Thursday, August 25, 2016

Focus, People...

So, Catholics on social media spent a week savaging each other. Rhetoric ramped up and charity was rather scarce. But the case everybody was fighting over was the opportunity, not the cause, for our civil war to erupt. Whether conservative or liberal, Catholics had a whole list of topics they were already fighting over. This incident merely gave everybody an excuse to ramp up the vitriol, accusing people who took the opposing side of everything wrong with the world. OK, fine. Both sides worry about how people are behaving . . . but the problem is, people take offense because it’s their heroes or causes getting targeted, and they’re willing to use the same tactics against their enemies. But since I already wrote about that, I won’t carry that any further. 

The problem is, while we’ve been having our civil war, we’ve been neglecting the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Fighting over who is being most loathsome on social media is not leading others to Christ. In fact, it’s probably doing more to drive people away and lead them to think we don’t practice what we preach. My question is this: What are we doing to carry out our mandate as Catholic Christians, and how does our online behavior advance it?

No, this post isn’t going to be one about “Spend Less Time On The Internet!” The Church has recognized the value of media and the rapid advances made in the 20th and 21st centuries, and encourages Catholics to make use of it to evangelize the world. As Benedict XVI put it:

Among the new forms of mass communication, nowadays we need to recognize the increased role of the internet, which represents a new forum for making the Gospel heard. Yet we also need to be aware that the virtual world will never be able to replace the real world, and that evangelization will be able to make use of the virtual world offered by the new media in order to create meaningful relationships only if it is able to offer the personal contact which remains indispensable. In the world of the internet, which enables billions of images to appear on millions of screens throughout the world, the face of Christ needs to be seen and his voice heard, for “if there is no room for Christ, there is no room for man”  [Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini #113].

So, when we spend time on social media, we need to ask ourselves how we’re making known the face and voice of Christ in our words and actions. That doesn’t mean we’re doing wrong when we share stupid puns and other things. But in what we say and do, we have to consider the message we send. Assuming it’s not a morally neutral area, like cute cat pictures, we need to ask: Does it advance the Kingdom of God? Or does it drive people away? I think the difference between the first and the last is whether the message or the tone shares the Christian teaching and/or shows Christian love and charity, or whether it shows things against what the Church teaches or treats people in a way which is against the command to love our neighbor as ourself.

As always, this is not a case of only conservatives being to blame or only liberals being to blame. It’s about Christians behaving like the rest of the world (see Galatians 5:20). The problem is, Christians are not supposed to be like the rest of the world and have a disordered love for it. We’re called to be the Light of the World, Salt of the Earth, the City on a Hill (Matthew 5:13-16). It’s not just about converting people, but converting cultures as well. The problem is, it’s easy for us to become corrupted if we forget our task as Christians.

Now I’m no bishop with the authority to bind and loose. All I can do is point to our call as Christians to follow the Church because we believe she is the Church established by Christ. All I can do is encourage people to deeply consider what Our Lord has called us to be and contrast that with what we actually are. If we find it is different. That’s a wakeup call to repent and turn back to the Lord. It’s not my task to tell you, the reader, where your flaws are. Most of you, I never met face to face. How would I know what your sins are? I only know you have flaws because, like me, you’re a human being and therefore a sinner. So all I can do is urge you to look to the Church to form your conscience and see where you need to change.

Because this isn’t about winning a Facebook argument. This is about the salvation of souls—ours and others. As St. Paul said:

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:1)

If we don’t have love for each other, we can’t witness the Christian message to the world. If we can’t witness the Christian message, people won’t respond to the Great Commission. Obviously we argue about the faith because we think it is important. So we need to consider the ultimate goal when we consider how we should act. Our focus should be on God and on following His Church to bring people knowledge of Our Lord and His command to follow Him.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Catholic Tribalism at its Worst

Over this weekend, a couple of famous Catholic bloggers lost their jobs with a prominent Catholic newspaper. But this article is not going to be about them. I only mention it because the aftermath does involve what I want to talk about—the partisan behavior of American Catholics who judge by what they prefer and not by what is true. In such behavior, we see Catholics split into two basic camps:

  1. The faction of “I support X”
  2. The faction of “I oppose X”
There is no third side. This is a case of “You’re with us or against us!” in their minds. If you won’t accept their view, you find them placing you on the opposite side. This is how the bishops get accused of being too liberal and too conservative at the same time. 
To the partisans in these groups, their side is on the side of angels and the other side is on the side of demons. They justify or downplay whatever their side does. Whatever their opponents do gets twisted into willful malicious evil done to cause harm. Who’s in the right? In most cases, neither side. Oh sure, the conflict might start because someone did or taught wrong—but at other times it revolves around misunderstandings. Either way, that’s a side story to the mutual recriminations where each faction thinks the others are scum of the Earth. Because the other side doesn’t see it “our” way, it must mean they support the wrongdoing by the extremists on the other side.

This is the wrong way to approach this. As Catholics, our task is to be faithful to Our Lord and the teachings of His Church—under the leadership of His vicar here on Earth—the Pope, carrying them out to the best of our abilities. Sometimes there can be different ways to be faithful to Church teaching on a subject, and sometimes the faithful can disagree on the best way to carry out Church teaching. So long as a side does not try to evade Church teaching but follows the Church sincerely, these differences can exist without sin. In such cases, it is unjust to accuse others with a different idea on how to be faithful of being faithless.

At other times, sometimes individual Catholics or groups do go wrong. Either they knowingly choose something the Church teaches as wrong, or they don’t understand the Church teaching. They think the shepherds of the Church must be wrong because the bishops don’t see it their way. In that case people are choosing wrong, though I leave it to God to judge the culpability, and do not pretend to know their intentions. In that case, we must oppose people in error, though we must oppose them in charity, not with insults and wild claims.

And in both cases, Tribal Catholics get it wrong. In the first case, they take offense when someone says, “I do not think your plan is the best way to handle this.” Because they equate their position with all that is decent, whoever disagrees must not care about Church teaching, the poor, the unborn, etc. In the second case, a faction who supports something against Church teaching (for whatever motive) assumes that the Church intends harm to whoever is at odds with the teaching. In such a view, support for the Church can only be partisan or dogmatic rigidity. So they attack the Church on one side for not caring about women because she opposes abortion and contraception. On the other side, they accuse the Church of supporting illegal immigration because the bishops object to an inhumane policy on immigration.

So long as a Catholic clings to a tribe mentality, they're closed to considering anything that suggests their positions or heroes are wrong. Criticism is, ironically, considered partisan when it targets these things. What's vital to remember is both sides in a tribal war are guilty. When we put our tribal idols first, we're blind to considering whether we’ve gone wrong. It's only when we recognize our own sinfulness and turn to God, seeking His grace, that we can learn to do good. As St John Chrysostom said in a homily:

A first path of repentance is the condemnation of your own sins: Be the first to admit your sins and you will be justified. For this reason, too, the prophet wrote: I said: I will accuse myself of my sins to the Lord, and you forgave the wickedness of my heart. Therefore, you too should condemn your own sins; that will be enough reason for the Lord to forgive you, for a man who condemns his own sins is slower to commit them again. Rouse your conscience to accuse you within your own house, lest it become your accuser before the judgment seat of the Lord.

Catholic tribes can't do this because they think their sins are little compared to the "other side.” That’s what’s dangerous. Being a Christian means a constant turning towards God and away from the sins we were blind to. If we would escape the tribe (and we must strive to do so, praying for God’s grace to succeed), we must be open to considering whether we've fallen into error through ignorance, habit, or pride. We need to consider whether our heroes have gone wrong in comparison to what the Christian life demands. 

First, that means we have to make sure we know both all the facts and what the Church teaches. If we don’t do that, we risk falling into error, wrongly tolerating error, or wrongly accusing someone of error. If the Church allows leeway, we don’t condemn a person for taking it. if the Church forbids something, we don’t make excuses for going against it, claiming it is closer to the Catholic position in spirit. We look to the magisterium to guide us, and we seek to understand. We don’t make ourselves a judge of the “plain sense” when the Pope and bishops make this decision on how to apply the timeless teachings in a certain time.

Second, even when someone errs (for whatever reason or motive), that is not a signal that all moral obligations of justice and charity get tossed out the window. We need to speak truthfully and accurately. For example, being in error is not the same thing as being a heretic. The heretic knows and obstinately refuses to accept Church teaching. The person in error may sincerely think they are being faithful to Church teaching. If we respond in harshness, we may drive a person into the error we want to pull him out of.

Escaping Catholic tribalism means recognizing we can be wrong, and that we must look to the Church for guidance, and respond to others with love and mercy. Sometimes our ideals are false idols. Sometimes our heroes can go wrong. In these cases we must choose: Do we sacrifice mercy and justice to our tribal feuds? Or do we sacrifice our tribal feuds to mercy and justice as God commands? We should consider that carefully the next time a fellow Catholic behaves badly or the next time someone opposes our heroes. We should consider carefully whether our tribal loyalties put us at odds with Our Lord and His Church.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dissent Masquerading as Conscience

People seem to think conscience is how we feel about something. If we like something, it is not a violation of our conscience. If we dislike it, we believe it goes against conscience. From there, anyone who tries to make a moral judgment of an act is accused of “violating a person’s conscience.” That’s a false understanding though. Conscience isn’t a feeling or a preference. A feeling says “I feel fine about this.” Conscience says, “You must not do that.” In fact, conscience often compels us to go against what we want to do and tells us what we must do. The Catechism describes conscience as:

1778 Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law: (1749)

Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise.… [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.

When conscience tells us something is morally wrong, we cannot disobey our conscience and perform that act. But that being said, conscience is not an infallible guide. Whether through (among other things) ignorance, cultural blind spot, or falling into vicious habit, we can become deaf to the call of conscience or even wind up thinking evil is good. The person who, through no fault of their own, is ignorant about some moral truth (called invincible ignorance), does not sin in following a conscience in error. But if a person could learn if they bothered to look does not have this excuse and has some level of guilt for their actions. As Gaudium et Spes #16 tells us:

Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

As Catholics, we need to remember we do not have the excuse of invincible ignorance. We profess that the Catholic Church was founded by Our Lord who gave her the authority to teach in his name. We believe that she shows us how to truly live the Christian life (Matthew 28:20). If we do not avail ourselves of this gift from Our Lord, we are without excuse for the wrong we do. As Lumen Gentium #13 tells us,

They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” 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.

What this means is, when the Church teaches how we need to live, we cannot appeal to conscience against the magisterium. We measure the formation of our conscience against the teaching of the Church, not the teaching of the Church against our conscience. When a bishop speaks out on the morality of a subject, he is not violating our conscience if it makes us feel uncomfortable. If he’s making us feel uncomfortable, perhaps he is awakening an awareness of where we have gone lax. But as Catholics we believe those who lead the Church have the authority and responsibility to speak out, as the Catechism teaches:

2032 The Church, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” “has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth.” “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”


2033 The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors. Thus from generation to generation, under the aegis and vigilance of the pastors, the “deposit” of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity. Alongside the Creed and the Our Father, the basis for this catechesis has traditionally been the Decalogue which sets out the principles of moral life valid for all men.

2034 The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are “authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice.” The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for.

So, to argue that those entrusted with forming our consciences are violating them, because they teach that X is wrong, is to speak dissent as well as nonsense. 

Even if a bishop should speak with a lack of charity or gentleness in his teaching (as opposed to the person in the wrong being offended), this does not take away from his teaching office. Of course the bishop or priest should be careful not to discourage the sinner when he speaks out against the sin, but harsh words do not change truth into falsehood. Remember, we’re not talking about priests or bishops teaching heresy or other dissent. We’re talking about teaching what we are bound to believe.

[Edit: Reader Colin Leicht made a good point on Facebook that bears addressing. A bishop or priest who, on account of fearing to hurt our feelings, avoided teaching the truth would be preventing us from forming our conscience properly.]

But what if he does not speak as a bishop? It happens at times. Archbishop Chaput recently wrote on the sorry plight of this election, speaking it as “thoughts from a brother in the faith, not as teachings from an archbishop.” In such a case, he makes clear that he is not making a binding teaching, but speaking just as a fellow Catholic. Even here, we should treat the bishop’s words with respect, recognizing his personal learning and the personal grace provided him by God. In doing so, he explains the problems we should think about and we would be foolish not to consider what he says. I won’t put what he says on par with a teaching from the Pope. But I find his words helpful all the same.

Because the Church forms our conscience properly, we cannot claim conscience as an excuse to disobey the teaching authority of the Church. When the bishop teaches in communion with the Pope and says “X is a sin,” Catholics cannot accuse him of violating conscience with their teaching. If we find that what our feelings and preferences tell us go against Church teaching, that is a sign that our own conscience is malformed and needs to be corrected.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thoughts on Two Errors in Catholic Voting


One of the most troubling things about Catholics debating right and wrong is that sometimes that debate gets misdirected. Instead of looking at our calling as Christians, we look at what the Church says through the lens of political preferences. People tend to accept or reject the Church over whether the teaching seems to be in line with their political positions. People tend to confuse their political preferences with what the Church teaches, or misinterpret Church teaching to justify what they want but actually justify what the Church has no intention of supporting. The first is harmful to Christian charity. The second deceives people into supporting evil in the name of a "greater good."

I. Fighting over Legitimate Differences of Opinion

The first ugly problem I see is when Catholics confuse thinking about what the Church teaches with the way we prefer people should apply Church teaching. They are two different things. For example, look at what St. John XXIII wrote in 1963:

11. But first We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of illhealth; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.


 John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1963).

I suspect, while reading this, many started thinking about certain political parties and their platforms, praising one and condemning the other based on their preferences. What makes this dangerous is people are condemning others without cause, not because they reject the Church, but because they reject one proposed political solution. Yes, sometimes, political platforms embrace things the Church warns us are evil (we’ll get into that below). Then we have to oppose the platform, whether we work to reform it from inside the party or rejecting the party and walking away. In such a case we cannot excuse the immoral position, or evade our obligation to oppose it. When the Church says “X is intrinsically evil,” a party which calls the act good, or a right is at odds with living as a Christian, and we must oppose them.

But the Church does not endorse a specific political platform on how to carry out her teaching, and sometimes Catholics falsely accuse each other of rejecting Church teaching when it is more a case of one Catholic thinking the second Catholic’s preferred plan won’t work. We have to be honest with ourselves. We can’t cherry pick the Church teaching to find convenient phrases to justify what we want to do anyway. We have to be sincerely trying to seek out and follow Church teaching when we support legislation or candidates.

One Catholic may think that a particular political proposal will better promote social justice in America. A second may believe the harm it causes outweighs the good claimed. If both are sincere and have their conscience properly formed by the Church, neither sins for not favoring the approach of the other and it is unjust of accusing them of disobeying the Church.

II. Falsely Claiming a Right to Support A Candidate who Favors Evil in the Name of a Good

On the other side, we have to understand that conscience is not the same thing as feelings or opinions. Conscience tells us about what is right and wrong about an act. Our opinions and feelings can mislead us by sentiment, or an imperfect knowledge of the facts. A person may not feel that he does anything wrong. But conscience formed by the Church tells us something is a grave evil and we cannot treat it as a lesser concern just because we like the candidate’s other positions. A person who does not know that Church teaching must form conscience but sincerely seeks to do right might make a mistake in pursuing the good. The Catholic does not have that excuse. 

Since the Church made known to us we cannot use an evil means to cause good (see CCC #1789), we have an obligation to consider the action we want to use and the goal we want it to achieve. If will the evil in means or goal, we cannot use the action without sinning. If we don’t intend the evil, we have to assess if it outweighs the good intended. If the unintended evil outweighs the intended good, we cannot do the act without sinning. We cannot support an action that violates the rights of the human person—and the Church defines life as the fundamental human right—we can only tolerate it prevent a greater evil against that right to life. Our task is to limit the evil done if we can’t stop the evil outright:

4. The complex array of today’s problems branches out from here, including some never faced by past generations. Scientific progress has resulted in advances that are unsettling for the consciences of men and women and call for solutions that respect ethical principles in a coherent and fundamental way. At the same time, legislative proposals are put forward which, heedless of the consequences for the existence and future of human beings with regard to the formation of culture and social behaviour, attack the very inviolability of human life. Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard. John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a «grave and clear obligation to oppose» any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them. As John Paul II has taught in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, «an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality»


 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2002).

This is a good rebuke of a popular misconception. Some Catholics believe they can vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil as a “right” on the grounds that his other policies will make fewer people want to avail themselves of that “right.” That reasoning is usually a post hoc fallacy that assumes the candidate’s other policies will cause the decline in abortion, and does not consider other possible reasons for the decline, such as the declining birth rate (many countries are now below replacement levels) and the success of pro-life laws. 

The problem is, even if these policies did make intrinsic evils less necessary do not change the fact that politicians think these intrinsic evils are good and want to defend them, which goes against what Christians need to do—make known to the world the need for salvation and how we need to live to follow Our Lord. Maybe the world will resist what we have to say, but that doesn’t change our obligation. If we vote for politicians who promote intrinsic evils, how convincing will we be when we claim to be against those evils?

That’s the problem of scandal—an attitude or behavior that leads another to do evil. If we don’t practice what we preach, people will decide our practices are easier to follow, even though our words claim we value Church teaching. Our Lord’s words on scandal are not pleasant ones to hear (Matthew 18:6-7). So, if we want to bear witness, we’ll make sure we consider the message our actions send, making sure they match up with our words. That means squaring our political preferences with our Catholic faith, not the reverse.


In this election cycle, neither major candidate could be called good, and even the largest minor parties support intrinsic evil. Most have endorsed things the Church condemns as unjust. As a result, Catholics are scrambling to salvage the best way to limit evil. Unfortunately, we’re greatly divided and observers, understandably, not only have a hard time seeing what American Catholics actually believe, but would have a hard time recognizing Tertullian’s description of how the earliest Christians were seen:

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death.


 Tertullian, “The Apology,” Chapter XXXIX, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 46.

I believe Catholics need to be more aware of the meaning of what the Church teaching, not presuming that we know enough to reason out on our own something unfamiliar to us when we have the Church as mother and teacher. Between now and November, we need to study and pray—to know God’s will and to deal with each other in charity. We should make clear witness of the Catholic teachings that guide our decisions, while striving to avoid bad judgments through misunderstanding.

Our choices may be bad, but we have the opportunity to witness to what is right in charitably discussing the what we believe.

Friday, August 12, 2016

On Church Teaching, Voting, and Abortion

These are fundamental principles: No matter what the Christian does, even in the realm of temporal goods, he cannot ignore the super natural good. Rather, according to the dictates of Christian philosophy, he must order all things to the ultimate end, namely, the Highest Good. All his actions, insofar as they are morally either good or bad (that is to say, whether they agree or disagree with the natural and divine law), are subject to the judgment and judicial office of the Church. 


—St. Pius X, Singulari Quadam [#3]


Some men, indeed do not attack the truth wilfully, but work in heedless disregard of it. They act as though God had given us intellects for some purpose other than the pursuit and attainment of truth.


—St. John XXIII, Ad Petri Cathedram [#17]


Are we willing to live as the Church teaches, regardless of the cost to ourselves? Or will we look at Church teaching to find loopholes that let us do as we will?

If we believe that the Catholic Church is the Church Our Lord created, then it follows that the Catholic Church teaches with His authority. So not listening to the teaching of the Church is not listening to God’s command. This is a reality which is easier to apply to somebody else than it is when we have to obey it ourselves. That’s why I think if we want to encourage people to listen to the Church in great matters, we should listen to the Church on small matters. I don’t mean that in a pharisaical sense of legalism. I mean it in the sense of practicing what we preach. If we grumble at the bishops over relatively minor matters, why should they listen when it comes to harder teachings of morality? In other words, we should live as the Church teaches, testifying that we obey her because we believe God is with her and protects her.

This would be easier if we weren’t affected by original sin. What we want and what God calls us to be are sometimes far apart. This is true in our personal life and social interactions with others. When we want something at odds with what the Church teaches, it’s easy to rationalize playing the Pharisee who uses the letter of the law to avoid the spirit that inconveniences us.

Living as the Church Teaches Means Learning What the Church Teaches

Since our Church has the right and responsibility in determining the right and wrong of our actions, we should seek to understand what she intends in her teachings, not what meaning we can wrest to our own benefit. When the Church teaches we cannot do X, we must not try to find loopholes to evade this command. That’s especially important in an election year. Politicians openly advocate things the Church calls evil. No political party is God’s party. Each fails in some way, and our task is to seek the true good and limit evil when we vote, and speak out when our elected officials choose evil.

The problem is, there are many possible ways to follow Church teaching in the temporal world and we can disagree with each other in some ways without violating Church teaching. There are also acts which violate Church teaching, but people appeal to a false sense of compassion that treats accepting the sin as if it were the same thing as forgiving the sinner. We must avoid condemning the person who obeys the Church but reaches a different plan on the best way to follow. We must also avoid treating disobedience as obedience.

On Abortion: Living as the Church Teaches in a Controversial Election Year

Take the obligation of defending life. The Church makes it clear that abortion is an unspeakable crime that kills an unborn child. No doubt some women are in dire straits and think this is their only choice. We’re called to help those women whether there are government programs or not. But whether or not there are government programs, that does not change the fact that abortion is incompatible with living as the Church teaches and we must oppose it even when we help those women in need.

Our actions in voting and in helping others must reflect the Church teaching that abortion is evil we must oppose. We may not be successful in reversing the legality in a particular four year cycle, but we have the obligation to at least try to limit it (see Evangelium Vitae #73 ¶3) and make it clear to others that, as Christians, we must oppose abortion as a moral evil. We can’t just hope a vote for a pro-abortion candidate will result in more liberal healthcare and a stronger economy so fewer will seek abortions. We must oppose unjust laws that promote it.

As I said earlier, this is easier to apply to others than to ourselves. The teaching of the Church in this area will affect some people more directly than others. If we must defend the good and oppose evil, we can’t support a pro-abortion candidate without a proportionate reason. This will be more of a hardship for a Catholic who supports that candidate or party for other reasons than it will be for one who disagrees with them. That doesn’t mean we must cast our vote for the other major party if they are loathsome to us. If one party supports intrinsic evil and our conscience will not let us support the other major party, we can choose a minor party or write-in to avoid violating what conscience forbids [†].

Living as the Church Teaches Means No Evasions

We can’t seek to evade the teaching of the Church by redefining the issue. That would be like the Pharisees declaring their property qorbon (see Mark 7:10-13) to avoid their obligation to care for their aging parents. For example, one popular tactic is to declare that neither candidate is pro-life, so we are free to choose the pro-abortion candidate on the basis of other issues. The problem is, one has to prove the assertion. We can’t just use it as a proof to justify what we want to do [§]. A Catholic may like the other unrelated policies of a pro-abortion party. A Catholic may loathe other unrelated policies of a party with a platform opposing abortion. But we have to look at the party platforms in terms of what intrinsic evils they support and how that compares to our obligation to live and witness as God commands.

As I mentioned earlier, Catholics who are faithful to the Church can prefer different ways of fulfilling her teachings without sin. Some believe that voting for government programs is part of the obligation of charity. Others believe that these policies cause more harm than help and look for other solutions. So long as neither Catholic is trying to evade their moral obligation, one Catholic does not sin by rejecting the other’s solution. So, to claim that a pro-abortion candidate is the only pro-life choice because he supports social policy that the Catholic hopes will raise the standard of living is false. Likewise, claiming the candidate who opposes abortion is not pro-life either because he opposes those social policies is false.

The reason this is false (though I have no doubt that many Catholics sincerely believe it) is it redefines the right to life to make it meaningless. If we’re talking about abortion, then the candidate’s stance on abortion is relevant. If we’re talking about social justice, then the candidate’s stance on social justice is relevant. But we can’t compare apples and oranges by comparing abortion and social justice and arguing who is lying about their position. 

Avoiding Misuse of the Term “Pro-Life”

That argument is a quagmire because the concept of being “Pro-Life” has become a slogan to support or target a candidate in relation to Church teaching. Depending on the political slant, Catholics interpret it broadly or narrowly, but always in their favor. It is more of a colloquial term. In Church documents, it does not appear before the pontificate of St. John Paul II and is usually used in Church documents to describe the defense of life from attack. To understand the term “Pro-life,” we first have to understand that the term appeared in describing the opposition to the “Culture of Death."

The Culture of Death is always described with reference to abortion and euthanasia. This ideology views some life as having less value than other life, and treating some people as less than human. The Church calls things like abortion, contraception, sterilization, population control, attacks on the structure of the family, and euthanasia part of the culture of death. One can say that the culture of death prizes the rights of the individual or small groups, or idolizes the whole nation at the expense of others.

In contrast, the Church presents the family as culture of life and the way to challenge the culture of death (see Centesimus Annus 39). This culture of life welcomes and supports life from conception to natural death. We must oppose the kind of individualism or ideology that puts the self or the nation above the family. Likewise, we must reject policies which either mandate these things or make them seem like the only choice for desperate people. So, yes, we do have to see whether a policy will leave a woman believing she has no choice but to have an abortion as part of being pro-life. If a government fails here, then we have the obligation to help them. We must be pro-life in this area even if the government is not. 

But where some Catholics go wrong is that their decision to vote for a pro-abortion candidate (for other reasons) seems to put limits on the Catholic Church emphatically condemning abortion as an unspeakable crime. They always manage to justify a vote for these candidates. What gets forgotten is a Catholic cannot support a candidate or party which defends abortion as a right unless they have a proportionate reason that outweighs the evil this party causes in supporting the culture of death. To do so simply contradicts our obligation to defend the family and all human life.

The Church on Unjust Laws

Which brings us to another obligation. The Apostles testified from the beginning that we must obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29) when men make laws that go against God. The Catechism tells us:

2242 The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men”:49 (1903; 2313; 450; 1901)

When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel.

If we know that a politician or party will abuse their authority and pass laws that violate God’s commands, do we not have the responsibility to block them from taking office by voting against them? If a political agenda is hell-bent on glorifying the culture of death and forcing our compliance (such as supporting abortion and contraception by our taxes), and we will have to refuse obedience, we need to ask why we don’t try to stop them before it gets to that point?


What makes the 2016 elections particularly hard is that both major candidates are loathsome in terms of supporting intrinsic evil in different ways, but one of them will be  President. That means a Catholic has to decide how to limit evil for the next four years. Since the Church has made clear that the right to life is the most fundamental right, and that things which violate that right are the worst in the eyes of God, we cannot vote in a way that gives an intrinsic evil free rein without a proportionate reason—something which is not an opinion or preference, but is opposing an objective evil that is more evil than abortion.

Each Catholic will have to decide what their conscience obliges them to do. This obligation means we must seek understanding on how Church teaching applies to voting this year. Eventually, each of us will have to give an account to God—who knows our hearts—on whether we truly sought to do His will or whether we sought to do our will.

Being a member of the laity, my writing on this blog can't compel obedience. All I can do is ask the reader to consider these moral obligations to seek the truth and follow it according to the teaching of the Church. I also ask that you, the reader, pray for this country that each of us may be open to hear God’s guidance in seeking His will.



[†] We need to remember that a Catholic who votes for a minor party or write in because his conscience forbids him from voting for either major party is not voting for the other major party. In this case, the Catholic does not will the benefit to the other major party. He acts to avoid what seems to be sinful to him.

[§] That’s a logical fallacy called “Begging the Question."

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Further Thoughts on Understanding the Ratzinger Memorandum

[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.]

Since 2004, some Catholics have cited the above section from the Ratzinger Memorandum to justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate. One of the problems I see is this appeal doesn't understand the significance of the phrases remote material cooperation and proportionate reasons. The result is the term gets twisted out of context and cited to justify what then Cardinal Ratzinger had no intention of justifying. 

I want to make clear I am not writing about people who willfully distort Church teaching here. I am writing about an error made by sincere Catholics who are deeply troubled by the poor choices for president, but do not understand the moral theology behind his words. When people cite to claim that their vote for a pro-abortion candidate is in line with the Church because of this document, they usually misunderstand what the Church means by “it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.” It is my hope that this article, accompanied by my previous work, might help people understanding the theology then-Cardinal Ratzinger uses as the framework.

Remote material cooperation is cooperation that helps make the evil possible, but is not evil in itself and was not done with the purpose of helping the wrongdoing. We distinguish that from direct cooperation which intends to make an act possible. Voting for a politician because he will promote abortion is direct cooperation. But if the Catholic doesn’t vote for a pro-abortion candidate because he is pro-abortion, the vote still allows the politician to do evil. The question becomes, can we do this?

The memorandum says it “can be permitted,” but we must understand the concept of Proportionate Reason as part of the concept of double effect. Here we seek a good effect but an unavoidable evil effect also happens. If we want to avoid sin, we cannot intend the evil effect. But that’s not all. We also cannot choose an act where the evil effect outweighs the good we want to achieve. So, under double effect, we have to consider the reasonable consequences of our action. If we choose an evil act or an act where we know the evil outweighs the good, we sin if we choose the act.

This is not a matter where we can decide for ourselves what qualifies. This is about objective moral principles. For example, in the case of self-defense, we can use force to drive off an attacker. It is possible that the we might have no choice but killing the attacker. But we can only use the minimum force necessary to defend ourselves. In a life or death struggle, killing the attacker may be a proportionate reason to save your life. But shooting an attacker who swings his fist at you is not a proportionate reason for killing your attacker (See CCC #2269).

So, when we look at this paragraph, understanding these terms shows that this is not a permission to do what you will as long as you don’t cross the line of supporting abortion. He wrote with the purpose of explaining what separates sin from justified behavior. If one doesn’t vote for a pro-abortion candidate because the candidate supports abortion, that is remote material cooperation. It doesn’t directly cause the death of the unborn. But the candidate will support the evil of abortion. Therefore, the proportionate reason (the desired good) must be to stop an evil which outweighs the evil the candidate will do in promoting abortion if elected.

And that’s where some Catholics went wrong. This isn’t about how we rank abortion personally. This isn’t about what we hope candidate A will do or what we fear candidate B will do. This is about the Catholic Church consistently condemning abortion in the strongest possible terms. Homicide. Unspeakable crime. These are not the words of politicians. They are terms used in the official decrees of the Church. Our obligation to oppose abortion is crystal clear:

2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,” “by the very commission of the offense,”78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society. 


 Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 548.

If the Catholic Church condemns abortion in such strong terms, it means that the proportionate reason would have to be even worse if we would treat the unwanted evil of abortion as less. The problem is, no such evils exist today. I could see Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot as greater evils than a pro-abortion candidate. But outside of the uninformed rhetoric of those who post “[Name] = Hitler” on Facebook, nobody sees that as a serious threat today.

Once we understand the concept, it is clear that the memorandum doesn’t give permission to decide whether or not to vote for a preferred candidate who is pro-abortion. It tells us the conditions that determine if an act is sinful or not. Since the conditions justifying such a vote do not exist at this time, we cannot use the Ratzinger Memorandum to justify voting for a pro-abortion politician

That usually leads to a change of tactics. Some Catholics will then argue that no candidate is pro-life, so we are free to vote for whoever we think is less evil. That’s a topic for another time and beyond the scope of this article. But a short answer for this time would be that such a claim has to be proven, not just assumed to be true.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On Placing Church Teaching Above Partisan Interest

While some Catholics forget that Matthew 7:1-5 does not forbid speaking against evil, others forget that it does forbid—it forbids rash judgment in judging motives and writing people off as a lost cause. Some even go so far as forgetting both, judging people as judgmental because they speak about evil. Our Lord forbids us to make ourselves the standard for judging others. He warns us that God who judges will judge us with the same standard we use to judge others. Pharisees and hypocrites do not fare well in this system because they judge people harshly for things they do themselves. But He will deal with wrongdoing in His time, and we will answer for those people who we did not warn:

When I say to the wicked, “You wicked, you must die,” and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life. (Ezekiel 33:8–9).

That brings us to our problem. In this election year, Catholics are becoming pretty partisan in how they carry out this task. We’re focussing much more on the wrongdoing of those we disagree with, and not those we agree with. In some cases this involves Catholics who are equally faithful in keeping Church teaching but find different ways of being faithful—yet one group condemns the second group of being faithless. In other cases, Catholics only rebuke one side when there is wrongdoing by both—for example I have seen some Catholics rebuke one political faction of ignoring Church teaching, while ignoring the other side’s guilt in the same evil. They may believe both sides are wrong, but they only focus on the wrongdoing of one side and make excuses for the other.

After stating the problem, I see two common negative reactions. The first assumes I’m talking about “the other side.” The other assumes I’m talking about them and ignoring "the other side.” The results are self-righteousness and resentment respectively. But we have to look at this dispute openly. We have to ask whether we are discerning our behavior rightly and we have to ask if we are judging the behavior of others wrongly. That means we need to see if we are guilty of partisanship in how we see things.

Being partisan means prejudice in favor or opposition to a particular cause. So a partisan Catholic might point out the wrongdoing in something he opposes while ignoring it in something he approves of or in an ally of convenience. For example, condemning Candidate A for holding positions against Church teaching while not mentioning that Candidate B also holds positions against Church teaching could be partisan if the person was aware of this fact and deliberately hid it.

I want to make clear I’m not using the “he did it too” argument (tu quoque). A candidate or party that acts against God’s law does wrong. We have to make certain we’re not whitewashing one faction while smearing another. If X is wrong, we can’t condemn it when it benefits us and stay silent when it does’t. We’re supposed to promote good and oppose evil at all times, not just when it is convenient to a cause. I’ll admit it’s hard. When we recognize a candidate or party promoting evil, we want them stopped permanently if possible. If we see a tool to bring that about or if we fear a moral objection will harm their opponent, we may tolerate an unjust means to achieve it.

But that’s what we have to watch out for and avoid. Justice obliges us to give a person their due—which includes speaking truthfully. Sins against truth include rash judgment (assuming the worst in a person) and calumny (speaking falsely). So, if someone accuses a candidate about lying about his position on an issue, justice demands we prove our claim. If we assume the candidate must be lying that’s rash judgment. If we know the candidate’s not lying but we say he is, that’s calumny. So when we hear a charge like this, we have an obligation to verify it before repeating it.

I believe we have to be Catholics first and vote from our Catholic formation. We need to know what the Church teaches and why. If we don’t know, we need to find out. We can’t just decide for ourselves that “well it doesn’t bother me, so it must be OK.” But Scripture warns us “Sometimes a way seems right, but the end of it leads to death!” (Proverbs 14:12). We believe the Church is mother and teacher, and Our Lord commands us to obey her (Matthew 18:17-18, Luke 10:16). So we learn His will from her (Matthew 28:20). That means we not only keep the rules, but we follow out of the love for God and don't look for loopholes. As Vatican II taught:

[14] He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” 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).

So we accept the special grace of God to live as He calls us, accepting His Church as a gift to guide us and form our conscience. This grace calls us away from legalism and indifferentism. It should guide us to live as He wants, not as we want. If we feel “called” to live as we want, that’s not grace.

Applying Church teaching to voting—where we make Church teaching the reality we live by—means we have to look at how our vote reflects what we believe. Our vote needs to promote good and oppose evil as best as we can manage. Since this election involves the worst choices, and one of those bad choices will be president in January 2017, we need to discern what each choice says about the importance we give Church teaching. If we vote in a way that treats a serious issue as a minor one, our witness will mislead people to think we don’t care. Unfortunately, many partisan Catholics do give that impression. We need to change our attitude in how we approach voting.

For example, let’s look at abortion. The Church teaches abortion is an unspeakable crime (Gaudium et Spes #51), and the right to life from conception is a fundamental right (see Christifideles Laici #38 and Evangelium Vitae #58). Since we’re called to make known how to follow Our Lord, our actions must show our opposition to abortion both in our private lives and in our response to laws and politicians who promote them. So, we can’t treat abortion as one issue among many. Nor can we argue this point away by saying X+Y+Z outweighs abortion.

I’m not saying that we can ignore other issues so long as we check the box on opposing abortion. That’s the first step among many moral decisions. But it is the first step, and without it, a person is not voting as a Catholic. There are other moral teachings we have to follow.

So if we have a candidate opposed to abortion but the candidate is wrong on other issues, then we have to make clear from the beginning we will oppose him on those issues, should he be elected, even if we do vote for him to limit evil.

But if we cast a vote for a pro-abortion candidate, we have a problem. We’re saying that we think some other issue is more important than abortion. So the person who witnesses our act can ask just how seriously we take Church teaching when the Church says the right to life from conception onwards is the fundamental human right. A Catholic might say “We intend to oppose him on this issue too, even if we vote for him to limit evil.” But people will ask:  Why does the Church believe differently than you on what is the fundamental human right? After all, If we believed as the Church did, we wouldn’t be voting for that person. We’d find another option like a third party vote or write in (if none of the major candidates were truly opposing abortion) to show our opposition. We would have to explain what possibly could be so evil that we would sacrifice opposing abortion to stop it? That has to be answered by the Church, not by our personal preferences—and it has to be an answer that will satisfy God.

That’s why we need to be clear on what the Church teaches and the reason for her teaching. We need to vote in a way that witnesses to our faithfulness, even if that means we vote differently than our personal and political preferences. In my opinion, the choices are so poor this time that we shouldn’t lightly jump to a choice. One candidate supports torture and unjust immigration policies and says he opposes abortion. One openly champions abortion and other intrinsic evils as a right. And if we vote for a third party (the two largest support abortion), we abdicate choosing one of the first two candidates to limit evil.

These are all negative effects associated with each choice. There is no choice free from these dilemmas. So keep that in mind, and vote as a Catholic, and not as a partisan supporting a party. If we lose sight of this principle, we’re voting to satisfy ourselves, not to serve God.