Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Now is the Time! Picking Up the Pieces From a Divided Election

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.

—Francis Cardinal George

Let’s Imagine the worst [*] has happened. The candidate you despise the most has been elected President and now you have to face 4-8 years of a ruler who will use the powers of their office for evil. In such a time, it’s pointless to point fingers over how it should have gone and who’s to blame.  Yes, some fellow Catholics did play the role of Judas by putting their political preferences first and supported a candidate whose positions the Church calls evil. No, we can’t condone that. It’s a sign that many in the Church need to be re-evangelized. But regardless of how they voted, we have to pick up the pieces all the same.

Now, stop imagining. Regardless of how the election goes, there is a lot of partisan and unjust behavior Catholics have directed against each other—even when they’re striving to be faithful Catholics. We have to realize  that these other faithful Catholics were not our enemies when their properly formed consciences led them to a conclusion different from ours [†]. In an election with no good choices, there was bound to be disagreements on what the best Christian witness should be.

We’ll also have to repent over the times when we failed to do the Christian thing. Whether one voted against the teaching of the Church,  whether one rashly judged or calumniated a candidate or group of voters they disagreed with, whether one gave scandal by tolerating evils in their candidate they would not tolerate in an opponent, or whether one behaved like Pharisees, believing in their own righteousness and looking down on others who disagreed as morally bad because they disagreed, there is a lot of fallout over the insults and unjust accusations that American Catholics have hurled against each other.

Now, not after the election, is the time to start clearing up the damage to our souls and our relationships with others. Now is the time to start clearing up the damage that keeps us from witnessing to the Kingdom of God. Now is the time to recommit ourselves to being Catholics first and prepare to defend the faith from the wrongdoing our next President will bring.

Those opposed to the next President will be tempted to reject anything he or she does, even if it is compatible with our beliefs. Those who supported our next President will be tempted to ignore or downplay the evil he or she does. Both attitudes are wrong. When the next President does real good compatible with our faith, we should support it, and when he or she doesn’t, we must oppose it and work to limit it.

We’ll have to stop treating the bishops as enemies of the faith because they took a stand against the evils of a candidate. We’ll have to realize that trying to cite our Catholic teaching selectively to make a bad candidate seem good was a corruption of the Faith.

The point is, over the next 4-8 years, Catholics will have to forgive and seek forgiveness over the wrongs suffered and inflicted. We’ll have to set aside the blame and work together as Catholics to convert society as Our Lord commanded. So why not start picking up the pieces now? Why not start forgiving and seeking forgiveness now? Why not start affirming our Catholic faith regardless of how it affects our preferred candidate now?

Perhaps it’s because of our pride?

The Christian path requires us to live as Our Lord taught, even if it costs us. Yes, at times we may have to suffer an unwanted evil (double effect) in trying to do good. But we can never treat that evil as inconsequential. Under double effect, such an evil is something we would avoid if at all possible and must be less than the desired good. It’s not wrong to want to avoid suffering and hardship. But it is wrong to sacrifice our conscience, beliefs and moral obligations to do so .

So let’s stop tearing into each other because we disagree in matters where the Church allows prudential judgment. Let’s also show mercy to those who do wrong (it is still the Year of Mercy after all). Yes, we must correct others who are in error, but we must do so in charity—not by being so harsh that we cause people to reject what is true because of how we present it.

No, it’s not going to be easy. As I write this, I reflect on my own behavior. There have been times when I have been rude or sarcastic or even judgmental of others who were properly applying prudential judgment according to the teaching of the Church. I regret that. It hurt feelings and didn’t help preach the Kingdom. Each one of us will have to prayerfully seek out how to change. But we must all seek change and turn back to God in the areas we failed.

We should not wait until November 9 (the day after the elections), or January 20, 2017, (Inauguration Day) to start picking up the pieces and healing relationships with God, the Church and each other. We should start now.


[*] Relatively speaking. I’m sure believers from other parts of the world wish they could have a “worst” like ours.

[†] That means they didn’t vote against the Church teaching. Unfortunately some think that means “You must vote this way!”

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Thoughts on the Defense of Life and Repugnant Elections

In 2016, the choices for president are so bad that many Catholics are struggling over how to vote in a way compatible with our faith. I’ve seen many abandoning their traditional party loyalties who never would have thought it possible before. Some even go so far as to consider voting for a candidate they would have firmly opposed four years ago. Now the Church does not tell us which candidate we must vote for, and neither will I. But Church teaching does oblige us to do what is right even at the cost of our personal preferences. The fact that this obligation may block us from voting for a candidate or party we normally favor does not mean the Church teaching is politically biased. Her teaching is true in the 1st century and the 21st.

This year, the major parties nominated two candidates for President who would ordinarily be unfit for our consideration. Both advocate positions incompatible with the Catholic faith to the point that one could only justify a vote for one of them by intending to block what they see as a greater evil. Some Catholics respond to this problem by looking to the minor parties so they won’t have to vote for a candidate who will support evil—their consciences forbidding a vote for either Trump or Clinton. However, barring some sort of fluke, one of them will be elected President. So even this option requires us to investigate if one of the two will do less evil than the other before choosing “none of the above."

As Catholics, we must use Church teaching to guide our vote. The Kingdom of God is not a political kingdom, but our votes enable people who receive authority and use it to do good or evil. So we have an obligation to vote in a way that promotes the good and limits evil to the best of our knowledge and ability. We look to the Church for guidance, even when doing the right thing means suffering or putting aside personal preferences.

The Church has been clear that the right to life is the fundamental right from which all other rights come. She calls abortion and euthanasia “unspeakable crimes” (Gaudium et spes #51) and says that working for social justice without this defense of life is “false and illusory” (Christifideles Laici #38). Voting for a candidate because he or she supports abortion is gravely sinful. Voting for such a candidate for other reasons is remote cooperation—an evil not directly willed but the action makes the evil possible nevertheless—and can only be justified by a “proportionate reason” (Ratzinger Memorandum). That’s a term which is widely misunderstood. It means we have to answer the question, “What evil are we striving to block which is so bad that it makes abortion seem like a lesser evil?”

This is an objective question, not a morally relativistic one. We can’t say that issues A+B+C (issues we favor) outweigh abortion. We have to be able to point to a real evil, not a speculation on “what might happen” and be able to honestly tell God at the final judgment, “I sincerely believed this evil was so serious that opposing it took priority over defending the right to life in being faithful to You.” God will not be deceived, so we had better be convicted in conscience as formed by the Church and not feign moral conviction if it is a political preference. Vincible ignorance—not knowing but being at fault for not even bothering to learn what is right—is not a valid defense before God.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind. The Church is not speaking out against an evil worse than abortion where we have to pull together to stop it first. Historically speaking, a Third Reich or a Stalinist regime would qualify here, but we do not have such threats present here outside the tired epithets of “communist” and “fascist” hurled around at every election. The Pope and bishops consistently speak against abortion and other attacks on the right to life as the worst evils of our time. This doesn’t mean that other issues are not important. We will have to oppose all evil policies our next president tries to implement. What it means is we can’t downplay or ignore the defense of life in favor of these other issues.

That makes 2016 hard. Of the candidates running in the two major and two largest minor parties, three openly support abortion as a “right” and one claims to oppose abortion but whose moral behavior leads some to reasonably doubt his sincerity. That means that Church teaching gets targeted as partisan (in 2008 and 2012, critics slandered the USCCB as being “the Republican Party at prayer”) when she defends right and denounces wrong when people find it inconvenient. The result of this is some Catholics think this means they’re being forced to vote for a candidate they don’t want to. This is never the case.

We need to avoid the “either-or” fallacy where we assume that we can only choose between X or Y. But if there is a legitimate option Z, or an option to refuse both X and Y, we can take it without sinning against the Church. It’s not an easy choice to make of course. America is polarized into Democrat and Republican. One of them will be president in January 2017, and we do have to consider whether we have a valid moral concern in refusing to elect one of them, or whether it is a matter of personal dislike. If it’s a matter of personal dislike, then we may have to do right against that personal preference. But if it is a valid moral concern, and our conscience is not against Church teaching, then we cannot violate Church teaching.

I would describe the issue this way. If Church teaching disqualifies the pro-abortion candidate from receiving our support, and our conscience prohibits us from voting for the other candidate, then we can choose another option—even if that option has no chance of winning. However, we must be very certain that our conscience was properly formed in the teachings of the Church to prevent the triumph of evil.

I would like to end this article with a reflection Archbishop Chaput wrote in 2008:

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

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

The point we must never forget is this: We need to keep fighting for the sanctity of the human person, starting with the unborn child and extending throughout life. We abandon our vocation as Catholics if we give up; if we either drop out of political issues altogether or knuckle under to America’s growing callousness toward human dignity.

We need to keep fighting. Otherwise we become what the Word of God has such disgust for: salt that has lost its flavor.

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

Each one of us will have to answer to God for how we vote. I believe each one of us needs to approach this election with prayer and study so that we can honestly (He will not be fooled by any deception) say to Him. “Lord, I did my best to seek Your will and form my conscience according to the teaching of Your Church. I voted this way because I could see no other way to vote without being unfaithful to You and Your Church.”

Let us remember as we discuss (or even debate) the right course for voting that our Kingdom is Heaven, and we must not lose that kingdom in exchange for a temporary country. Nor must we refuse to bring our nation towards Christ.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Ship of Fools vs. The Barque of Peter

Regular readers of this blog know I hold the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error, even if individual members and even whole regions should fall. I also hold that Our Lord ties obedience to Him with obedience to His Church. Finally, I hold that the successor of Peter today has the same authority and protection that his predecessors had. From that, I reason that we can trust God to protect us from having a Pope who teaches error in matters of faith and morals. That doesn’t mean that a Pope will be a flawless ruler or teacher. it doesn’t mean that he will be impeccable as an individual. It certainly doesn’t mean that a Pope’s teaching will be followed without people misinterpreting or misrepresenting it.

The problem I’m seeing in the Church is people withholding obedience from the Pope because they think he is teaching error on the grounds that what he says doesn’t square with how they think he should govern the Church. Accusations from this sector run from claiming he is guilty of heresy to claiming he causes people to sin by being unclear. Tragically this number has grown. More Catholics assume that the Pope has erred because of the difference between what he says and what they think Church teaching is. But nobody asks whether they might be the ones who have things wrong, not him.

To borrow [†] from the analogy of the “Ship of Fools” in Plato [The Republic, Book VI. 488 B-E] the condition among the Catholic laity and some clergy is like a mutinous crew on a ship, where each sailor claims to be an expert in navigation, despite their lack of training (in fact, they deny this is something anyone can learn), favoring one who says what they want to hear, and are hostile to one who actually is trained in navigation who has actual knowledge of ship handling and tells them something different. 

Whether a dissenter thinks the Church is too lenient with sinners, or thinks that the Church is too harsh because she calls something a sin, they play the part of the mutinous sailors. Because the Pope and bishops do not steer the ship the way they want, these critics turn against them and call for a new navigator or a change in direction.

But if, as I profess, God protects the Church from falling into error under the successor of Peter (see Matthew 16:18, 28:20), then we have to trust that He will not let the Barque of Peter founder, despite whatever personal flaws they see the Pope as having. Yes, a Pope can have the wickedness of a John XII. He may have a problematic understanding of theology like John XXII. He may be a poor shepherd like St. Celestine V. But even in these cases (and I deny that Pope Francis is anything like them), God protected the Church under them from teaching error where people would be damned for following. St. Augustine, in his work Contra Petilian, invokes Matthew 23:2-3, pointing out:

Furthermore, when such men sit in the seat of Moses, for which the Lord preserved its due honor, why do you blaspheme the apostolic chair on account of men whom, justly or unjustly, you compare with these?


 Augustine of Hippo, “In Answer to the Letters of Petilian, the Donatist, Bishop of Cirta,” in St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. R. King, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 568.

In other words, if Our Lord told the Jews to obey the teachings (but not the practices) of the Pharisees because of the authority given them, then we have even less excuse if we disobey the successors to the Apostles when they teach. Yes, there will be priests and even bishops out there we can point to who teach error—either sincerely, or out of rebellion—but their rebellion always comes in opposition to the Church under the Pope.

When people claim there is a conflict between Pope Francis and his predecessors, I believe this is a sign that they need a remedial course in what both actually teach. The problem is, too many assume the Pope advocates evil that could come from an abuse of his teachings. The problem is, he explicitly rejects those abuses and asserts he is a son of the Church when it comes to the teachings most rejected today. He calls for mercy and outreach to sinners. So did his predecessors. The problem is, we assume mercy means moral laxity. If we have that assumption, everything he says will be interpreted in that light and we will (falsely) assume any initiative of mercy must be an attempt to undermine Church teaching. But we forget the possibility of our being in the wrong and the Pope being in the right.

So I think the conflict in the Church today is a conflict between the ship of fools and the barque of Peter. It’s between those who judge the Church according to their own will on one side, and those who trust God to protect His Church and give assent to the Pope’s teachings, striving to learn the truth about what they are called to be. The Catholic Church, under the headship of Pope Francis, is the Barque of Peter. This ship will reach the final destination. However, the ship of fools—guided by what we prefer—is doomed to founder.

Each of us must choose which ship we will embark on. Speaking for myself, I choose to board the barque of Peter because I trust God to protect the Pope from leading the Church in a wrong direction. I refuse to set foot on the ship of fools, because I do not trust those people who claim to know Church teaching while the Church does not. You can call me a fool, or accuse me of being blind to the problems in the Church. But this is the way I will follow because I want to be faithful to God and His Church.






[†] Borrow, not claim it is identical. Yes, I’m aware that Socrates was speaking of philosophers and statecraft, and that the governing of the Greek city-state is not the same thing as the governing of the Church, so the full analogy doesn’t 100% fit. But it makes a useful image for the concern at hand.