Friday, September 30, 2016

Essay on Partisan Dissent Leading to Rebellion


Benedict XVI, in one of his pre-papacy books, discussed turning the Catholic faith into partisan factions. In it, he pointed out what faith was in contrast with what people were trying to do with the Church.

When I advocate a party, it thereby becomes my party, whereas the Church of Jesus Christ is never my Church but always his Church. Indeed, the essence of conversion lies precisely in the fact that I cease to pursue a party of my own that safeguards my interests and conforms to my taste but that I put myself in his hands and become his, a member of his Body, the Church.


 Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 158.

The faith of the Church calls us to change to grow closer to God. Partisanship calls on the Church to change to match what is most pleasing to us. If we’re not careful, we might find ourselves rebelling against God in the name of “reforming” or “restoring” the Church to what we want while pretending we’re doing it for the benefit of others. As always, this is not a case where only one faction is guilty. Any time we get angry at the Church for changing things from, or not changing things to, what we think is best, we’re behaving in a partisan manner.


I’d like to clarify something first. What I wrote above does not deny the right use of Canon Law #212 §3. I’m concerned, however, that some people who appeal to this canon are misusing it to demand the Church become more like what they want, not considering (or, perhaps, refusing to accept) that the Church might have valid reasons for making some changes and refusing to make others. 

I would also like to clarify that this does not mean the laity has nothing to say when a priest or bishop misuses his authority and acts against the teaching of the Church. Our Lord gave His authority to St. Peter and the Apostles, and is handed down from generation to generation to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. The priest or bishop who acts against this magisterium abuses his office. Such a one cannot demand that the laity act against what the magisterium teaches.


Who Has the Authority to Determine Proper Interpretation and Church Practice?

However, Catholics do go wrong when someone claims that the Pope and bishops today are in error and go against the teachings of earlier Popes and Councils or that they were wrong in the past and finally are getting it right. The magisterium decides how to best apply the timeless teachings of the Church to the problems of today. In contrast, someone who claims that a recent Pope “violates" what St. Pius X said, or someone who claims St. John Paul II “violated" Vatican II, has no standing to interpret the documents against the magisterium today.

This confuses some people. After all, aren’t they appealing to the magisterium? No. They are appealing to their personal opinion on how they think the document should be interpreted against those who actually have the right and responsibility to determine how the document is to be interpreted. It’s like a person trying to argue that his interpretation of the Constitution is right and the Supreme Court is wrong. The individual simply does not have the authority to interpret the Constitution in a binding manner on the country, and the individual does not have the authority to interpret magisterial teaching in a binding manner on the country.

Selective Obedience is Dissent 

The problem is, people assume that they only have to listen to the Church if they agree with what she says. If she teaches something they don’t like, dissenters accuse her of becoming “conservative” or “liberal.” They’ll accuse her of betraying tradition or betraying Vatican II. Because the Pope and bishops are deemed “wrong” in these areas, dissenters claim they don’t have to obey the shepherds of the Church. They’ll appeal to conscience or tradition when it suits them and treat the teaching they don’t like as if it were an opinion or even an error.

The problem with that view is the Church is not an invention of men with arbitrary rules. Catholics believe (if they’re not grossly deficient in their religious education) the Church established by Our Lord and the Catholic Church today are one and the same. This means she teaches with the authority given by Christ (Matthew 16:19, 18:18, 28:18-20). Since Our Lord likens rejecting His Church with rejecting Him (Luke 10:16, cf. Matthew 18:17), dissent is a serious matter—rebellion against God Himself.

Church teaching is not arbitrary. The teachings are made for our benefit. How do we live to be faithful to God? What is incompatible with loving Him? Church teaching exists to make His teaching known. The Church is the means Our Lord chose to bring knowledge of His salvation of the world and the commandments we must keep if we would be saved (see John 14:15). Obeying only the parts of His teaching we agree with anyway is rejecting Our Lord on the rest. If we reject Him, it will not go well for us (Matthew 7:21-23).


The danger for Catholics today comes from the fact that rejection of authority (dissent) has metastasized. It’s no longer a case of aging modernists and radical traditionalists like the SSPX. It has spread to the mainstream of the faith, so that a growing number of Catholics who once defended the faith now believe the Church is in error to the point that they openly question or even reject legitimate teaching authority when it goes against their preferences, forgetting that God punished such behavior as rebellion.

Do you want damnationWhy do we assume God won’t punish our rebellion, when He punished it in others?

With that in mind, I’d like to look at some of the dangerous errors that lead people to dissent while believing themselves to be “faithful” to the “true” Church (while rejecting those given the task of shepherding it today).

Vincible Ignorance

When a person has no way of knowing what the truth is, but follows one’s conscience and seeks to do what is right to the best of their knowledge, God does not condemn him for what would be impossible to know. But when a person could know if they bothered to do the research, then they do not have this excuse. When someone makes an accusation against the shepherds of the Church, we must find out the context of what was said, taking into account the difference of culture, history, and other conditions that lead to misinterpretation. Because Rash Judgment and Calumny are sins, we can’t just repeat what we heard. We have to actually learn the truth about what was claimed.

For example, when people condemn (or praise) Pope Francis for “supporting same sex marriage” because he said “Who am I to judge?” they are guilty of vincible ignorance. They could look it up and read to the transcript, which shows those words had nothing to do with what people think. Because they could learn, but prefer to remain in their ignorance, their lack of knowledge will be judged by Our Lord.

This leads us to our second problem.

Knowing Less than You Think You Do

Relativism must be rejected. We cannot twist Church teaching to turn “Thou shalt not do X” into “X is OK!” The problem is, some people know less about what the Church intends to teach than they think they do. There’s 2000 years of Catholic theology out there, dealing with countless ways people can sin, as well as knowledge of reasons why their guilt may be increased or decreased. A person ignorant about these things might see two different issues and assume they are the same—and that one must contradict the other. So they choose the one that fits their preference and say the other one is wrong. But if the differences between the two cases are greater than the similarities, we can’t compare them and claim they contradict each other.

For example, recently on Facebook, I encountered someone claiming that St. Pius X said that secularism was a "pernicious error” and that Pope Francis said states must be secular. Therefore, this person reasoned that this “proved" Pope Francis was a heretic. A person seeing this might think this statement was proven. To which I say, “Not so fast."

St. Pius X did say this in the encyclical “Vehementer Nos” (#3), written in 1906. The context of this encyclical was France establishing anti-Catholic laws absolutely excluding the Church from any role in the state (a situation worse than in America today). Under those conditions, all religions were equally isolated. Put in context of today, what he was condemning was the expulsion of the Catholic Church from the public square. In contrast, Pope Francis, speaking about France 110 years later spoke about a nation needing to be secular in the sense of not harassing religions in favor of one, but also insisting on religious freedom which France did not provide in 1906. The context missed by accusers was 110 years of experience. St. Pius X was writing about a new rebellion. Pope Francis spoke about what the Church learned since then. For example, the experience of totalitarian hostility to all religion and religious persecution from a sectarian state in the Middle East.

In other words, St. Pius X wasn’t wrong in condemning France for their attack on religion, but Pope Francis spoke from the perspective of things not yet present in 1906 and did not contradict his predecessor.

False Dualism

One common assumption is that if you don’t support a preferred position, you support the antithesis with all the evils it involves. One common example in the election season is targeting Catholics who oppose both Trump and Clinton. Because they will not vote for Trump, they are accused of voting for Clinton and supporting all areas her politics violate Catholic teaching. Another example might be assuming that whoever thinks certain government programs don’t work must favor letting people suffer.

The error here assumes that there are only two possible solutions and if a person does not support the accusers favorite position, he must be guilty of supporting the evils of the other side. But if there are more than two possibilities, this accusation is false. Assuming there is no attempt to evade Church teaching, a disagreement over the best way to carry it out is not endorsing evil. Traditionalism and Modernism are not the only two options. Conservative and Liberal are not the only two options. These factions do not express whether a person is a faithful Catholic or not. If X is wrong, all Catholics must reject X regardless of their political or liturgical preferences.


I could come up with several more errors, but I want to wrap this article up by discussing why they are dangerous. The danger is these errors lead Catholics to think that the person who has different preferences on how to proceed is acting out of malice. So the conservative Catholic assumes that the liberal Catholic (or vice versa) automatically embraces everything evil about that political view. The radical traditionalist assumes the non-traditionalist is a modernist. People assume that Popes and bishops speak as 21st century Americans and don’t consider the times and places they knew when speaking.

Accusers see differences and assume the difference means a rejection of Church teaching, or a rejection of what Jesus said in Scripture. The accusers don’t consider whether they’ve gotten something wrong and make unjust accusations. When these accusations are made against the Pope and bishops when they teach, they separate the accuser from the Church while thinking they are in the right. They also cause scandal by undermining faith in Our Lord protecting His Church and leading others to disobey as well.

What we have to remember is we need to know the facts and circumstances involving the acts before making an accusation. When the accused is the Pope or a bishop properly exercising his teaching office, we need to remember we have to give our assent. In all cases we must remember charity and make sure we properly understand and not act rashly. The Church does not turn wrong into right, but circumstances can mean that two events that look similar can actually be very different. If we rashly assume evil on the part of the shepherds of the Church, we can’t just shrug off the false accusation on Judgment Day. We’ll have to answer for our rebellion.

So to avoid judgment, we must recognize we might not have all the facts and therefore might not properly understand what seems wrong at first glance. Yes, there will be sin out there and we must correct sinners. But we must not assume we are always in the right and the Pope must be wrong if he rules differently than we want.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Thoughts on Hardness of Heart and Fidelity

Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, 

as on the day of Massah in the desert. 

There your ancestors tested me; 

they tried me though they had seen my works. 

10 Forty years I loathed that generation; 

I said: “This people’s heart goes astray; 

they do not know my ways.” 

11 Therefore I swore in my anger: 

“They shall never enter my rest.” (Psalm 95:8–11).

In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible speaks of hardness of heart. It is always used in the context of man rejecting God or the one God sends. This is a case of putting one’s own preference above a right relationship with God. Our Lord and, before His Incarnation, the prophets used terms like “Stiff-necked people” to castigate people for their sinful disobedience. From Moses approaching Pharaoh to the Apostle Paul speaking to his opponents, the Bible is full of examples where God’s people prefer to do what they will against God’s warnings and witness of power. Stiff-necked was a term describing a brute animal which was stubborn and defiant, unwilling to bear a yoke, and refusing to follow the command of its master. For God to direct this term against a people meant a condemnation for disobedience and a last warning before punishment and exile befell them.

Judah in Exile“Okay . . . maybe we should have listened to the warnings . . ."

It’s easy for us to roll our eyes at those Israelites or those Pharisees, or the Sanhedrin refusing to listen to those God sent. But I wonder if we realize that our own grumbling or rebellion is as serious now as it was then. Just as God sent the Prophets and then His own Son to them, He sends His Church to us. They preferred their own ways to God’s commands and we prefer our own ways to the teaching of the Church. But God does not want us to live as seems right to us. He wants us to live according to the truth, which means living according to His will because He is the Truth. 

And that brings me to my concern. Catholics profess to believe that the Church was established by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and that the Pope and bishops in communion with Him are the successors to the Apostles. That means they have the same authority that Jesus gave the Apostles when they taught (Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18, Matthew 28:19, Luke 10:16). They had authority to bind and loose. When the magisterium intends to teach, we must give assent, not to undermine the authority of the shepherds. So if we seek to undermine the authority of the Church in favor of our own preferences (whether modernist or radical traditionalist or from a political point of view), we should keep in mind just how God views such behavior . . .

Rebellion of KorahSee Numbers 16:1-35

What worries me about today is how many people think they are following Jesus in opposition to the Church, or following the Church in opposition to the Pope and bishops. They refuse to consider the possibility of their own error. But when God equates loving Him with keeping His commandments (John 14:35) and gives the Church the authority to teach in His name (John 20:21-23), then it’s clear that to disobey the Church is to be a stiff-necked person.

So when people think of a remnant Church which thinks like them and would excommunicate people who think differently, instead of repenting for one’s own sins and correcting erring brethren to bring them to salvation, they might put themselves on the outside all the while thinking they are in the right. We should consider Our Lord’s warning:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Mt 7:21–23).

If Our Lord equated hearing the Church with hearing Him and said that loving Him meant doing His will, then the Catholic who seeks to undermine the legitimate authority of the Church in the name of their idealized view of what the Church should be is a rebel and not faithful. Since we are bound to obey the Church when she teaches, we must trust God to guide our Church protecting it from error, not accuse the shepherds under the headship of the Pope of falling into heresy.

Otherwise we are a hard hearted and stiff-necked people who will answer for our rebellion.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Thoughts on Fallacies in "Magic Solutions"

Both in the secular world and in the Church, some people argue that “all we need to do is . . .” [favored solution here] "and we’ll stop the problem.” For a secular example, when there is a mass shooting, some people argue that if we just outlaw private ownership of guns, the mass killings will stop. Or, as a religious example, I’ve seen some argue that if we return to receiving the Eucharist on the tongue or celebrate Mass ad orientem, we’ll solve the problem of irreverence at Mass. People like to use this argument to promote a preferred policy in order to make things the way they think should be. There’s nothing wrong with preferring certain policies, and wanting changes when we think things have gone terribly wrong.

The problem is, too often we think our preferred policy is the “magic solution” where if only we get rid of something we dislike, we solve the problem as if the thing we disliked was some sort of “evil eye” we need defense from. But if the first does not cause the second, we won’t stop the second by stopping the first. The problem will still exist. 

Logically, we can put these “magic solution” claims into a syllogism:

  • If X happens then Y happens
  • Y Happened
  • Therefore X happened

In logic, that’s the affirming the consequent fallacy. It assumes a link between X and Y and X is always the cause of Y. We can show why it is false by replacing X and Y:

  • If I am in Los Angeles I am in California. [True]
  • I am in California. [True]
  • Therefore I am in Los Angeles. [Maybe not, and being in California isn’t proof of being in Los Angeles]

While most of the country tends to equate Los Angeles with California, the syllogism is false because I can be in California without being in Los Angeles.

In a similar way, when we want to stop an evil, we must be certain that we’ve identified the real problem. Just because we don’t like X does not mean X causes Y. That’s why I get annoyed when some Catholics argue that to stop irreverence at Mass, we must replace Communion in the hand with Communion on the tongue, Mass ad populum with Mass ad orientem, the vernacular with Latin, or the Ordinary Form of the Mass with the Extraordinary Form. Sure, if one can prove that these things cause irreverence, then yes, let’s eliminate them. But first you have to show that these things caused the irreverence, and not something else. Just because X happened and then Y happened does not mean that X caused Y. Again, that’s what we have to prove.

So it seems to me that the Catholics who say we need to “go back” to older practices and the Catholics who say we need to “move forward” with new ideas to make the Mass “relevant" are making the same mistake. As I see it, the first step is to educate the modern Catholic about the meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist, and what we believe about it. Once we do that, they might understand a call to recover the meaning of an earlier practice or to seek a better way to express the truth in a newer practice. But if we lose sense of the meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist, then the practices and stances in Mass will also lose meaning. In that case, going back to an older practice or going forward with a newer one will just seem like an arbitrary decision.

It is for the Pope and, in some cases, the bishops to determine what practices are fitting for the Mass. The rest of us can’t override them. As we were taught in Vatican II:

22. 1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.

2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops   legitimately established.

3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.


 Catholic Church, “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

But we can work in our parishes—with, and never opposed to, the Pope, bishops and priests—to promote a proper understanding of the Mass so the faithful might adopt a more reverent attitude in the celebration of the Mass and reception of the Eucharist. That can be done in catechesis, in bulletins, and in many other forms of parish programs.

I’m not saying this will be easy, or that one solution will fit all. We all have our preferences, and not all of them are compatible with what the Church says must be done. Certainly the infamous abuses must be curbed. The Mass is not something we can take a relativistic attitude towards. But I am saying we put the cart before the horse if we think that a “magical solution” (whether “going back to” or “moving forward with”) will solve the problem of a lack of reverence.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Thoughts After Nine Years Blogging

Apparently I’ve kept this blog going for 9 years (though the Xanga years are lost). It’s hard to believe it’s been running that long. When I started, I thought I would dabble a bit and move on. For a few years I would say on an anniversary that I didn’t know how long I would keep it up. Now it feels like a part of my life that I don’t foresee dumping without a serious reason.

While the attacks against the Church have shifted over the years, and so have the topics, the consistent theme seems to be the importance of knowing what the Catholic Church actually teaches and why. For those outside of the Church, that meant encouraging them to learn what we believe instead of accepting lies about us. For those within the Church, this meant urging them not to separate from the teaching authority of the Church.

In both cases it was about writing to ask people not to assume that what heard knew was true—especially if they heard it second- or third-hand—but to ask whether a claim accurately portrayed what the Church taught. That was true whether it was dealing with fundamentalist anti-Catholics or the “New Atheism” 9 years ago, or whether it is dealing with the anti-Francis Catholics today. I believe that when we separate hostility towards what the Church teaches from people hurt by “Catholics behaving shamefully,” it’s clear that hostility towards the Church in the first case mostly comes from three origins:

  1. Ignorance over what we believe and hating the Church over that ignorance.
  2. Resentment that a favorite sin is condemned as against God
  3. Belief that a sinful Catholic is sinful because of, and not in spite of, Church teaching past or present.

Those motives have been present in most of the attacks against the Church I’ve seen.

In response to these attacks, I’ve always held that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ, and that He protects His Church from teaching error in matters of faith and morals. Because I see it this way (which I hold to be a blessing from God) I’ve always thought that, when someone presents what looks like a smoking gun against the claims of the Church, there’s more to the story that exonerates her if we take the time to look. So, whether people think I’ve succeeded or failed in defending the Church, these were the beliefs I started with.

Whether they are from the outside or inside; whether from secular or religious sources, I expect attacks to continue. I don’t know what the attacks will be next year, five years from now or another ten years, but I trust God will protect His Church like He promised. (Matthew 28:20) I just pray that my role with this blog will be a help and not a stumbling block to those people seeking the truth.

May God bless you.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On Judgment and Misplaced Blame

JeremiahJeremiah prophesying to Israel

I’ve been working my way through the Book of Jeremiah and reflecting on his prophecies. God called on him to carry the word to His people that they were doing evil in his sight and, if they would not repent, God would punish them for their sins. The reaction of the people was anger towards Jeremiah, treating his words as if he was supporting Israel’s enemies and wanting to kill him on account of his prophecies.

It reminds me of St. Augustine, commenting on Psalm 129:

[#4] Why have they fought against me? Because “they could not prevail upon me.” What is this? They could not build upon me. I consented not with them unto sin. For every wicked man persecuteth the good on this account, because the good man consenteth not with him to evil. Suppose he do some evil, and the Bishop censure him not, the Bishop is a good man: suppose the Bishop censure him, the Bishop is a bad man. Suppose he carry off anything, let the man robbed be silent, he is a good man: let him only speak and rebuke, even though he doth not reclaim his goods, he is everything bad. He is bad then who blameth the robber, and he is good who robbeth!… Heed not that such an one speaketh to thee: it is a wicked man through whom It speaketh to thee; but the word of God, that speaketh to thee, is not wicked. Accuse God: accuse Him, if thou canst!


 Augustine of Hippo, “Expositions on the Book of Psalms,” in Saint Augustin: Expositions on the Book of Psalms, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 8, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 611.

Just as Jeremiah gave God’s message to the Israelites about the urgent need to repent and received hostility in response, the Church speaks against the evils of this age and warns us that certain behaviors rebel against God and brings punishment. Just like the hostility given Jeremiah, the Church receives the same reaction. Israel suffered punishment for her infidelity. Jeremiah was not speaking against Israel out of malice nor because he sided with her enemies, but because God tasked him with bringing a message of truth and consequences. We do not know what God might do in response to our own infidelities, but we can’t say God hasn’t warned us.

I find it curious that the typical response to warnings against moral failings is to blame the messenger as if the fact that certain acts are evil was the invention of the one warning us of evil. His foes accused Jeremiah of treason when he warned Israel. They attack the Church as being homophobic, anti-woman, or legalistic when she warns the world. I think this misdirected anger is a form of denial. If we treat the warning as a “political opinion,” we can go on living our favorite sins and pretending what we do is OK with God . . . and then have the nerve to act shocked when God’s retribution falls on us.

God sent His prophets. Our Lord sends His Church. The mission is not condemning, but saving (John 3:17). Unfortunately, people think this means Jesus just gives out salvation without repentance. They forget that Jesus began His ministry preaching, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). Yes, God wants the salvation of all people. But He links salvation with repentance. If we will not repent, we will not be saved.

When we think about this, it’s clear that Israel blaming her prophets for the prophecy or Americans blaming the Church for her teachings miss the point in blaming them. They’re the messengers warning us that our behavior goes against the love of God. Our problem is with God. God wants a loving relationship with each one of us, but when our behavior goes against what God commands, we break that relationship—something that has serious consequences. In such a case, warning people that their behavior is separating us from God is not an act of hatred or treason. It is an act of love, warning us to step away from the danger.

The atheist, the non-Christian, and the non-Catholic might say “I don’t believe the Church teaches with any authority.” We must pray for those people and evangelize them that God give them the grace to believe. We must also pray for the grace so we don’t be a stumbling block for them, misleading them by our bad behavior. But for the Catholic to ignore the teaching of the Church is as foolish as the Israelite to ignore God’s prophets, and to be angry at the Church for warning us of our behavior is like Israel being angry at prophets for warning them of God’s coming wrath. It is foolishness where we will have nobody to blame but ourselves if we face God’s wrath instead of His mercy.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Popes and Precedents

So, did you hear the one about the Pope who asked his advisors to look into a Church teaching and see whether it was ever legitimate to do something everyone assumed was sinful? 

No. It's not Pope Francis. 

It was actually Pope Benedict XIV. The document in question was the encyclical Vix pervenit (1745). He called for Church to look for the difference between usury and legitimate money lending for investment to see if such a case existed without sin.  In doing so, he was not seeking to change Church teaching,  but to distinguish what was condemned (demanding interest when lending to a person in need) from legitimate earnings of interest and dividends. 

Benoit XIVThat Ultra-liberal Pope . . . Benedict XIV?

Likewise, Pope Francis is not supporting the permission for sin. He's asking the Church to investigate whether conditions exist where a person might be in a situation not in a state of sin. In writing to the bishops of Argentina, the Pope supports their search for discernment. He doesn't approve of open reception of the Eucharist by all divorced and remarried and neither do the bishops he wrote to. In fact, the bishops’ document insists on the proper understanding of the indissolubility of marriage, and that the recovering of these individuals to the community is not an automatic path to the sacraments. The point is finding ways of returning such people to the path of grace. It anticipates that the number of cases where people might have access to the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist as being limited. 

His critics look at this as if the bishops are promoting sin and the Pope approves of that. In doing so, they act as if everybody in the world lives like 21st century Americans. Since we Americans can't imagine a situation where a person wants to get their relationship right with the Church but can't, for reasons outside of their control, we assume they can't exist. But other nations have different vicious customs than our own. When the Church deals with them, we, who are ignorant of them, assume the bishops are condoning things American Catholic dissenters are agitating for.

That leads us to another matter to consider. Even if a bishop, priest or member of the laity misuses what the Pope or a bishops' conference says, that doesn't mean the Pope or bishops' conference approves of that misuse. The fact is the bishops explicitly insist on the proper understanding of marriage and making it clear to the faithful. The Pope has, in his press conferences, made clear that bringing the divorced and remarried back to the Church doesn't automatically mean receiving the Eucharist. So what we are seeing is the Pope and bishops discerning whether conditions exist where an individual's situation is not intending to violate God's law.

This brings us back to Pope Benedict XIV and interest. He did not support usury. He wanted to investigate whether there could be legitimate ways to invest for interest without usury. The end result was that investment for a return was discovered to be permitted but lending at interest to a person in need was still condemned. Could his words be misused? They were misused. Infamous American dissenters like Fr. Charles Curran tried to use this as “proof” that the Church could change teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is good” when arguing for a change in teaching on sexual morality. Is Pope Benedict XIV to blame for people citing his action to justify their sins? No, and neither is Pope Francis to blame for people misusing his writings.

I believe that the Pope and bishops are not trying to bypass God's law, but are seeking to discover whether unjust laws or vicious customs trap people in relationships that blocks them from leaving illegitimate marriages. As Americans (or Western Europeans) we might not be able to picture such a situation. But the fact that we can’t imagine such a situation does not mean no such situation exists (That’s the argument from ignorance fallacy). 

We should keep that in mind, and not assume that this incident is a sign of teaching error or promoting sin.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How Will One Return Over the Bridges They Burned?

Bridge burn11 1

You sit and speak against your brother, 

slandering your mother’s son. (Psalm 50:20).

As Catholics continue fighting on social media, a question that comes to my mind is whether some have crossed the point of no return. Charitable disagreement over how to apply Church teaching to voting and political solutions is acceptable so long as a person accepts the teaching authority of the Church and doesn’t try to evade it. The problem is, this year, charity is seems to be entirely lacking. People of one faction not only assume the other faction [†] is wrong, but assume they are maliciously wrong. I’ve seen priests attacking laity and each other because the targets disagree or are struggling to reach a decision the attackers think should be obvious. I’ve seen Catholic bloggers act like they’re doing God’s work by insulting people they disagree with.

The problem, as I see it, is a growing number of Catholics don’t seem to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. They seem to see each other as either allies or enemies depending on whether their political views match or differ. So, what happens when 2017 rolls around and we have to face whoever gets elected? Will we be able to unite to fight whatever evil the government promotes? Or will these burnt bridges separate us—leaving factions who are mutually anathema to each other?

The common objection is, “But these people are wrong! We have to oppose them!” They point to the example of St. Paul withstanding St. Peter to his face, and the examples of prophets from the Old Testament to justify their words and actions. The problem is there’s little to no charity going on. I think we would be wise to consider the words of St. Francis de Sales:

Although S. Paul calls the Galatians “foolish,” and withstood S. Peter “to the face,” is that any reason why we should sit in judgment on nations, censure and abuse our superiors? We are not so many S. Pauls! But bitter, sharp, hasty men not unfrequently give way to their own tempers and dislikes under the cloak of zeal, and are consumed of their own fire, falsely calling it from heaven. On one side an ambitious man would fain have us believe that he only seeks the mitre out of zeal for souls; on the other a harsh censor bids us accept his slanders and backbiting as the utterance of a zealous mind.


Francis de Sales, Of the Love of God, [Book X, Chapter XVI] trans. H. L. Sidney Lear (London: Rivingtons, 1888), 351.

I wonder how many people who are swift to denounce behavior they dislike, confuse that dislike with a zeal for souls? If we truly believe that people we disagree with are choosing wrong and endangering souls, why do we behave in such a way that will drive away the people we think need to change? Not only will it drive them away, it will keep them away. Some might leave the faith. Others might harden their resolve.

It’s one thing if people hate us because we stand up for our faith. It’s a different matter if people hate us because we behave badly in defending the faith. As St. Peter told us, “For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering because of consciousness of God, that is a grace. But what credit is there if you are patient when beaten for doing wrong? But if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God." (1 Peter 2:19–20). In other words, if people accuse us, let’s not be guilty of what they accuse us of.

As we reach the end of this election cycle, maybe it’s time to take stock in how we behaved. Did we promote the faith so people might live according to it? Or did we behave badly enough that we can only reach out to people who happened to think like us to begin with? 

I’m not going to name names. I’m not going to judge which person or blog I think has done right and which I think has done wrong. All I want to do in this article is to ask each Catholic to consider whether they burned bridges they should not have burned. If so, each of us should consider how we can repair the damage we’re personally responsible for and, if it is irreparable, to pray to God to heal the damage we caused.

If we don't, we’ll find our faith divided by a mass of charred wreckage of our own doing.


[†] I don’t like the dualism in American politics, but it is a reality we have to be aware of.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Doing What is Right vs. Doing What We Want

The False Understanding of Conscience

The concept of conscience is often misrepresented. People think their feelings and preferences are conscience. So, if a person doesn’t see anything wrong with a behavior, he thinks he is “obeying" his conscience, when he follows his impulses. Then, when someone suggests that he is doing wrong, he gets angry and accuses the other person of pushing their beliefs on him and demands that people respect his “conscience.” Under this view of “conscience,” sociopaths and war criminals can appeal to it to justify their actions. Since society can’t survive under that way of behaving, people have turned to the government, expecting it to make laws mandating how we should behave. People who agree with what the government decrees, hail it as good. People who disagree accuse the government of violating rights.

This abuse of the term conscience is camouflage for partisan behavior. As a result, when Christians appeal to conscience in opposing those government mandates which contradict their moral obligations, people assume the Christians are trying to impose a partisan platform on others while refusing to play by the rules. They don’t understand how the Church can put their "feelings and preferences” above the “rights” to abortion, contraception and same sex “marriage.” This conflict exists because modern society does not understand what conscience is and hears the words of the Church but misses the true meaning. The Catechism describes conscience as follows:

1777 Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil.49 It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.

The True Understanding of Conscience

Far from being a feeling, conscience judges our actions as good or evil, warning us to do good and avoid evil, and judging us when we fail to live up to it. It may tell us to go against what our feelings and preferences urge us to do. Whether it is laying down one’s life in martyrdom because conscience tells us we cannot deny Our Lord, or acting against what our friends urge because we think they are wrong, conscience pushes us away from what we want in order to do what is right.

Once we understand this, what freedom of conscience requires from the state becomes clear. As Pope Leo XIII explained it in Libertas #30:

[T]hat every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands. This, indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God, which nobly maintains the dignity of man and is stronger than all violence or wrong—a liberty which the Church has always desired and held most dear.


Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 178.

Even if the government refuses to grant the freedom of conscience, we still have an obligation to do what is right in the eyes of God (see Acts 5:29). Many of the faithful have been martyred for making this choice. But I think we Western Christians have lost sight of this. Early saints often had a choice of denying Christ and living, or affirming belief in Him and dying for it. The faithful followed their conscience despite the heavy cost, and were faithful to God. That is something our feelings and preferences protest against.

Christians to the lionsThe price of obeying conscience can be high, but we’re called to follow it anyway . . .

But we must remember: conscience is not an infallible guide by itself. A person who never has the opportunity or the interest might believe evil things are good, or good things are evil. We must form our consciences according to truth. This goes along with our obligation to constantly seek out and follow the truth. Since we are Christians, we believe the truth centers on God. Since we’re Catholics, we believe that the Church teaches because God has given her the right and duty to teach. So Catholics, if we want to be faithful, have to look to the Church to form our conscience. If the Church condemns what we are okay with, that is a good sign that our conscience has gone wrong. In such a case we need to look to the Church to re-form our conscience and live rightly. If we choose to ignore this obligation, we choose wrong.

The Evasion of Conscience

Tragically, I have seen people argue that Church teaching violates conscience when it forbids certain acts as against Catholic belief. People accuse bishops of violating conscience when they condemn the evils one favored party endorses as a right or condemns the vicious customs of a nation. People protest that since they see other evils as worse, the bishops are coercing them into doing something they see wrong.

But the Church explicitly rejects that argument. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith wrote in 1990:

38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.

The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised.


 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (Donum Veritatis) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1990).

Since we believe that God gave His Church the right and duty to decide how to apply the timeless teachings in each generation, we cannot set up our ill-formed conscience as having more authority. Since the magisterium is the guardian of Sacred Scripture and Tradition, the bishops in union with the Pope, bind and loose in their own dioceses and we have the obligation to give our assent when they teach. (See Code of Canon Law #747-755)

If the bishop does not teach, then he is not demanding our assent and he is not violating conscience. If an individual bishop teaches error, his claims are not binding. But, in that case, the one who decides the proper interpretation of Church teaching is the present Pope and the bishops in communion with him—not the individual Catholic. Neither the radical traditionalist who scours over 16th century documents nor the modern dissenter who scours Vatican II documents can interpret Church teaching against the Church. 

As St. John Paul II pointed out when writing against the SSPX:

4. The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".(5)


But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.(6)


 St. John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei, 1988.

If one is a Catholic, one can’t claim to be faithful while refusing to obey the magisterium. A Catholic badly educated in the faith might misinterpret what Church teaching means, but once the Church says “This is what we mean,” we can no longer insist on our interpretation against the shepherds who teach.

Conclusion: Obedience to the Church is not Legalism but Faith

The link of conscience and the teaching of the Church is serious business, and not a matter of legalism. Because we believe in God and believe Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church to carry out the Great Commission and teach the world in His ways (Matthew 28:18-20). We can’t say our preferences are better than the Church teachings. We believe that God bestows great graces through the Catholic Church, and with these graces, we have no excuses that a non-Catholic might have. As the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium [#14] teaches, “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."

If the Church were nothing more than a human institution, the demand of assent would be tyranny. But to those who believe the Catholic Church was established by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, we have faith that what she teaches in matters of faith and morals is backed by God’s authority. To rebel against those whom God gives authority is not a sign of sanctity. It’s a sign of pride.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Armageddon in 2016? Fearing the Future after November 8th

Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows “what is in man”. He alone knows it.


John Paul II [October 22, 1978], Homilies of Pope John Paul II (English) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014).

This year, an election year, disagreements between Catholics are reaching a fevered pitch. People fear the evils of the future, and reasonably want to limit them. Unfortunately, they cannot agree on what the worst evils are and how to face them. Because of this, Catholics who fear the evils from one candidate accuse other Catholics who disagree of supporting those feared evils or willfully ignoring the danger. For proof of their claims, they point to certain Catholics who do support these evils in defense of their candidate and argue “guilt by association” (a fallacy). To further muddy the waters, many blame the Pope and bishops for not focussing on their issues. Why doesn’t the Pope speak more about X? Why do the bishops spend so much time talking about Y? People assume that if our shepherds were doing their jobs right, we wouldn’t be in these difficulties, and also assume that these are the worst times ever faced, and it has to be somebody’s fault.

Of course, some of the promoted policies do promote evil and could end up persecuting the Church. It is reasonable to oppose such evils and try to limit those which are inevitable. But it’s not the worst possible times ever faced by Christians. In other times, and currently in other regions, the Church has faced persecution to the point that members of the faithful faced martyrdom and other miseries. No, I’m not arguing the fallacy of relative privation here. We do want to avoid whatever harms the faithful and we want to stop whatever leads people away from God.

But as I work my way through works like A History of the Councils of the Church written in the 19th century by the German Bishop Karl Joseph von Hefele, I see a Church history full of governments backing the enemies of the Church, supporting the dissenters and persecuting the faithful. The Church survived these evils, and eventually converted the oppressing rulers. This is a scenario that repeats itself throughout Church history. The faithful, in concert with the Church—under the headship of the successor of Peter and never apart from—challenge the triumphant dissenters and eventually restore the Christian world to faith. As Cardinal George once remarked:

I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.

God provides the grace to accomplish this, but He also sends heroic men and women in every generation to stand up against the state and teach what is right. Thinking about this makes me ponder. If we find ourselves wondering where these heroic men and women are in this generation, then perhaps this is a call from God for us to be one of them. Whether the coming times are times when Christians will die in bed, die in prison, die in the public square, or pick up the shards, Christians are called to stand up and promote the faith despite how the world treats us.

So, yes, let’s take this election seriously. Let’s properly form our conscience through the teachings of the Church, promoting good and trying to oppose evil wherever possible. Let’s vote responsibly. But let’s not live in terror of the aftermath. I’ve no doubt things will be hard for us, and I have my opinions on which way will be harder for us. But let’s remember our obligations to evangelize the world regardless of who gets elected or what unjust laws get passed. We should pray for Our Lord’s protection as we do His work, and relief from evil. But since Our Lord warned us people would hate us on account of Him (John 15:20-25), we can’t be surprised if we have a rough time for the next four years . . . or ten years, or a hundred years or more.

So we have to work, and Our Lord wants us to work together (John 17:20-21). As it says in Psalm 133:1, “How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers dwell together as one!” That won’t happen if we savage each other and accuse each other of bad will in our actions, when it is a matter of simply having different ideas on what we must do to be faithful to God and His Church.

So let us keep our mind on our real Savior, who will remain Lord over all creation regardless of who gets elected. Let us live for Him regardless of what happens to us in the future.