Committed Catholics can make very different but equally valid choices: to vote for the major candidate who most closely fits the moral ideal, to vote for an acceptable third-party candidate who is unlikely to win, or to not vote at all. All of these choices can be legitimate. This is a matter for personal decision, not church policy.

Chaput, Charles J. (2008-08-12). Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (pp. 230-231). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

I agree with the Archbishop. If one makes their best effort to discern the truth about the candidates and issues, is informed about the teaching of the Church, and decides that following Church teaching and conscience means support for a major party or a third party vote, then I cannot tell them they are doing wrong. However, if one has not made their best effort to discern the truth and has not struggled over how to best follow Church teaching, such a person has not discerned deeply enough and needs to continue prayer and study over the issues. [ß]

Avoiding Rash Judgment In Debate

As we struggle to decide how to make the best decision in a morally troubling election, we need to avoid attacking and misrepresenting people who reach a different conclusion by following the Catholic teachings. I’ve seen some supporters of the third party option attack Catholics who support a major party of supporting the evil that party does. That is rash judgment. I’ve also seen Catholics who support the third party option attacked as being in favor of the opposing major party. That’s also rash judgment. So is making comparisons between a major party candidate and Hitler.

Nor can the supporter of the third party option belittle the concern over life issues that leads another to vote for a major party. For example, I’ve seen the Catholic voter who supports the third party option say they were not going along with the “Vote Republican or the fetus gets it” argument. That’s nothing more than the Appeal to Mockery fallacy that only ridicules an argument but does not actually refute it.

If a person seems to support a candidate or the third party option for the wrong reasons, then we need to speak up and refute those reasons with charity. But if the person has formed their decision based on the teachings of the Church, properly applied of course, then we must not attack their decision as one of supporting evil or accuse them of being faithless Catholics.


The point is, the Catholic has a responsibility to cast their vote wisely to pursue good and oppose evil. That wisdom requires the voter to consider all the issues (giving them their proper weight) and whether their information is actually correct. What I am concerned about is that people may lose sight of the issues Catholics need to consider, getting so wrapped up in the question of whether a candidate is angelic or scum, that they forget the moral issues that will exist the day after the election which the new president will act on.

I find it significant that the Church mentions the life issues by name. She has made clear that the Catholic cannot treat that as one issue among many, to be set aside at will by the voter in favor of other issues. So I’ll conclude by asking each voter (regardless of whether they choose a major party or the third party option) to consider this: Is a voting decision based on the moral teaching of the Church? Or based on personal preferences and dislikes? Have we properly understood the Church teaching? All of us have a moral obligation to evaluate our behavior honestly, knowing we will have to answer for our efforts before God.




[†] For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to lump third party, write in candidate and not voting all in under the heading “third party option” because the results are the same.

[*] Of course this article assumes that a person is intending to sort out the moral quandaries in choosing to vote in accord with the Church teaching. If a person intends to support a candidate regardless of what the Church teaches and merely cherry-picks the Church teachings to legitimize what they planned to do anyway, they do wrong.

[§] Recognizing there will be variants of course in numbers of voters.

[∑] I recall during the campaigning before the 2000 elections, Nader supporters said there was no real difference between Bush and Gore. I imagine they found out otherwise after the election was resolved.

[ß] I think what makes this so hard for is is the fact that when a person makes a choice we disagree with, we tend to automatically assume that choice is made contrary to Church teaching. Given that some Catholics do support immoral candidates or positions out of ignorance or from rejecting Church teaching, it is easy to leap to that conclusion. But we must not do this.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Reflection: Christianity vs. the Idols of Society

Christians to the lions

Christianity, believing God exists and that we must always seek to know, love and serve Him, sometimes finds itself at odds with a society which embraces values which reject what God commands. When that happens, we discover that the one unforgivable sin in society is choosing to obey God rather than men. I’m of the view that this happens because people don’t like to be told they are wrong in how they choose to live. If someone should dare to be a living witness to the fact that the values embraced by society are wrong, the society wants to silence that witness. 

I believe Christianity receives this hostility because it is denouncing the idols of society. Sometimes those idols are literal, like the Roman Empire. Sometimes those idols are false ideas and values that deceive people into doing evil and calling it good. Either way, societies react badly when the Church says “I will not burn incense at your altar.” However, while some individuals may compromise, the Church herself cannot, and neither can the members who seek to be faithful to Our Lord. The Church is not called to conform to the world, but to lead it away from idolatry to the truth of God.

This isn’t a surprise which comes from nowhere. Our Lord warned us in several places that they would hate us on His account and we should not expect otherwise. 

18 “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. 20 Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 And they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin; but as it is they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me also hates my Father. 24 If I had not done works among them that no one else ever did, they would not have sin; but as it is, they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But in order that the word written in their law might be fulfilled, ‘They hated me without cause.’ (John 15:18–25.)

These words of Our Lord are a good reminder in these times. I read the newsfeeds and the comments in them and see a demonic hatred directed at people who take a stand for God’s truth. Laws passed to protect the Christian from being forced to do evil are vilified as promoting intolerance, while laws, executive orders and court rulings that assault the Christian for daring to oppose the idols of society are willing to sacrifice the virtues the society was founded upon.

That’s nothing new of course. In the Second Century AD, St. Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Emperor, Antonius Pius, offering a defense of the Catholic faith and appealing to the virtues valued by the Empire to give Christians a just hearing to see if they had done anything wrong before assuming guilt just because the accused was a Christian. St. Justin pointed out that the Empire could not be just and condemn people on the sole grounds that they were Christian. Ultimately, the Empire chose to persecute Christians over behaving justly. The fact that we call him St. Justin Martyr testifies to that.

Likewise, America has the same choice to make. She can either choose to live by the virtues that she was founded under or she can target Christians for refusing to bow down to idols which calls evil “good.” The behavior of our political and cultural elites, our laws and our court rulings show that our nation is making the wrong choices. Christians can be ostracized, taken to court, fined or even jailed for refusing to go along with the idols of our society. When we point out that our nation is behaving unjustly when it makes these decisions, the response is to state that we deserve our fate because we will not bow down to those idols. Instead, like the Romans did in pagan times, they accuse us of being “enemies of humanity” that need to be silenced.

Yet, even though they try to silence us, we cannot be silent. We are called to convert that society, not write it off for damnation. Our Lord gave us the Great Commission:

18 g Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20).

So, when they hate us because we will not accept the vicious customs of society and tell them a better way to live, we must make sure that our witness is not lost in bitter words over our unjust treatment. I think the words of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Cum multa, should be a reminder of how we respond in sharing and defending our faith:

[#15] We exhort them to remove all dissensions by their gentleness and moderation, and to preserve concord amongst themselves and in the people, for the influence of writers is great on either side. But nothing can be more opposed to concord than biting words, rash judgments, or perfidious insinuations, and everything of this kind should be shunned with the greatest care and held in the utmost abhorrence. A discussion in which are concerned the sacred rights of the Church and the doctrines of the Catholic religion should not be acrimonious, but calm and temperate; it is weight of reasoning, and not violence and bitterness of language, which must win victory for the Catholic writer.


 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 78.

Our witness must be made in both what we say and how we say it so we might not lead those who hate us into thinking we say one thing and do another.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Church on the Authority of Civil Rulers

In 1881, in the midst of attacks of the nation-states on the Catholic Church, Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903) issued the encyclical Diuturnum on the authority of civil governments. In it, he lays down the source and the scope of that authority. Far from being an anarchistic document or demanding the establishment of a theocracy, Pope Leo XIII indicated that a legitimate government with legitimate laws has the right to be obeyed. However, that government does not have absolute authority over every aspect of life. There are paths which a government might be tempted to take but, if they make that decision, their authority vanishes. His encyclical, Diuturnum, says:

15. The one only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated. If, therefore, it should happen to any one to be compelled to prefer one or the other, viz., to disregard either the commands of God or those of rulers, he must obey Jesus Christ, who commands us to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and must reply courageously after the example of the Apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” And yet there is no reason why those who so behave themselves should be accused of refusing obedience; for, if the will of rulers is oppsed to the will and the laws of God, they themselves exceed the bounds of their own power and pervert justice; nor can their authority then be valid, which, when there is no justice, is null.


 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 54.

The point is, governments are ruled by persons, and people are sinners by their nature. So those who legislate or rule can make bad decisions which go against what God commands and how He designed the universe to function. When they cross that line, the faithful Catholic has the obligation to say “No” to the state, even if there are consequences. The obedience to God comes first. This is ultimately why the Church has been forced to speak against our government—against the contraception mandate, against the redefinition of marriage, against abortion and many other unjust actions.

Governments, being ruled by  and ruling over sinners, have a strong resistance to being corrected when they do go against Divine or natural law. The most common solution is to try to make the Church appear to be an enemy of good because she refuses to go along with the government’s attempt to redefine good and evil. She is accused of “imposing her views” on others. She is charged with being intolerant to some group of the population, and of course the legal practices of previous centuries are cited as if the Church invented and forced them on an unwilling world.

Take the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which is being sued on account of their refusal to comply with the contraception mandate and refusal to use a proxy to comply with this mandate. Many people attack them for refusing to just go along and fill out the paperwork authorizing an insurance company to issue contraception coverage separately. But Catholics simply cannot choose to do evil and they cannot authorize someone to act on their behalf to do evil. So, in this case, a person or group which believes that this government mandate goes against the laws of God cannot take part in this without putting themselves in opposition to God.

The non-Catholic or the lax Catholic might not care, might not think God cares. But even if one rejects the Catholic moral teaching, the Constitution does not give the state the right to determine which religious beliefs are important and which religious beliefs can be ignored. The only limitations the state can pose on the practice of religion is the limitation based on protecting the public good (this is why the arguments citing hypothetical religions practicing human sacrifice or white supremacy are red herrings).

Given that the Little Sisters of the Poor have been in existence since 1839 and serve in 31 countries caring for the poor and dying elderly and this only became a problem for the government during the last seven years, one can argue that the religious practices of this religious order has not violated any public good. The only thing it violates is the ideological preferences of the government—and the Catholic teaching on these issues existed long before Europeans ever encountered the lands that now bear the name of America.

To try to compare the religious practice of Catholics in rejecting contraception as evil to the acceptance of slavery by some Christians in the United States is also a red herring. The Catholic moral teaching condemns the notion that one may treat another human being as less than human. Those Catholics who were guilty of racism were not following Church teaching. They were following the vicious custom of 16th to 20th century America (it’s similar to how Catholics today can practice the vicious customs supporting abortion as a “right” even though the Church condemns it as intrinsically evil).

So what we have is a standoff. On one side, we have a philosophy of government that believes it can dictate to practitioners of a religion which one of their beliefs they can follow and what constitutes a violation of that religion. On the other side, we have a Church that professes to be the Church established by Christ and given the authority to bind and to loose in His name. From the perspective of the informed Catholic, this is no contest. The Church has the authority and the responsibility to make known what behaviors are in keeping with or in opposition to God’s law—even if those who are in opposition are the rulers of the earth.

But the Church does not intervene in such cases because she wishes to veto anything that is new. She instead seeks to carry out her mission to evangelize the whole world and encourage them to turn back to Christ. As Leo XIII also said in Diuturnum:

26. The Church of Christ, indeed, cannot be an object of suspicion to rulers, nor of hatred to the people; for it urges rulers to follow justice, and in nothing to decline from their duty; while at the same time it strengthens and in many ways supports their authority. All things that are of a civil nature the Church acknowledges and declares to be under the power and authority of the ruler; and in things whereof for different reasons the decision belongs both to the sacred and to the civil power, the Church wishes that there should be harmony between the two so that injurious contests may be avoided. As to what regards the people, the Church has been established for the salvation of all men and has ever loved them as a mother. For it is the Church which by the exercise of her charity has given gentleness to the minds of men, kindness to their manners, and justice to their laws. Never opposed to honest liberty, the Church has always detested a tyrant’s rule. This custom which the Church has ever had of deserving well of mankind is notably expressed by St. Augustine when he says that “the Church teaches kings to study the welfare of their people, and people to submit to their kings, showing what is due to all: and that to all is due charity and to no one injustice.”


 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 56–57.

That means Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are among those to whom the Church is reaching out to to encourage them to turn to God and accept Him. They are not exempt from hearing the teaching of the Church and they are not beyond the pale of being reached out to. They may refuse to listen, and they may hate us for refusing to compromise. But that neither changes the teaching nor the mission of the Church.

Monday, March 21, 2016

In Times of Trouble, Remember The Lord

Way of the wickedSee how the wicked string their bows, fit their arrows to the string
to shoot from the shadows at the upright of heart
[Psalm 11:2]

It is easy to feel depressed or discouraged about the state of the world. Whether it is news of the persecutions of Christians overseas, news of injustices by our government against the faithful of the Church, or the moral quagmire of the 2016 election season, it is easy to see all of the negative actions at work against us and fear we will be overcome by evil. It seems even more discouraging to see our fellow Catholics behaving with hostility when their views on what should be done differ from ours. It’s also a temptation for us to find a scapegoat when things go wrong. The Pope should have said more about X, the bishops shouldn’t talk about Y, it’s the fault of the modernists, the traditionalists, the establishment, the outsiders, the conservatives, the liberals, the Democrats, the Republicans...

Whew! We could pass out from lack of breath blaming the people who are responsible for the state of the Church, the world or the nation. But when we face these times of trouble, we need to make a decision. Will we focus on the troubles we perceive? Or will we focus on the One who is mightier than all of these troubles?

I am a person who likes to read the old Church documents and histories of the Church. As a result, I see other crises that the Church has faced. Other overt persecutions, legal injustices and the like. For example, I’m reading currently about the Arians and the emperors who supported them, riding roughshod over the Church. It’s a dark time when the orthodox Catholic faith was against the ropes. Bishops, and even Popes, were exiled for standing up for what was right.

But God protected His Church. No doubt the Church suffered at the hands of the unjust, and individuals were even martyred, but the Church is Catholic, not Arian.

I think this is what we need to remember. The Church is attacked. Some are martyred. Many face some level of hardship. Some abandon the faith for error. These are serious trials. Throughout these trials, some urge us to compromise a little bit. Others blame the shepherds for the fact that there is hardship. But these things always were a part of being faithful to Our Lord. Indeed, He promised us we would be hated for following Him.

So, when we struggle against injustice or feel outraged at the fellow Catholic who publicly causes scandal. we need to turn our eyes to Our Lord and trust that whatever He asks us to endure, it is not too much for us. We need to constantly look to what we do and set aside that which is unjust and that which distracts us from our true calling.

That doesn’t mean we need to be passive in the face of error or persecution. Obviously we are called to call the world to living in a way that is right. But we’re not God. We can’t bestow grace on anyone. So we might be attacked for our efforts. But we cannot become indifferent to suffering or embittered when we feel a lack of support. We must trust in God that whatever evils befall us, He is not on some coffee break and he is not ignorant of what is befalling us.

This is why, when we see (or experience) injustice, we must continue to have Trust in Our Lord, no matter how bleak it may seem to our eyes. Remember that to the Apostles, Good Friday looked like a day of defeat for the One they trusted. But it turned out that Our Lord achieved victory in a way far beyond what they could hope for.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Quick Quips: On Speaking and Acting Rightly

I think it is time for another edition of Quick Quips because there are a number of problematic behaviors appearing that are incompatible with our Catholic faith that Catholics seem to be in danger of adopting.

Justice Requires Us To Act Justly Even if Others Act Unjustly

In Plato’s Republic, there is a discussion about justice. One of the guests (Simonides) discusses the nature of justice when it comes to giving a person his due and describes it as "it is that which renders benefits and harms to friends and enemies.” (Republic, 332D). During the course of the discussion, Socrates demolishes this assumption, pointing out that justice is about doing right to a person, regardless of whether the person is a friend or an enemy. That shouldn’t be a surprise to the Christian. We believe our Lord told us:

31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit [is] that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. 35 But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:31–36.)

The point is, even if someone we oppose is evil, that person’s wrongdoing does not justify their foes in doing evil in return. Many Christians, especially in election years, may shrug off that retaliation as “Karma’s a b*tch” or even cheer on wrongdoing when it happens to a foe. In the most extreme, we see this mindset when a deranged person kills an abortionist and the response is, “He deserved it.” In lesser extremes, we see politicians condemned for using a tactic when it inconveniences us but cheer it when it benefits us.

But that’s exactly what we must not do. If we believe something is wrong, and condemn it when a foe does it, we must not support it or laugh when an ally does it. If something is wrong, we must not do it. Finding excuses on why the situation is not exactly the same and therefore justifies the slightly different situation is just splitting hairs. Of course we need to make certain that the substantial differences do not outweigh the similarities (the fallacy of the irrelevant analogy), but compiling differences that are merely appearance is not substance. Nor can we object on the grounds that we just don’t want to face the same inconveniences our opponents suffered (that’s the fallacy of special pleading).

When it comes to politics, people may think that benefitting friends and harming enemies is the way of the world, but as Christians, we’re called to a higher standard of behavior, and we’re not to sink to the level of the world.

For Better or Worse (They’re not About the Same Thing)

In discussions, we tend to talk in terms of comparisons. We say that A is better than B or that X is worse than Y. As long as we are using the same scale of comparison, there is no problem with making factual comparisons or even offering opinions on the subject. But what we must not do is confuse them. If we are saying A is better than B, it does not mean B is worse than A. Likewise, if we say that X is worse than Y, this does not mean that Y is better than X. In other words, if a person makes a statement of comparison, it is unjust to change his words. So the person who says A is better than B cannot be accused of saying B is worse than A.

That’s because the two words are two different comparisons. Better means “a more favorable degree." Worse means “a more unfavorable degree.” Therefore, when a person chooses the term “better,” he is speaking about the nature of which is more positive. To accuse him of saying the less favorable one is worse is to put words in the mouth of the speaker that were not intended.

For example, The Church teaches that rape is worse than consensual fornication, but that both are mortally sinful and condemned. The person who would try to argue that "the Church says consensual fornication is better than rape” would be speaking nonsense. The Church says both are evil and neither can ever be done. The fact that one does greater evil does not justify calling the one that is not as extreme “better.” The point is that the Church cannot be accused of saying “fornication is better than rape.” She didn’t say that!  She didn’t offer approval of fornication in making that comparison.

I bring this up to make a comparison. I think people are forgetting this however in day to day life. When it comes to the political debates, I have seen people offering the view that Candidate A is worse than Candidate B. Then someone comes along and says “So you think Candidate B is better? What about this, that and the other? How can you be OK with that?” Again, the person making the comparison between politicians isn’t saying that one candidate’s evil positions are worthy of support. He’s saying that he views one candidate’s views as being more serious in terms of doing harm to others and does not downplay the other candidate’s evil.

Tying these Together 

I mention these issues to make a point about how we behave towards others. In times of controversies (and the elections certainly are that) it is easy to justify wrongdoing and to speak falsely about a foe. It’s also easy to misinterpret and draw conclusions about a politician or a fellow voter that they never intended to say. The political system has low expectations and promotes savaging weakness—at least when it happens to the foes—and grossly distorting an opponent’s position. But we who profess to be Christian cannot do this. We must treat those who hate us with the same love and justice that we treat those who love us. We must do to others the way we would be treated—even if they do not return the favor.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Faithful Catholics Divided on the Election. Reflections on a Passage by Archbishop Charles Chaput

There is no doubt that this election is going to be a difficult one for people who are appalled by the statements made by our major candidates. They are asking questions along the lines of “who can I vote for in a good conscience?” Unfortunately, these people are often being accused of bad faith to the point of not caring about the issues the accuser finds important. Confusing the issue is the fact that some people are supporting candidates for reasons contrary to Catholic teaching or are supporting a candidate for reasons which seem superficial and flippant. It is easy to confuse people in the first category with people in the second. Another problem is that some confuse questioning one candidate with supporting another. This results in many people feeling on the defensive over having their orthodoxy challenged while also believing that people with different views are not orthodox Catholics. It’s a vicious circle.

I think that a passage from a book written by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in 2008 is especially relevant here. 

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.

Finally, here’s the third question. What if Catholics face an election where both major candidates are “pro-choice”? What should they do then? Here’s the answer: They should remember that the “perfect” can easily become the enemy of the “good.”

The fact that no ideal or even normally acceptable candidate exists in an election does not absolve us from taking part in it. As Catholic citizens, we need to work for the greatest good. The purpose of cultivating a life of prayer, a relationship with Jesus Christ, and a love for the church is to grow as a Christian disciple— to become the kind of Catholic adult who can properly exercise conscience and good sense in exactly such circumstances. There isn’t one “right” answer here. Committed Catholics can make very different but equally valid choices: to vote for the major candidate who most closely fits the moral ideal, to vote for an acceptable third-party candidate who is unlikely to win, or to not vote at all. All of these choices can be legitimate. This is a matter for personal decision, not church policy.

Chaput, Charles J. (2008-08-12). Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (pp. 229-231). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

I think his insight here is wise and worth heeding even though he makes clear he is not exercising his episcopal authority in this book. He makes clear that to support, without a reason that outweighs the evil, a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil is to sin. But, if the Catholic finds both candidates support the intrinsic evil, he must still make a choice. That decision might be different for each person, but if it is reached by being faithful to the Church teaching, another Catholic cannot condemn him just because they reached a different conclusion than the first.

What has to be avoided is legalism, paying lip service to Church teaching as an excuse to justify a vote one was going to make regardless of what the Church said. One has to seriously consider the evils of both sides and what consequences follow from one’s vote. Are we sure that the reason we vote for one candidate over the other really outweigh the evil that candidate will do?

It’s understandable to be skeptical. In previous elections, we have had people argue that voting for a pro-abortion candidate was actually the more “pro-life” activity because of their stands on other social justice issues. But, in refutation, St. John Paul II made clear that support for those “other issues” was meaningless if the candidate was pro-abortion:

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds 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.


 John Paul II, Christifideles Laici #38 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

So, we see that a Catholic can’t say “well, he’s sorta pro-life even though he supports the right to kill unborn children."

The problem we have in 2016 is that on one side we have candidates who actively call good what the Church calls intrinsically evil while, on the other side; we have candidates who support other issues the Church calls evil due to the motives and circumstances. There are also reasons to question the sincerity of some candidates. If a candidate has a reputation of oscillating back and forth on the issues, how do we know that the commitment will remain? It’s like the play A Man For All Seasons where Sir Thomas More says:

Listen, Roper. Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you’re a passionate— Lutheran. We must just pray, that when your head’s finished turning your face is to the front again.

Bolt, Robert. A Man For All Seasons (Modern Classics) (Kindle Locations 580-582). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

It’s not wrong to ask which way a candidate is going to wind up if they should get elected. But we do need to remember that there are faithful Catholics who have different views on which way things will wind up and, provided they follow the Church teaching sincerely in doing so, they are not choosing to endorse evil if their discernment turns out to be wrong.

But that is the key people are forgetting. Yes, there are Catholics who support a candidate for unworthy reasons. Yes, there are times when we do have a clear choice as to who is better. But if it turns out that neither situation applies, then we have to recognize that one faithful Catholic may feel that only choice A is acceptable while another may feel that only choice B is acceptable. In this case, I believe our task as Catholics is to reach out to those voting because they support an evil position or have a insufficient reason for voting for the one who supports evil. We do have the Church teaching to point to.

But, when the decision is not clear, Catholics can try to explain why they think their own position is better, but they cannot elevate that opinion to Church position to give that opinion authority it does not have (the reason why I do not offer my political opinions on my blog is to make sure nobody thinks I am usurping the authority of the Church to justify my own position).

So there’s our task. We seek to correct people (charitably) who hold views contrary to the Catholic teaching. We can seek to persuade people to do what we think is a better position when there is room for different opinions and we must pray that we are open to the truth and do not deceive ourselves or misjudge others.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Thoughts on Mercy and Elections

I recently discovered the writings of the “Forgotten Pope,” Pope John Paul I, who reigned for just over a month in 1978 before dying. While his body of work was very small, I find he had some insightful things to say. For example, in an audience on September 20th, 1978, he told this story of a personal experience:

Some one will say: what if I am a poor sinner? I reply to him as I replied to an unknown lady, who had confessed to me many years ago. She was discouraged because, she said, she had a stormy life morally. “May I ask you”, I said. “how old you are?”


—“Thirty-five! But you can live for another forty or fifty and do a great deal of good. So, repentant as you are, instead of thinking of the past, project yourself into the future and renew your life. with God’s help.”


 John Paul I, Audiences of Pope John Paul I (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).

I read this and I think of the rage that is raised among Catholics over his successor, Pope Francis. People are outraged that he does not denounce the sinners from whatever platform he is given. But when I consider the words of John Paul I, I think of what he hopes to accomplish in this year of mercy. I don’t think Pope Francis plans to let anybody go on sinning. I think he is calling people to cease sinning and renew their lives with God’s help.

Then I think about the modern American political climate which Catholics are a part of. How many of us think of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as evil incarnate, laughing at their misfortunes and consigning them to hell, either publicly or mentally. Why don’t we pray about their conversion to what God wants them to be (which may not be what we want them to be) and what they could do for the Kingdom of God?

Some might say this is impossible. We cannot say that it is impossible however. We do not know if our reviled candidates are refusing God’s grace or if God has not yet given them that grace. What might have happened if Christians had written off St. Augustine when he was a Manichee living a life of immorality? What might have happened if Christians had written off Saul of Tarsus when he was persecuting Christians. At those times, people would have thought the salvation of these men was impossible. The point is, we do not know what God wills for any individual and we cannot refuse to be a vessel of grace if God calls us to be one.

This also applies to the supporters of these politicians. 2016 is shaping up to be a very vicious election where even people who profess support of one party are fighting each other in a way that lacks the charity we are called to display. Yes, our choices this year are bleak and yes people feel strongly about who they think is the worse evil. Yes, I am even seeing Catholics who, hitherto, have been staunch supporters of Catholic teaching, say things to justify their political choices which I find morally appalling. But we cannot give up on these people.

That doesn’t mean we be a doormat and go along with their ideas when we think them in opposition to the Church or just accept abusive insults by such people. But it does mean that how we respond must be in keeping with what our Lord commands. Sure, we might even have to go so far as to block a person in order to prevent a torrent of abuse swarming our social media. But even in those dire cases, we cannot give up on them and hate them. At the least we must pray for them—and not in the sense of “Lord, please make this person stop being a damn idiot” either. I mean in the sense of “Lord, please make this person what You want him to be, even if it is not what I want him to be."

Yes, that is hard. It’s easy for me to go on Facebook, roll my eyes and mutter about what idiots I think people are. It’s easy to get so caught up in the exchange of the debating that I forget that the person on the other end is a human being loved by God. But that is what God calls us to remember—that the politician we despise or the supporter we exchange words with is someone who God desires to be saved just as much as He desires our own salvation.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Catholics and the Ideology Trap

It's no secret that factions try to hijack Church teaching to either try to give their political platform credibility (if they are similar) or to discredit the Church (if they are opposed). For example, the Church teaching on caring for the poor is hijacked into either equating this teaching as a mandate to vote for a party platform or to indicate that the Church is being biased and therefore should not be heeded.

In America, both parties use both tactics, and some members of the faithful who want to promote a politcal cause will misquote Church teaching a way that makes it appear as if the Church is changing...either to praise the party or discredit the Church by accusing them of "becoming political."

For people who get caught in it, this is nearly an airtight trap. It leads one to either think that fidelity to one political faction is fidelity to the Church, or to claim that they are being faithful to Our Lord or the earlier Church over the Church today.

This happens in two different ways. In one case, we have obvious schizophrenia where the US bishops are simultaneously called left-wing and right-wing by foes of different positions. But a new tactic is emerging,  One where both factions react to accounts from the secular (and religiously illiterate) media and ignores what they ignore. As a result, people are ignorant of the fact that Pope Francis is just as firm in defending Catholic moral teaching as his predecessors, and his predecessors were just as firm as Pope Francis on social justice.

For example, I recall a debate on Facebook with a woman who angrily wanted to know why Pope Francis never mentioned the plight of Christians in the Middle East when he spoke about injustice.  She was shocked when I produced an address by the Pope pleading for the world to help these Christians and retracted her objection. She literally didn't know the Pope had spoken about this.

People forget that ALL news media is partisan. It's easy to deride "Faux News" or MSNBC, but the entire media is biased. If a person is unaware of this, they will not realize that a distortion IS a distortion.

The remedy for partisanship is to recognize that a political position must be judged by the Church,  NOT the other way around.  We must remember that deploring abortion is not "right wing" and deploring the treatment of migrants (legal or not) is not "left wing."

I believe that we must change our method of thinking. We must stop assuming that secular reports about Church teaching are accurate. We must first seek to understand what the Church intends to teach. We must reject an arrogant overconfidence in our ability to interpret what we think is the "plain sense" of a document (if I had a dollar for every time someone with a wrong interpretation appealed to the "plain sense" of the document,  my student loans would have been paid off years ago). We must realize that our perspective as 21st century Americans (or Europeans etc.) may lead us to interpret words in ways that the Church NEVER intended.

In such a case, the Church is not at fault for "speaking unclearly" (a common charge). Rather WE are at fault for assuming that the Pope is thinking like a 21st century American.  It's pretty arrogant to assume our cultural experience is normal.

I believe that, for us Catholics, we must step back from our dualistic political views where Left and Right become Right and Wrong. We must start thinking of the Church as Mother and Teacher again and apply her teachings to the issues of the World. That means rejecting the tendency to view Church teaching as a political platform and accepting the view that all politics need to be re-formed (and thus reformed) by Christian belief that doing good in relation to God, neighbors and self is to be sought and evil rejected.  When it comes to the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we need to stop thinking like the Pharisee.

It means we must stop thinking of politicians as evil incarnate when they have the "wrong" letter (D or R) after their name and stop making excuses if they have the "right" one. Regardless of your opinions on Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, we have to think of them as fellow sinners who God wishes to save as much as He wants to save us.

That means when the Pope shows compassion to a person on the "wrong side" of the political divide, we don't assume he is blessing the party platform of our opponents. It also means we don't assume he gives carte blanche endorsement to our political platform when he says something our party agrees with.

What it boils down to is that the Christian must constantly assess themselves, turning away from evil and back to God. It means we must pray that our hidden faults are revealed to us and for the grace to change our ways.

This, I believe, is the remedy to the trap of ideology.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Insightful Quotes

My laptop seems to have partially survived (thank You God) an involuntary attempt to install java (handle on a coffee cup broke, spilling the contents on the keyboard and requiring it to be left off for 72 hours). So I was able to expand my readings this weekend. Doing my readings, I found little nuggets of insight that I just want to share. It's a reminder of the treasure trove of graces that God provides us through His servants.

Cardinal John Henry Newman

You sometimes hear, for example, of Catholics falling away, who will tell you it arose from reading the Scriptures, which opened their eyes to the “unscripturalness,” so they speak, of the Church of the Living God. No; Scripture did not make them disbelieve: (impossible!) they disbelieved when they opened the Bible; they opened it in an unbelieving spirit, and for an unbelieving purpose; they would not have opened it, had they not anticipated, I might say hoped, that they should find things there inconsistent with Catholic teaching. They begin in pride and disobedience, and they end in apostasy.

(Discourses addressed to Mixed Congregations p162-163)

Pope John Paul I

A certain British preacher MacNabb, speaking in Hyde Park, had spoken of the Church. When he finished, someone asked to speak and said: “Yours are fine words. But I know some Catholic priests who did not stay with the poor and became rich. I know also Catholic husbands who have betrayed their wives. I do not like this Church made of sinners." The Father said: “There’s something in what you say. But may I make an objection?”—“Let’s hear it.”—He says: “Excuse me, but am I mistaken or is the collar of your shirt a little greasy?”—He says: “Yes, it is, I admit.”—“But is it greasy because you haven’t used soap, or because you used soap but it was no use?” “No”, he says, I haven’t used soap.”

You see. The Catholic Church too has extraordinary soap: the gospel, the sacraments, prayer. The gospel read and lived; the sacraments celebrated in the right way; prayer well used, would be a marvellous soap, capable of making us all saints. We are not all saints, because we have not used this soap enough.

(Audience,  September 13, 1978)

Archbishop Charles Chaput

Tolerance is a working principle that enables us to live in peace with other people and their ideas. Most of the time, it’s a very good thing. But it is not an end in itself, and tolerating or excusing grave evil in a society is itself a grave evil. The roots of this word are revealing. Tolerance comes from the Latin tolerare, “to bear or sustain,” and tollere, which means “to lift up.” It implies bearing other persons and their beliefs the way we carry a burden or endure a headache. It’s actually a negative idea. And it is not a Christian virtue. Catholics have the duty not to “tolerate” other people but to love them, which is a much more demanding task.

(Render Unto Caesar p. 145)

Pope Benedict XVI

...I would insist that statistics do not suffice as a criterion for morality. It is bad enough when public opinion polls become the basis of political decisions and when politicians are more preoccupied with "How do I get more votes?" than with "What is right?" By the same token, the results of surveys about what people do or how they live is not in and of itself the measure of what is true and right.

(Light of the World,  p.146)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Quick Quips: Bad Perspectives Edition

Just a Pinch of Incense, 2016 Style

I ran across comments attacking the Little Sisters of the Poor over their lawsuit against the Obama administration concerning the contraceptive mandate.  The derision comes from people who say that it is a lot easier to check a box than to fill out paperwork for a lawsuit.

That argument is remarkably similar to the one used by pagan Roman officials who argued that all a Christian needed to do was "burn a pinch of incense" before the state altars--that is, make a token acknowledgement of the values of the State.

The problem was, the pinch of incense was not a mere gesture.  It meant that the Christian was acknowledging the "gods" of Rome as equally valid as the God worshipped by Christians.  No Christian could do that without being unfaithful to their beliefs.

Similarly,  the "checkmark" is not a mere gesture. It is an action that makes the Little Sisters empower another group to do evil on their behalf.  They cannot do this without being unfaithful to the God they profess to follow.

In neither case can Christians accept the "accommodation" the State offers.  It is no accommodation at all. It is an attack on Christian belief and practice.

Rank Hypocrisy from the Rank and File?

Consider Tobit 4:15... "Do to no one what you yourself hate." I think we can apply it to cheering tactics we deplore when applied against our foes. Remember 1 Corinthians 13:6... Love  "does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth."

I am saddened when I witness Catholics respond to the election news. I see Catholics who deplore the rudeness and racism of Donald Trump respond with racism and rudeness.  I am dismayed to see people who denounced violence at Trump rallies sneer when it comes to Trump having to cancel his appearance at a rally because of unrest.

I must ask these Catholics: If you recognize that what Trump does is wrong, why do you respond in kind and rejoice when he suffers the same?  Schadenfreude is no Catholic virtue!

One can justly oppose Trump's ideas, rhetoric and tactics (in fact, I do).  But when one embraces them or rejoices in them when directed against him, that is not Christian witness to virtue.  It's rank hypocrisy. Let's remember that, as Christians, we are called to witness the Kingdom of God in all aspects of our lives.

Tying it All Together

Both of these cases strike me as coming from an attitude of "do good to my allies and harm to my enemies." In other words, do what benefits me and to hell with you if you disagree.

To which, Our Lord Jesus replies, "For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?" (Matthew 5:46-47).

All people are called to seek out the truth and to live it when discovered. That means discarding false slogans and ceasing to use/cheer immoral tactics even if they seem to benefit us.

Now,  we cannot compel people to choose good. We can only strive to create just laws and seek to show people why we ought to live rightly at the level they can understand. Sometimes people will refuse to listen. But let us reject the tactics of the World to achieve our goals. Otherwise they will simply see our beliefs as partisan and will not see the Truth Who powers them.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Brief Thoughts on Papal Gaffes and Non-Magisterial Statements

One thing to always keep in mind is the extent of Papal authority. By this I mean we neither downplay an actual authoritative statement of the Pope or elevate something which is merely a private opinion of the Pope. Popes can speak about the issues of the world where they are not theologically binding and were never intended to be seen as a teaching in the first place. There are many examples of this in recent times. For example, St. John Paul II and his Crossing the Threshold of Hope, or the unfortunate kissing of the Qur’an. Or Benedict XVI and his Jesus of Nazareth, the (unfortunate) comment about the “male Prostitute with AIDS” in Light of the World and his misunderstood Regensburg Lecture. And yes, Pope Francis and his brilliant The Name of God is Mercy, and his controversial news conferences and interviews. I could go back further and discuss the laws of the old Papal States or the Vatican policies with different nations through history. Some of those laws and policies are embarrassing when viewed today. But they weren’t magisterial teaching and an error there does not make the Pope a fraud or heretic.

I say again, whether these things are properly understood or misunderstood, they are not any part of the teaching authority of the Church, and must not be used to judge a Pope's fidelity to the Catholic faith, even if a he should commit a gaffe or carry out an unwise policy.

This isn’t a modern occurrence. We had a controversy back in the Middle Ages where the Pope of the time—John XXII [*] (reigned 1316 to 1334)—spoke in sermons on a theme he had written on prior to his election concerning the beatific vision.

John XXII(Pope John XXII)

In these sermons (and pre-Papal writings), John XXII described the beatific vision (seeing God) as something which would not happen until the final judgment. Until that time, people’s souls slept. This issue had not been formally defined as of this time, but a majority of theologians at the time held that the souls of the departed did see God after death. So this was a concern. Was the Pope teaching that that what was commonly held by Catholics was actually false?

The answer was, no. John XXII said he had not had any intention to formally teach on the subject and actually called on theologians to study the issue. The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its entry on John XXII, describes the affair this way:

In the last years of John’s pontificate there arose a dogmatic conflict about the Beatific Vision, which was brought on by himself, and which his enemies made use of to discredit him. Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical. A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope’s view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on the matter (November, 1333), and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter. In December, 1333, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision

So, the Pope was offering his private opinion and, when given good reason to abandon his opinion as not being true, rejected his former view in favor of one which fit better with Scripture and Tradition. The only people who tried to tar him as being heretical were those groups who were rebuked [†] (such as the “Spiritual Franciscans” or Fraticelli who held to a rigorous interpretation of the Rule of St. Francis) and wanted to discredit him. He was not a heretic, but some who want to discredit modern Popes cite him as an example of a “heretical Pope."

I think there is a lesson there to be learned. The Pope can make a gaffe just like any other Catholic. He can even say something in a non-teaching which is theologically dubious. But that’s not heresy. Canon Law gives us a good definition here:

can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.


 Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247.

The key words are obstinate and divine and Catholic faith. If the Pope commits a gaffe which might be interpreted by some as supporting error, the question is, does he obstinately hold to it? Or is he just being unclear and not intending what the people claim he means? It’s only when someone digs in their heels and refuses correction from the magisterium that he or she becomes a heretic.

So, why do I bring this up? Because some people are concerned about the current Pope and the fact that some of the things he says in his press conferences seem unclear without deeper study [§]. Some would actually accuse the Pope of being a heretic on account of that confusion (on the part of some) as to what he means. Other Catholics who want to be faithful feel unsure when presented with forceful arguments and begin to doubt.

That’s nothing new. The case of John XXII shows that gaffes do exist throughout history but those gaffes do not prove the existence of heretic popes. That’s not because every Pope was perfect or geniuses (they weren’t). It’s because we trust God to protect the Pope from teaching error in a matter involving our salvation. The Pope isn’t teaching in a binding manner in a press conference or a private book or the like and we should stop thinking that he is and stop accusing him of error.




[*] Not to be confused with St. John XXIII. The two popes lived reigned over 600 years apart.

[†] Does this sound familiar compared to today?

[§] Which few ever attempt. Most of his critics insist on what they call the “plain sense” of his words and label any deeper study as “attempting to explain away.” But keep in mind St. Peter warned the Church that St. Paul wrote on things not easy to understand which “the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16). So the “plain sense” is not always the true sense.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

When a Little Knowledge is Dangerous

When it comes to Church teachings that are unpopular, the common tactic is on one side of the coin to dismiss them as old teachings and point out how some teachings have changed from the past. People argue that If the Church changed teaching X, she can also change her teachings on contraception or divorce/remarriage. On the other side of the coin, when it comes to actions of the Church that people wanted to remain as they were, the common tactic is to appeal to the old writings and argue that they are irreformable and attempts to make changes are heretical.

These two attitudes demonstrate the truth of the adage, “A little knowledge is dangerous.” In both cases, the proponents cite a portion of a Church document with the intent to demonstrate that the Church has changed with the purpose of undermining the authority of the Church. The only difference between the two is that one cites it with the intention to alter other teachings (claiming that the Church’s refusal to change is unjustified) while the other cites it with the intention to reject changes they dislike.

I believe both groups display a lack of understanding about the Church and how she teaches. The fact is, when the Church teaches something is to be done or not done, we need to discern the moral absolutes that the Church holds always and the elements of what the Church mandates as how to follow the Church teaching when facing certain evils of a particular time.

The Case of Usury

For example, it is popular to cite the “fact” that the Church “changed her teaching” on lending money at interest. Since the Church seems to have changed from saying lending money at interest is a sin to saying it is not, the argument is that any Church teaching can be changed. The problem is this argument is based on a false understanding of what the Church taught. For example, Pope Benedict XIV wrote in the bull Vix pervenit (published in 1745) that, on one hand it is usury to loan money to a person in need with the intent of charging interest, but on the other hand he warned against extremes:

III. By these remarks, however, We do not deny that at times together with the loan contract certain other titles—which are not at all intrinsic to the contract—may run parallel with it. From these other titles, entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract. Nor is it denied that it is very often possible for someone, by means of contracts differing entirely from loans, to spend and invest money legitimately either to provide oneself with an annual income or to engage in legitimate trade and business. From these types of contracts honest gain may be made. (Vix pervenit #3)


 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1740–1878 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), 16.

In other words, the Church did not change her teaching on usury. She merely recognized that there were some circumstances—not existing in the past—that permitted a legitimate return on investment. So, as I understand it, if somebody comes to me and says, “Dave, I need $20 for gas so I can drive to the hospital and see my sick child,” I would be committing usury if I said in reply, “Sure, just pay me back $30 next week.” But I wouldn’t be committing usury if I invested money in stocks or bonds, expecting interest in return. I’ll leave it to theologians to decide whether modern credit cards and payday loan companies commit usury (I’m inclined to think the latter certainly do), but the point is, the Church considered the changes to the ways economics worked and determined that investment was not the same thing as usury—though she would condemn usury disguised as investment.

It doesn’t always work that way. For example, in 1960, The Pill was invented. It worked differently than the traditional barrier methods of contraception, and people were asking whether that meant it was not contraception. So the Church investigated the question, “Is the pill contraception?” It soon turned out that the answer was yes. It still intended to take the sexual act and frustrate the potential of pregnancy. So Blessed Paul VI issued the encyclical affirming that all contraception was wrong. [†]

These examples are why I am not alarmed when Pope Francis calls for an investigation into an issue (for example, the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried). The fact that a question is asked does not mean that a change will be made. In fact, when it came to the question being raised at a press conference [*], the Pope replied,

Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration. 

For all of the fears and false hopes about the synod of the family changing Church teaching, it turned out that the Pope had no intention to change Church teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” He merely did what Benedict XIV and Blessed Paul VI did—he consulted with theologians to determine if the changing times involved new situations that were not covered by previous documents.

The Cases of Denouncing Recent Teaching from the Church

There are also cases where individual Catholics object to the teaching of the Church in the period from 1958 [When St. John XXIII was elected Pope] to the present, on the grounds that these things contradicted Church teachings from the past. It is argued that these earlier teachings were irreformable and therefore the changes must be heretical. This ranges across many issues. The Vatican II document on religious freedom [§], Blessed Paul VI making changes to the Mass and so on.

In these cases, people overlook the fact that even when the Church teaches on irreformable doctrine, there are elements where the Church is making disciplines which apply to certain times but the successors to the Chair of Peter can change if they determine a single dispensation or an overall change of practice is needed. For example, Benedict XIV ruled, “The Roman Pontiff is above canon law, but any bishop is inferior to that law and consequently cannot modify it.” (Magna nobis #3). Some two hundred years later, Pius XII would point out that when it comes to changing practices, “If it was at one time necessary even for validity by the will and command of the Church, every one knows that the Church has the power to change and abrogate what she herself has established." (Sacramentum Ordinis #3). [∞]

Here’s an example. In 1769, Pope Clement XIV issued a document on avoiding the appearance of simony, and seeking to reduce corruption in the Church. Now the evils of simony and corruption are not something which will change with time. If a member of the clergy demands money for performing a work of the Church, that is always wrong. [∑] However, the things Clement XIV discusses in Decet quam maxime involves all sorts of discussion of what sorts of fees could be collected and by whom. He talks about aureus and obols and junios. Coins were once used in the Papal States, but no longer exist (just try to work out the rate of exchange for an 18th century obol to a modern Euro for example). When a future Pope decides to make changes to the rules set in Decet quam maxime, he will not be changing the teaching of the Church on simony. He’ll simply be applying the teaching of the Church to the conditions that exist in modern times.

This is how changes can happen in the Mass. The Mass is of vital importance to the Catholic. No Pope could abolish the Mass or change the meaning of the Eucharist. But some people confuse the discipline of the Mass with the essence of the Mass. St. Pius V reformed the Mass in 1570, abolishing rites less than 200 years old (Quo Primum). Some Catholics interpret the words of this bull... 

Therefore, no one whosoever is permitted to alter this notice of Our permission, statute, ordinance, command, precept, grant, indult, declaration, will, decree, and prohibition. Would anyone, however, presume to commit such an act, he should know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

…as if it meant that nobody in the Church could make any changes to the Mass. But his successors did make changes to the Mass. Changes were made in 1604 (Clement VIII), 1634 (Urban VIII), 1884 (Leo XIII made official the changes since 1634), 1920 (Benedict XV, completing the work of St. Pius X), 1955 (Pius XII, radically changing the Mass for certain holy days) and 1962 (St. John XXIII, implementing the changes of Pius XII). That’s not even counting the changes between the first century AD to St. Gregory the Great. Basically, it’s a cycle of changes are made, and then the missal is eventually revised to implement all the changes between editions.

The point is, nobody the time understood Quo Primum to mean the Mass was irreformable. The successors of St. Pius V did not consider themselves heretics in making changes. [ø]. The objections that “denied" Blessed Paul VI the right to make changes to the Mass tend to be ignorant of those facts.

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

That ignorance is ultimately the problem. Both tactics try to create the appearance of a break where there is no break. The appearance of a break only seems to be there if one is not aware of all the facts of the case. The danger comes because the person who does not know all the facts is unaware of the fact that he or she does not know. When a person is aware that they do not know something, they can learn. But when a person is ignorant of the fact that they do not know, it never occurs to them to see what the facts are. Thus they can build elaborate theologies of dissent without ever considering the possibility that they are the ones in error.

The remedy is to stop assuming that one’s personal knowledge and interpretation of Church documents is sufficient to pass judgment on the teaching authority of the Church. When one sees a conflict, the first task is to see if one’s own understanding is correct. The next step is to determine what the truth actually is, and how the Church herself understands the document. Catholic theology is not done in the same way as “the plain sense” that some Protestants ascribe to Scripture. We believe that to understand a Church document, we need to read it in the sense that the Church understands it and not assume that the Pope and the magisterium has somehow forgotten or chose to ignore the older documents.

In the over a quarter century since I first began my studies of Catholic theology, one thing I have learned has stuck with me: Just because one cannot personally find an answer to a seeming conflict does not mean the Church has no answer. Sometimes it has taken me years to find the needed information, but I have always found out that the apparent conflict did not exist when studied. It was that searching that led me to realize that when I haven’t found the right answer yet, the solution was to trust that the Church had an answer which I had not discovered yet.

The reason for this is, instead of trusting in my own knowledge or in the personal holiness and wisdom of the individuals in charge of the Church, I trust that God keeps His promises to protect His Church. I have never been let down in this trust.



[†] Unfortunately part of the commission issued to study the issue exceeded their mandate and argued “Yes, it’s contraception, but the Church should change her teaching.” They had no right to do this and the Pope was under no obligation to make their abuse into Church teaching.

[*] Literacy and research skills seem to be lacking nowadays when people misinterpret these things. People tend to give full weight to the media rushing to scoop their competitors by sending out quotes without context, and then use those reports to interpret the actual transcripts that are released later when they should be evaluating the reports by the transcripts.

[§] Judging by reactions, people never bothered to read it. Otherwise they would have read the part in Dignitatis Humanae about:

First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you” (Matt. 28:19–20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. (DH #1)


 Catholic Church, “Declaration on Religious Freedom: Dignitatis Humanae,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

[∞] I have encountered some people who, legalistically, try to limit these documents to only applying to one specific case: the minimum canonical age for marriage (in Magna Nobis) or whether the imposition of hands was enough for ordination (Sacramentum Ordinis). However, in both cases, the Popes assumed that they had the authority to change how Church disciplines were to be applied in a given time.

[∑] I’m of the opinion that Pope Francis’ speaking about eliminating fees for annulments altogether is not just based on avoiding a barrier to getting an annulment but is also based on the concern that some people think of it as “buying” an annulment.

[ø] The principal weakness to the appeal to Quo Primum is that we have had these missals existing uncontested. If the Mass of 1570 was irreformable, then any changes by Popes would have been heretical. Some try to counter this by saying it was the same Mass since the time of St. Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 to 604) but this gnores the existence of valid Masses before his pontificate that had differences in form.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

On Considering the Good and Evil Consequences

The thing that troubles me during this election season is seeing how many of us seem to be willing to set aside aside the obligation to discern the right and wrong of an issue. Instead our discernment involves stopping at the point where we find a justification for something we planned to do anyway or else we give only a superficial analysis and ends up overlooking things of importance that might have led us to a different conclusion. In writing this, I don’t intend to make myself the judge of how a specific individual formed their conscience. I only ask that people avoid being careless or otherwise flippant about their moral responsibilities when it comes to voting.

St. Thomas Aquinas once described the purpose of law this way:

Hence this is the first precept of law, that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided. All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II q.94 a.2 resp).

The determination of good and evil is not a moral calculus where you decide to give a certain weight to some issues and a lesser weight to other issues. That kind of thinking usually ends up going in the direction the individual tends wants it to go in the first place. That’s rationalization used as a smoke screen because we tend to weigh issues according to our preferences, and not as they stand in God’s eyes.

The real question is whether this issue is good or evil in the eyes of God. Some things are evil by their nature and can never be justified regardless of circumstances. Other actions depend on circumstances and intention to determine whether an action is good or bad. What we need to do is to consider our actions in light of the way we are called to live and is made known to us by the Church. We should always keep in mind what Lumen Gentium said in ¶14:

All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.


Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

In other words, because we have a Church established and graced by God, we have no excuse if we live in opposition to what she teaches and claim to be obeying God in doing so. Because of this, we have an obligation to keep the love of God and the teaching of His Church in mind when assessing how to act.

Unfortunately, I think that we, as Catholics, forget this. We tend to approach the selection of our political leaders in terms of partisan preference. Something is considered wrong when it inconveniences us and right when it benefits us. The Church teaching is considered unrealistic or it is cherry picked to select the portions that justify what we were going to do anyway, or it is used to bash the person with a different opinion. That’s not listening and learning. That’s just quote mining.

What we have to do is look at the choices which are available—ALL of them, not just the palatable ones—and consider what we must need to do to remain faithful to Christ. Sometimes that means we have to choose an action that is good even if it costs us. Sometimes it means we have to accept suffering to avoid doing evil. But we must always remember that we may never choose evil so good may come of it. That’s why we should never be reckless or impulsive in choosing what to do.

That’s why the Catholic has to consider the realistic consequences of an action while avoiding putting God to the test. Sure, I could blow a thousand dollars on lottery tickets in the hopes of winning, but that’s not a realistic result and would likely leave me worse off than if I had not spent any money on the lottery in the first place. Trying to invoke God on a gamble is to try to place the responsibility on God where it is not His responsibility to act. If we have faith in God to deliver us from evil, part of the responsibility is to practice prudence so we don’t choose to get into situations that harm us.

If we seek to do good and avoid evil, we will consider the consequences of our actions to the best of our ability and determine whether the consequences of our action help build the Kingdom of God or whether it hinders this building. That means in terms of voting in the elections, we don’t vote our instincts or our politics. We vote with our faith to guide us. This means asking “Why?” Why do we hold to certain preferences? Do we always hold to our moral obligations? Or do we set them aside when it suits us?

I don’t ask this in the gotcha sense of “if you don’t agree with me personally, you’re a bad Christian.” I ask it in the sense of “how sure are you that you are following Christ instead of your own self will?” Self deception is easy. We need to pray that we be delivered from evil.