Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Church is NOT a Faction. Thoughts on Cafeteria Catholicism and Political Pharisaism Today

It happens whenever we change administrations in America. Catholics who favor those who are now in power view opposition from the Church as partisan behavior, injecting their opinions into political debates. With Trump, the bishops get opposed for stating the Church teaching on immigration. With Obama, the bishops were opposed for stating the Church teaching on abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, religious freedom, and transgender issues. We could certainly go further back—for example the bishops expressing concern about the bellicose arms race under Reagan. In all of these cases, those Catholics who agreed with president of the time attacked the bishops for acting politically, while those who opposed him cheered the bishops for standing up.

The underlying problem here is a dangerous error which holds that the Church has one opinion, the State has another, and I am the judge who determines who is right. This is just another form of “Cafeteria Catholicism” where I choose what I will find and treat the rest as unimportant in God’s eyes. Of course that’s presumption. When God tells us to keep His commandments (John 14:15), and warns us that to reject the Church is to reject Him (Luke 10:16), we should not take their teachings so lightly. 

Of course many will take offense with this. People associate “Cafeteria Catholics” with liberalism, and Pharisaism with conservatism. But the fact is, any faction can play either role. The Cafeteria Catholic decides when to listen to the Church and when to ignore it. The Pharisee determines that whoever does not follow their interpretation of Church teaching is not a good Catholic. I’ve seen liberals and conservatives play both roles.

What we have to remember though is the Church is not a faction with an opinion. She is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). She is the one who binds and looses (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). When our bishops warn us not to be swept up into a popular view, at odds with Church teaching, we should be paying attention, not assuming their words are partisan or uninformed.

This is a lesson easier to see with other countries, and when those of a different ideology do it. We praise Bishop von Galen of Germany and Cardinal Sapieha from Poland for standing up against the Nazis. We praise many who suffered for speaking against the communists. In all of these cases, some people thought they were being political because these people agreed with a policy the Church condemned. We also praised the bishops for standing up for religious freedom against Obama (I’m not trying to say these were equivalent threats, mind you).

But when the bishops stand up against a popular policy, people treat them as if they were particularly uninformed, and ignorant of Church teaching when Church teaching actually says more than is cited. For example, people accuse them of being ignorant of St. Thomas Aquinas (the most popular currently is STh., I-II q.105 a.3, which actually is about evaluating God’s Law in the Old Testament) or the Catechism saying that nations do have a right to regulate immigration but ignoring the full text of ¶2241, which also talks about helping those in need as much as possible).

It’s the same error—treating the successors to the apostles as being merely one faction with an uninformed opinion and oneself as the judge who evaluates it. 

However, this error must not lead us into the opposite error of a political pharisaism. The fact that the Church teaches we are obliged to act in a certain way does not mean we must support political platform X which seems similar to it. The Church has never said we must vote for one party or one specific program. We do have to consider what the Church teaches and try to be faithful. Those Catholics who say “You must vote for this party/proposition” are misappropriating the teaching authority of the Church.

That does not mean we can vote however we like or support whatever we like. We’re obligated to form our political preferences to follow Church teaching. If we decide one Church teaching can be ignored in favor of another, we have malformed our conscience with Cafeteria Catholicism. If we decide whoever does not support the candidate or platform we do is on the side of evil, we have fallen into Political Pharisaism. Both are wrong.

What we need to realize that we should be listening to the Church when she warns us about dangerous mindsets. We should not be thinking of the bishops as idiots when they dare to speak against what we prefer politically. Otherwise, we might find at the last judgment that we have fallen away from the Church without realizing it, and we will hear Our Lord say, to our horror, "I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:23).

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Thoughts on Sinful Anger

Then the Lord said to Cain: Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it. (Genesis: 4:6–7)


 

21 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:21–22)


___________________________

When I stopped and gazed intently,

I saw muddy people in that mire,

all naked and with indignant looks.

They struck one another not just with hands,

but with heads and with chests and with feet,

tearing each other with their teeth, bit by bit.

My good master said: “Son, now see

the souls of those who are defeated by anger…

 

 The Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Florentine by Birth, but Not by Character: Canticle One, Inferno, trans. Tom Simone (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2007), 70.

If one looks at recent disputes on Facebook or Twitter, it’s clear that they are filled with anger. Disagreements are now seen as affronts that must be avenged. Insults and attempts to destroy reputations are common. If it were just the worldly who did this it would be bad enough, and show us we have a lot of work to do evangelizing. But it seems all too often the ones who are savaging each other are those who profess a belief in Christianity. Where Tertullian could once write that pagans marveled and said to look and see how Christians loved one another, the modern worldly people can marvel and say how we behave no differently than them despite our claims.

This is not just a byproduct of refuting error a little too passionately. This is an example of Christians bearing witness to how we preach but do not practice, or as Pope Francis put it, "So many Catholics are like this and they scandalize. How many times have we heard—all of us, in our neighborhood and in other places—'But to be a Catholic like that one, it would be better to be an atheist.’ That is the scandal. It destroys you, it throws you down.”

Our Lord warned us of sinful anger, but we prefer to think of our own anger as “justified” and only the anger of others as being sinful. This is the danger of this generation. WE are crusaders for a righteous cause. THEY are vicious people. We believe God is angry at others, not us personally. But the problem is, our anger leads us to view those we are at odds with as enemies to be crushed, not as fellow sinners just as much in need of mercy as we are. Their sins may be different from ours, but we should not think that difference makes us superior. The deadliest sin is the mortal sin that sends us to hell. If we do not commit adultery, but instead we commit calumny, we endanger our souls just as much as the divorced and remarried we rage against.

We need to remember that we need salvation and we have a warning—that God will forgive us to the extent that we forgive those who wrong us. If we are determined to savage each other, how will we forgive each other. And if we won’t forgive each other, how will God forgive us?

Pope Francis has made it the mission of his pontificate to spread Mercy throughout the world. This means both making God’s mercy known to the world—urging them to accept it—and it means giving it to others if it we would receive it. But too often we think we will give mercy when they are as good as us, not before. Thus we become a scandal that prevents others from entering the Kingdom of Heaven while refusing to enter ourselves.

Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves how we got here. How did we go from loving others to treating them as scum to be destroyed? I think each person will find the path to be different. But I suspect the path will show we allowed ourselves to forget the other person is a person first, no matter how abhorrent their views might be to us. I think we allow our revulsion with wrong views to become revulsion towards a person

But once we do reach that stage, we tend to think the obligation to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) can be set aside. We accuse (or imply) they knowingly holding evil positions out of malice. We don’t consider the possibility of the other being sincerely in error and needing gentle correction, or of being faithful but simply disagreeing with us (not the Church) on how to best be faithful Catholics. Unfortunately that leads to the hurling of mutual anathemas against each other on Facebook, and people divide into irreconcilable factions, each convinced the other is going to hell, and never considering our own possibility of winding up there.

Just as each of us forged our own path to get to this point, each of us will have to overcome individual obstacles (with God’s grace of course) to get back. We’ll have to consider what sets us off, what weaknesses we have, and keep them in mind when we deal with things that offend us. We should consider the fact that, if we cannot even forgive someone who slights us, how will we be able to emulate the martyrs who forgave their killers? And if we cannot forgive those who trespass against us, how can we expect God to forgive us?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Little Knowledge Is Dangerous: Catholic Combox Warriors Revisited

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.

 

John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei, #4

Introduction

Encountering some anti-Francis combox warriors, one of them alleged that: "Even if the Pope claims to speak ex cathedra, but what he said was not in line with the authentic Magisterium, they we cannot follow his teaching, as it would be outside the Church. In which case, it would not be ex cathedra.” When I saw that, I was left kind of stunned at the ignorance. When the Pope speaks ex cathedra, that’s a guarantee that he is not teaching error at all! But this person (and others commenting on the post in question) have reached a state where they would rather deny the authority of the Church than consider the possibility of being rebels against the Church they profess to believe in.

This isn’t a problem linked to one faction (and, to be fair, it doesn’t involve all Catholics in a faction). I’ve seen modernist/liberal Catholics try to argue that the Catholic teaching goes against Our Lord’s teaching on love and mercy. I’ve seen traditionalist/conservative Catholics argue that a Pope (from St. John XXIII to the present) goes against previous teaching. In both cases, the Catholic in question argues that the Church is in error and will remain in error until she becomes what the combox warrior thinks it should be.

The problem is, whether the critic is citing the words of Our Lord or a teaching of the Church, the quote is usually ripped out of context. It’s obvious that the person has not considered the rest of what the text says or what else has been said. For example, yes, Our Lord did speak on love and mercy—but also about hell and the need to follow Him and His Church to avoid it. Yes, in some centuries, Popes emphasized certain aspects of the Church teaching against attacks from that direction, but that emphasis was not a denial of the other aspects. 

An Example Where Catholics Go Wrong

Let’s take the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam. I have seen Catholics cite the line[†], “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” to deny that non-Catholics can be saved and to insist that every Pope from St. John XXIII forward who speaks about the salvation of those outside of the Church are heretics. What they overlook is the fact that Pope Boniface VIII was dealing with the Caesaropapism of the French king, Philip the Fair, who refused obedience to the Pope and insisted that the clergy owed him obedience over obedience to the Pope.

Yes, it is true there is no Salvation outside of the Church as St. Cyprian of Carthage put it. But what this means is whoever is saved is saved by Christ and His Church, not through Buddha or some other figure, nor from some other religion. But it does not mean that only Catholics will be saved (that’s the heresy of Feeneyism, condemned at the direction of Pope Pius XII). In fact, Even before the First Vatican Council, Pope Pius IX spoke on the possibility of those outside the Church being saved. In Singulari Quidem #7, he said, “Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control.”

Vatican II reaffirmed the necessity of those who know of the necessity of the Church to enter and remain within it: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (Lumen Gentium #14). The Church recognizes (Lumen Gentium #16) that those who never received knowledge of Christ might be saved when they seek to do right, but…

[O]ften men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

In other words, we don’t despair of people who die who are ignorant of Christ and His Church through no fault of their own, but to save them from falling into evil ways or despair, we have to reach out to them. What many people think is indifferentism, is actually a discussion of what is and is not humanly possible in carrying out Our Lord’s work.

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

This is just one example I’ve encountered over the years. People pull one quote off of a site which portrays it as contradicting a later statement (which actually clarify what the earlier statement means) and go on their merry way wrongly believing the Church today is in error and trying to persuade others of this misinformation. The problem is, there’s no real effort made to understand what the Church has taught and how she has deepened her teaching. Likewise, when they encounter something that doesn’t square up with how they interpret these out of context quotes, they assume the other must be in error, not themselves.

The problem is, this is vincible or culpable ignorance, not the invincible ignorance a person who has never accurately encountered the teaching of the Church might possess. As Catholics belong to the Church established by Christ, shepherded by the successors of the Apostles, we don’t have an excuse when we reject that authority. Yes, individual bishops can reject the authority of the Church and promote error (as the early centuries of Church history show), but the safe path has always been with those shepherds who follow the Bishop of Rome. Whenever a Pope has believed an error, it was always a private error and never a binding teaching. 

And that’s why a little knowledge is dangerous. People ignorant of the history of Popes Liberius, Vigilius, and Honorius I cite them as “proof” that a Pope can be a heretic and “teach error,” even though they never taught error and historians are divided over whether they ever held it. Such people wrongly believe John XXII “taught” heresy on the beatific vision, even though he did not teach (he did mention it in two homilies), and the issue was not defined until his successor, Benedict XII decided to settle the issue.

Unfortunately, some Catholics choose to undermine the teaching of the Church by embracing arguments that attack the authority Our Lord gave the Church. That’s dangerous because when one has a difficulty, we have an obligation to investigate it, and not let it fester into a doubt. That doesn’t mean that Catholics must abandon their families, live as monks and study obscure documents. God understands our limitations in our vocational obligations or ability to study and doesn’t expect us to do the impossible. But He does expect us to put faith in Him and the Church He established, offering obedience (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16, John 14:15) when the shepherds teach in communion with the successor of Peter. When we find a difficulty, we ought to seek an answer while trusting in God to protect His Church.

Conclusion

The teaching of the Church is vast. For example, I read theology for pleasure as well as for study, and even I discover new things every day on how the teaching can be applied. There are many in the Church wiser and more knowledgable than me and they too discover new things every day. None of these discoveries have ever shown the magisterium of the Church going from “X is a sin” to “X is permissible.” That might surprise the person who has wrongly believed that Pope Francis “contradicts Church teaching.” But this false belief comes from being ignorant of what the present Pope really said, being ignorant of what his predecessors really said, or (often) both.

What we need to remember is God has been protecting His Church. He has protected us from wicked Popes changing teaching to justify their behavior. He has protected the Church from Popes making a teaching out of erroneous materials, even when not teaching ex cathedra[§]. This protection did not end in 1958 (when St. John XXIII became Pope), 1962 (when Vatican II began), 1965 (when it ended), or 2013 (when Pope Francis was elected). If there was ever a time when this protection was withdrawn, Our Lord’s promises in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 28:20 would be false (a blasphemous charge) and we could never know when the Church was teaching wrongly. Those who hate the Church have argued for centuries that they are right and the Church has fallen into error. If Vatican II could teach error, why not Trent? If Blessed Paul VI could teach error in promulgating the Missal of 1970, why not St. Pius V in promulgating the Missal of 1570?

We must stop assuming the fault is with the Church when the magisterium teaches differently than we think the Church should teach. We need to ask whether our limited knowledge is the cause of this error, and seek to learn from sources which remain faithful to the Church today, and not those sources adversarial to her. Otherwise we risk the ruin of souls through our vincible ignorance.

 

_______________________

[†] Ironically, critics of the Pope seem to have forgotten the quote since Pope Francis became Pope. Their quote-mining would indict them for refusing to follow what they demanded before.

[§] For example, when Blessed Paul VI called a commission to study whether the Pill was contraception or not [Because it didn’t work like barrier methods, the question was whether it was legitimate like medicine], nobody knew that the Pill had an abortifacient effect. If the Ordinary Magisterium (which some Catholics wrongly believe can be error-prone) had ruled it was not contraceptive, we could have wound up with the Church approving an abortifacient while condemning abortion

Friday, February 17, 2017

Thoughts on Difficulties and Doubt

Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of religion; I am as sensitive as any one; but I have never been able to see a connexion between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There of course may be difficulties in the evidence; but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines, or to their compatibility with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a particular answer is the true one. Of all points of faith, the being of a God is, to my own apprehension, encompassed with most difficulty, and borne in upon our minds with most power.

 

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), 264–265.

Introduction

Let’s begin with a personal anecdote: Sometimes I come across difficulties with parts of Scripture and theology. I ask myself How does THAT work? Whether it’s some harsh passages of the Old Testament, or when a Pope or a Saint says something that seems different from my understanding of how things fit together, it can be jarring. Then there’s always the example of Catholics behaving badly throughout history, I have an ideal on what the Church should be, and I compare that to the real life example if actual Catholics, and find that even heroic Catholics have done troubling things.

But while I have difficulties at times, I have never had any doubt about the authority of Church teaching or Our Lord’s protecting the Church from error. So I submit to the teaching of the Church, trusting  that however God might judge an issue, it will be done in a way that reflects His justice and mercy both. I would certainly resent any accusations that I denied or doubted the teaching of the Church because of my difficulties on comprehending how a teaching works. Why? Because I do not reject the teaching as I try to understand it better.

I believe that if I were to doubt the mercy of God or the teaching of the Church on a matter, I would soon find myself at odds with both God and His Church. I would be making myself the arbiter of what should be where I presume to pass judgment on things I have no right to do so. I think those paying attention to what goes on in our faith are aware of the factionalism arising in the Church. We’ve been seeing the anti-Francis attacks since the day he became Pope which assumes what he does differently is “heretical.” Sadly, we’re seeing an emerging position that declares all persons who oppose the Pope must be “schismatic.” I think both of these movements confuse difficulty and doubt, either in their own minds or in the behavior of others, and we need to discern the real difference to avoid the twin dangers of losing faith by harboring doubts, and the rash judgment of assuming another’s difficulty is a doubt.

Doubt from Ourself

I think we harbor doubt when what we see something we do not understand and assume something must be wrong with it because we’re not comfortable with how it sounds. If we’ve invested in a certain opinion or school of thought, then a shift of emphasis sounds like “error” instead of a legitimate change of how we approach something. If we take this difficulty and assume the Church must have gone wrong, we are harboring a doubt in the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error. In a similar way, when we try to find reasons to deny that a teaching we dislike is actually a teaching, we are harboring doubts about the authority of the Church to bind and loose.

These and similar attitudes to these lead to doubting that what the Church teaches is done with God’s authority and with His assurance that He will not permit the Church to teach us error. Once we embrace this doubt, we will replace trust in God with trust in ourselves, thinking that if the Church does not act as we see fit, she must be in error.

Assuming Doubt in Others

On the other hand, some assume that a difficulty with a teaching automatically equals a rejection of that teaching. A person who voices their concern with how people might misinterpret a Church teaching (while accept the validity of that teaching) is not doubting. Yes, we want to avoid legalism in following Church teaching, but one can wrestle with understanding what the teaching means and one’s limited capacity to understand (and by being human, we do have a limited capacity).

One example I see with this, is in the recent attacks on Cardinal Burke in Social media comments. I have seen some Catholics treat him with the same abusiveness that anti-Francis Catholics direct at the Pope. But, regardless of what thinks about how he’s handled things or how his supporters have used/misused his words, much of what he says and does seems based on difficulties in reconciling the teaching authority of the Pope with his understanding on the Church teaching on marriage—but he does not doubt either one. While I don’t approve of how he handled the issue of the dubia, he denies the Pope is in heresy, and should not be treated as a schismatic that rejects the authority of the Pope along the lines of Canon 751.

Conclusion

I think we need to remember our limitations. The fact that we have difficulties reconciling two teachings of the Church does not mean one must be false. But, if we try to downplay one in the name of defending our conception of the Church, that is a warning that we are harboring a doubt. At the same time, when we see people expressing a misgiving, we should be certain they are actually harboring a doubt before accusing them of doing so. They just might be trying to accept the truth but are having trouble in understanding how to do so. We must be careful in not being the stumbling block that turns their difficulty to doubt.

So let us avoid turning difficulty to doubt by remembering that while our own knowledge and power are finite, God’s knowledge and power are not—and He can and will protect His Church. And let us avoid accusing a fellow Christian of doubting if all he is doing is working his way through a difficulty. If such a one submits to the authority of the Church while struggling to understand, we should help them, not attack them.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Non Serviam, 2017 Style?

A troubling trend that shows political ideology leading to dissent from Church teaching is not limited to one faction is the contempt directed against the Pope and bishops over their reaffirmation of the Catholic moral obligation to help the immigrant and the refugee. Instead of listening to those entrusted with binding and loosing, we’re seeing some Catholics respond as if they were patronizingly speaking to a grossly uneducated person giving an unwelcome opinion. The bishops get lectures on what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote and what the Catechism says about the right of governments to make decisions on these matters. But the bishops are not offering their personal opinions here. They are citing Church teaching to say that the disputed policy does not fulfill our obligation to help those in need. Since they are teaching, then we are bound to listen…

can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.

 

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

What we are seeing is a continuation of the old American Catholic antics where factions within the Church treat Church teaching as a biased and uninformed opinion “proving” the bishops must be “liberal.” Ironically, this faction spent the last 8 years denouncing another faction within the Church which accused the bishops as being “the Republican Party at Prayer” because they reaffirmed the Catholic teaching on life and sexual morality.

It leads me to ponder this point—what kind of witness to we leave when we condemn others for not following Church teaching while refusing to follow it ourselves when it goes against our political beliefs? It is one thing to (charitably) disagree among ourselves on the best way to follow Church teaching when the Church teaches, “We must do X; we must not do Y.” But when the bishops reaffirm that a political policy goes against the prohibition on doing Y, supporting Y is not a difference of opinion but a rejection of the authority of the Church—and Our Lord is quite clear that this rejection is a rejection of Him (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17-18).

If we follow Church teaching only when it matches what we want to do anyway, rejecting it when it doesn’t, we are not obeying the Church and following God. Instead, we’re proclaiming to the world that Church teaching is a matter of convenience—obey when it was what you were going to do anyway, and ignore it without consequences when it is not. When we do this, we’re behaving like any other “personally oppose but…” Catholic out there, forgetting that John 14:15 and Matthew 7:21-23 are directed at us, not just “other people.”

This is not a call for us to be mindless sheep, doing whatever we are told regardless of whether it is right or wrong. This is about recognizing who has the final say in determining how Church teaching applies to the situations of our times. It’s about recognizing that we’re not just called to be Christians when it is convenient and leaving it behind when it is not. The magisterium has the authority to determine when a behavior or a belief is compatible with what God calls us to be. The Church doesn’t demand we support a certain political party, or agree with a certain program. But she does tell us that when a state, a party, a program, or a person does evil or supports it, we cannot give our consent to it while claiming it is compatible with our faith.

When we say, “The Church is wrong on X,” we are refusing to obey the One who gave the Church her authority. If we happen to agree with the Church 99% of the time but still insist on choosing when we will or will not obey, we are giving the same non serviam (“I will not serve”) the devil gave to God. This is true regardless of whether our dissent is based on politics or on religious preference.

We need to remember that when we profess to be Christians, but refuse to follow the Church Our Lord established, we are in danger of hearing at the Final Judgment: ”I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:23b)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Thoughts on Controversy and the Church

One trend I come across in social media is the claim that, before Pope Francis or before Vatican II, the Church and the Popes taught clearly, but now everything is ambiguous and needs clarification. This is an error, but it’s an easy one to make. The error revolves around the fact that the further away we are from a controversy, the less we hear about the things which led up to a formal definition by the Church. We remember that Nicaea I condemned Arianism. We don’t remember the disputes about the interpretations of Scripture and the meaning of equivocal words. We think of the old maxim, Rome has spoken, the cause is finished, and wonder why people should still fighting except that the Pope isn’t clear. But we forget that when St. Augustine said this, he was actually speaking about the repeated disobedience despite the teaching of the Holy See:

For already have two councils on this question been sent to the Apostolic see; and rescripts also have come from thence. The question has been brought to an issue; would that their error may sometime be brought to an issue too! Therefore do we advise that they may take heed, we teach that they may be instructed, we pray that they may be changed.

 

Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 504.

When we dig into the history of the Church we see that, when the Pope or a Council teaches on a subject, error doesn’t vanish. The decree just establishes the dividing line where one has to choose—either to accept the authority of the Church or to reject it. Error, however, doesn’t say, “Yep, I’m wrong but I don’t care.” Error rarely says, “I’m going to leave and start my own church!” What normally happens is Error denies that it is in opposition to Church teaching. Rather it either pretends to be faithful anyway or else it claims that the magisterium is wrong, and would have taught differently if they were really following Our Lord, or The Bible, or other Church teachings.

For example, when St. Pius X condemned modernism, many real modernists denied they held the positions condemned in Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Lamentibili Sane. They would simply modify their positions slightly, claiming obedience to the letter of the law while violating the spirit of the teachings. If we were to apply the logic of the critics of Pope Francis or Vatican II, we would have to say St. Pius X was to blame for the continued disobedience. But in fact the disobedience came from those who chose to misrepresent what the Pope said. We can also point to the fact that Catholics and Protestants alike have pointed to St. Augustine to justify their contradicting positions on grace and actions. Did St. Augustine teach confusion? Or did one side cite him wrongly? I think we can recognize that St. Augustine did not teach contradiction or error.

What these examples show is that confusion and dissent existed before Vatican II. We forget about it because, if we read about these things at all, we only read about the final results, and not the path that led to that point. We don’t see the discussion that evaluated each claim and argued over the merits and problems. We wonder why the Pope hasn’t issued a decree, excommunicated a politician or answered a dubia. We forget how Blessed John Henry Newman explained, over 150 years ago, why dispute and confusion existed in the process:

And then again all through Church history from the first, how slow is authority in interfering! Perhaps a local teacher, or a doctor in some local school, hazards a proposition, and a controversy ensues. It smoulders or burns in one place, no one interposing; Rome simply lets it alone. Then it comes before a Bishop; or some priest, or some professor in some other seat of learning takes it up; and then there is a second stage of it. Then it comes before a University, and it may be condemned by the theological faculty. So the controversy proceeds year after year, and Rome is still silent. An appeal, perhaps, is next made to a seat of authority inferior to Rome; and then at last after a long while it comes before the supreme power. Meanwhile, the question has been ventilated and turned over and over again, and viewed on every side of it, and authority is called upon to pronounce a decision, which has already been arrived at by reason. But even then, perhaps the supreme authority hesitates to do so, and nothing is determined on the point for years; or so generally and vaguely, that the whole controversy has to be gone through again, before it is ultimately determined. It is manifest how a mode of proceeding, such as this, tends not only to the liberty, but to the courage, of the individual theologian or contraversialist. Many a man has ideas, which he hopes are true, and useful for his day, but he wishes to have them discussed. He is willing or rather would be thankful to give them up, if they can be proved to be erroneous or dangerous, and by means of controversy he obtains his end. He is answered, and he yields; or he finds that he is considered safe. He would not dare to do this, if he knew an authority, which was supreme and final, was watching every word he said, and made signs of assent or dissent to each sentence, as he uttered it. Then, indeed, he would be fighting, as the Persian soldiers, under the lash, and the freedom of his intellect might truly be said to be beaten out of him. But this has not been so:—I do not mean to say that, when controversies run high, in schools or even in small portions of the Church, an interposition may not rightly take place; and again, questions may be of that urgent nature, that an appeal must, as a matter of duty, be made at once to the highest authority in the Church; but, if we look into the history of controversy, we shall find, I think, the general run of things to be such as I have represented it. Zosimus treated Pelagius and C┼ôlestius with extreme forbearance; St. Gregory VII. was equally indulgent with Berengarius; by reason of the very power of the Popes they have commonly been slow and moderate in their use of it.

 

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), 289–290.

One can also read the CDF documents where a theologian’s works were ultimately condemned. In them, there is a process of dialogue in which the Church determines whether the person understood his ideas went against the Church, and if so, entered a discussion on how to make things right. It took years from the time the case was taken up until an obstinate theologian’s work was condemned. It takes years because the Church wants to make sure they do not wrongly judge someone who has merely stated the truth in a new way.

The modern critics however do not take years—whether in studying the Catholic faith or studying the person alleged to be a heretic. They match what they think they know about the faith and compare it with what they think they know about the person they dislike. The problem is often these Catholics treat their reading of Church documents in the same way that the Biblical literalist interprets the Bible—without regard to context or nuances in translation, and without regard for one’s limitations.

That’s not to say that only people with a PhD have anything to say about Scripture or Sacred Tradition or Church documents. What it means is we ought to realize we can go wrong, and we can avoid error by making sure our reading does not contradict the magisterium. Just because one person thinks the Pope contradicts a document does not, in fact, mean the Pope contradicts that document. The critic forgets to consider the possibility of his own error. 

This seems to fit in with the Pope recently expressing his concern about “restorationist” (a belief we need to “go back” to an earlier time) attitudes, saying, “they seem to offer security but instead give only rigidity.” Expecting that the only response to a problem in the Church is strict response is to reject any response of compassion. Rigidity (wrongly) views the Pope’s words on mercy as moral laxity and condemn him with a growing demonic hatred. But many of those Catholics I have tangled with cannot get beyond a binary thinking of “either rigid or heretical.” But if there is a third option, a none of the above, then the binary thinking is right.

Now the epithet of “Pharisee” gets overused (and, yeah, I know I’m guilty of using it at times, too) but rigidity was one of the problems with the pharisees. They wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), they were scandalized that He dined with tax collectors (Matthew 9:10-13), and that he allowed the sinful woman to wash His feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50). Our Lord was not lax in these cases, but he was merciful, and this is what the Pope is calling us to emulate—don’t treat the sinner with harshness, but with love.

I think the ultimate problem with controversy in the Church is that Catholics (whether ordained, religious, or laity) presume they know all the facts about Church teaching and about the situation of the sinner and reject the approach the Church takes if it does not match the individual’s flawed understanding. And that’s where we have to change. We have to stop thinking we are the ones who pass judgment on the Church when the Church does not match our preferences, and let the teaching of the Church pass judgment on our preferences.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

What Are We Really Trying to Do?

15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15).

 

Such words are “liberality,” “progress,” “light,” “civilization;” such are “justification by faith only,” “vital religion,” “private judgment,” “the Bible and nothing but the Bible.” Such again are “Rationalism,” “Gallicanism,” “Jesuitism,” “Ultramontanism”—all of which, in the mouths of conscientious thinkers, have a definite meaning, but are used by the multitude as war-cries, nicknames, and shibboleths, with scarcely enough of the scantiest grammatical apprehension of them to allow of their being considered really more than assertions.

 

 John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates, & Co., 1870), 41–42.

We must do all by love, and nothing by force.

We must love obedience rather than fear disobedience.

[Written to St. Jane Frances de Chantal]

 

Francis de Sales, Letters to Persons in the World, trans. Henry Benedict Mackey and John Cuthbert Hedley, Second Edition, Library of Francis de Sales (London; New York; Cincinnatti; Chicago: Burns and Oates; Benziger Brothers, 1894), 160.

Some people I know quit Facebook, disgusted over the tone. I can understand the disgust. It seems that most of what crosses my feed involves people who are posting stories giving the worst interpretations possible to the actions of those they dislike, politics and religion alike. The problem I have with this is: giving the worst possible interpretations to an action is not seeking the truth. Instead, the critic has tried the target in abstentia and declared them guilty of openly supporting what the critic fears from him.

It leads me to ask, what are we really trying to do here? Are we trying to inform people about the truth of the matter? Or are we trying to vilify the person, encouraging others to hate the person like we do? I admit this can be a fine line. If we think a person or an idea is dangerous, we want to warn others about the danger. But when we reach the point of repeating whatever makes a person sound evil, often showing no interest in understanding what a person is actually trying to do, I think we’ve stopped warning and started propagandizing.

For example, politically, supporters of the President are called “Fascist.” His enemies are called “Communist.” Both labels assume that the other side is not only wrong but actively trying to overthrow the good. But when pressed, the reasons I’m given for the opposition can be summed up as only their political position is right and there can be no good reason for opposing it.

The same thing happens in terms of religion, people who defend the authority of the Pope are called “ultramontane,” “modernist,” or “liberal.” Again, when one delves into the accusations and rhetoric, the basic assumption is that only the accuser’s interpretation on the application of Church teaching is correct, and there can be no good reason for taking a different view.

If we were serious about warning people about the truth of the matter, we’d start by learning the truth about what a thing is supposed to be and how the person we warn against is violating it. But instead of showing this knowledge, people use these labels aimed at demonizing the person opposed and conditioning the target audience to believe the attack.

Words do have proper meaning, and words can be misused or abused. When we abuse words to invoke a certain emotion, we’re not trying to get to the truth. We’re trying to get others to irrationally accept what we say. For those of us who profess to be Christian, this attempt to replace truth with emotional appeals to buzzwords goes against the great commission, where we are told to teach people. We need to teach people what we must do and why we must do it so they understand. We must submit our opinions to the teaching authority of the Church to be sure we have not deceived ourselves and do not mislead others.

When we’re tempted to use the labels instead of the teaching the truth, we need to ask what we are really trying to do. Are we really trying to help people do right? Or are we looking for recruits to bolster the size of our faction? If we’re trying to help people do right, we’ll stop with the propaganda, the labels, and the ad hominem attacks. Instead we’ll seek to lovingly show what the truth is so they accept it freely. But if we’re focussing on recruiting for a faction, Our Lord warned us harshly against it.