Monday, April 30, 2018


For the entire history of the Church, we had an understanding that the Magisterium of the Church—the Pope and bishops in communion with him—are the ones who determine what is orthodox and what is not. They are also the ones to determine whether it is an appropriate time to change the discipline of the Church. That’s not to say we didn’t have disagreement in the Church, or that all of those with authority exercised it in an unblemished manner. But the point is, when the Church taught, orthodox Catholics recognized the obligation to give assent. Those who refused to give assent were recognized as dissenters or possibly even schismatics and heretics.

But in these current times, stretching back to the end of Vatican II, we’ve seen the rise of a new way of thinking, one which claims that a person can be a “good Catholic” while rejecting portions of Church teaching they disliked. Initially, it seemed like this movement was politically “liberal.”  We had people arguing that Humanae Vitae was not binding, or that the teaching on abortion was in error. They appealed to either dissenting theologians like Charles Curran and Hans Küng, or to spurious interpretations of past saints and legitimate theological concepts like double effect. These people argued that anything which was not ex cathedra was not protected. Since it could not be protected, it could be in error. Because it could be in error, it could be rejected.

There was no basis for those claims. It depended on the interpretation of people with no authority to interpret and rejected the authority of those who did have that authority. But people fabricated their own theology to justify what they intended to do anyway. When the Popes and bishops rejected their views, they were seen as trying to “undo” the work of the Council. This movement was, of course, in error. Faithful Catholics flocked to the defense of the Church.

There was a problem though. Because the dissenters of that time tended to be politically liberal, it became easy to confuse the defense of the Church with political conservatism. Some defenders of the Church were actually defending conservative politics—which did not always line up with Catholic teaching. When this happened, it was easy to downplay the teaching that rejected conservative politics... but the fact remained that Church teaching did not line up with one political faction. [†]

St. John Paul II, September 16, 1987
St. John Paul II, September 16, 1987

Advancing to the time of the current pontificate, we see that the current dissenters are behaving just as wrongly as the dissenters of the past. They are again falsely citing the words of the saints and legitimate theological concepts. They are again rejecting those with the authority to teach while promoting those who either have no authority to teach, or are confusing their teaching office with their personal views. When the Pope says X, this countermagisterium argues that the Pope had no right to say X. Like the previous generation of dissent, the current faction is choosing to listen to the countermagisterium while treating the real magisterium as a false opinion.

One of the tragedies here is seeing members of the Church I hitherto respected taking a path I cannot follow if I want to be faithful to the Church. When the Church permits Eucharist in the hand and Mass orientem and a respected churchman is telling us this is diabolical, then I cannot follow that churchman in this matter. When a high ranking member of the Church openly questions the teaching of the Pope, a red flag goes up in my mind. When a theologian starts questioning the orthodoxy of the Pope, I start questioning the orthodoxy of said theologian—did he really understand the teaching of the Church? Or did he confuse orthodoxy with conservatism?

The reason I do this is not because I am a liberal dissenter who wants to undermine the Church [§]. Rather, I think they do not speak rightly about the Pope. While I will not judge their motives [¶], I believe they are reacting to a caricature of the Pope. Therefore when the Pope teaches X and the countermagisterium says the Pope is wrong, I believe that the Pope has the authority while his opponents offer opinions which they confuse with authority. 

For example, reading Amoris Lætitia, I believe that the accusation of “opening up Communion to the divorced and remarried” is a false charge. It is clear that the Pope is asking bishops to apply the determination of culpability to these cases instead of assuming all elements of mortal sin are present. It’s quite possible that the number of cases where culpability is reduced is ZERO. But we can’t presume that. Therefore when I read something that claims that the Pope is “opening up Communion,” I believe we have a false statement—even if sincerely believed to be true—on par with “Catholics worship Mary.”

Some critics reading this far may accuse me of trying to match my theological knowledge against men who served the Church faithfully for decades. That would be false. I don’t presume to challenge them. However, when one considers the words of Our Lord on authority (Matthew 16:19. 18:18, Luke 10:16), I am pitting the authority of the Pope against the opinions of these men. Put that way, I must be obedient to the Pope to be faithful to the Church. Therefore, if the countermagisterium opposes him, I cannot listen to them.


[†] There were warnings of course. The advent of groups like the SSPX were serious threats and the magisterium recognized that. But it was easy for them to be tolerated by conservatives who argued “liberals were greater threats.” In my opinion, the current problems in the Church has that mindset as at least part of the origin.

[§] I have also defended his predecessors from critics on both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals have accused me of being heartless. Conservatives have accused me of being ignorant of Church teaching.

[¶] This is important. The average person who misinterprets the Pope as teaching error can quite easily misinterpret the Priest, Bishop, or Cardinal who expresses concern. We would be wise not to judge them by those anti-Francis Catholics who cite them.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Sinners and the Self Righteous

When Our Lord was teaching here on Earth, two of the things He made clear were:
  1. The salvation of sinners was not unobtainable as they feared
  2. The self-righteous were not as close to salvation as they presumed
When Jesus spoke and dined with sinners, they responded with joy but the self-righteous resented it. They did not recognize their own need for salvation, thinking their beliefs and behavior guaranteed them a place in God’s kingdom. Despite the warnings that all of us needed mercy and, therefore needed to repent, the self-righteous assumed they were good enough but Our Lord must not be from God because He showed mercy to the lowest of the low—the prostitutes and tax collectors.

Flashing forward to 2017, I am inclined to think that Our Lord is permitting His Vicar, the Pope, to experience (in a small way) what He experienced on Earth. The Pope is emulating his Master in offering mercy to the sinners and warning the self-righteous. He is telling both groups to turn back to the Lord. With those who are our lowest of the low: the divorced and remarried, those involved in abortion, those involved in homosexual acts, that mercy is possible to them if they seek it. He has urged the clergy to reach out with compassion to helping them (and the rest of us as well) to return to the faith—or at least start them on their way back to God. He held a Year of Mercy seeking to remove barriers that kept people from seeking forgiveness.

Tragically, the self-righteous treated these acts as laxity, not mercy. His call for bishops and confessors to assess the individual culpability instead of assuming that all the conditions required for mortal sin were present was treated as “opening up the Eucharist to public sinners,” unwittingly echoing the rebuke the Pharisees gave to the Apostles: Why Does Your Master Eat With Tax Collectors and Sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11). They see the Pope washing the feet of convicts, showing mercy to public sinners, and assume that this means sanction of their behavior instead of reaching out the way that Our Lord did.

Of course, we should note that the self-righteous do not exist only in one faction of the Church. The Social Justice Warrior who tolerates some evils while looking disdainfully at other Christians who oppose those evils are just as much a part of the self-righteous as the anti-Francis Catholics. They are simply self-righteous over different causes. The attack of “anti-abortion but not pro-life” is just as much a label of contempt as the Pharisee reserved for the tax collectors, and just as much contempt as the anti-Francis Catholics apply to the sincere divorced and remarried who are trying to find the way home but are finding it difficult to extract themselves from sin.

Any time we are willing to look at others and write them off, while thinking of ourselves as righteous in the eyes of God are greatly deceived. That’s true if one scours the minituæ of ancient Church documents to find ways to condemn others, and it’s true if one assumes that working for social justice makes them superior to their fellow Christians and other sinners. While some sins are greater evils than others, the deadliest sin for each individual is the one that sends them to hell. That may be divorce and remarriage. It may be abortion. It may be homosexual acts. But it may also be refusing to follow the Church teaching on other parts of social justice. Matthew 25:31-46 points out that many will be damned for what they refused to do to help others in need.

The point of this is we need to recognize that all of us are sinners and all of us are in need of mercy. This does not mean we ignore warning a brother or sister in danger of losing their way. But it does mean we must not view ourselves as “better” and others as “worse” in doing so. It especially does not mean that so long as we do not perceive ourselves as bad as others, we are guaranteed a spot in the Kingdom of Heaven. We must constantly turn back to The Lord and away from sin.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Who Are You Listening To?

When it comes to dissent—conservative or liberal—in the Church, I’ve noticed one factor. People quit listening to the Church as Mother and Teacher and instead listen to individuals or groups that say what they want to hear about the Church. This transforms the Magisterium into a group with an opinion and elevates the group with an opinion into the Magisterium. The danger of course is that these individuals or groups do not teach with authority. That falls to the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, as well as those the Pope delegates (See Code of Canon Law 752-754). 

These individuals or groups tend to appeal to a higher cause, overlooking or ignoring the fact that Scripture or prior magisterial teaching is not being questioned. What is being questioned is whether these groups are properly interpreting Scripture and Tradition in arguing that a conflict exists and that they must disobey the Church in order to be faithful to God.

What these people are doing is committing the Begging the Question fallacy. Their claims are what have to be proven. But instead, they act as if their assumptions were true and interpret whatever the Church does through that unproven assumption. The problem is the Magisterium of the current Pope and bishops are the ones who determine how Scripture and Sacred Tradition are to be interpreted and applied to the conditions of this time. So any appeal to the Scripture and Sacred Tradition against the Magisterium has no authority whatsoever.

The arguments some use, appealing to certain bishops, cardinals, or popular theologians in the Church against the Pope is the Appeal to Irrelevant Authority fallacy. These individuals do not have authority to overrule the teaching of the Pope. If they teach in opposition to the Pope, it is a personal opinion without authority [†].

Unfortunately, a theology of dissent is being invented that misinterprets history and the words of the saints. Yes, we’ve had Pope John XXII who held a position that was later defined as an error. But the issue was not defined at the time, and he did not teach. He merely gave a homily. Yes, we’ve had Liberius and Honorius I who were suspected of privately holding heresy. But that is disputed and even if true, it was never taught. Yes, we’ve had morally bad Popes like John XII and Benedict IX. But their wickedness was in their personal behavior and not their teachings. Even citing St. Paul rebuking St. Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) is a case of irrelevant authority because this incident involved personal behavior causing scandal, not teaching.

And teaching is exactly what the issue is with Pope Francis. While there is an attempt to take the various levels of Papal documents and draw a line on where they bind, the anti-Francis faction shows itself to be inconsistent. They reject Amoris Lætitia on the grounds that it is “merely” an Apostolic Exhortation. But they also say that we must obey Familiaris Consortio—which is also an Apostolic Exhortation. By denying (wrongly) the authority of one, they logically must deny the authority of the other. We can likewise point out their (rightful) insistence on obeying encyclicals like Humanae Vitae is inconsistent with their refusal to accept Laudato Si [§].

In addition to the inconsistent obedience that coincides with personal preferences, we have to consider the track record of those who allege the Pope is promoting error or confusion. The fact of the matter is the critics have made many dire predictions that turned out to be false. They claimed that the synod on the family would legitimize homosexual relationships. It did not. They claimed that the Pope would ordain women deacons. But Gaudete et Exsultate shows that he does not view the possibility of deaconesses to be on the same level as ordained deacons. 

The fact is, every “controversy” that arose alleging “error,” was disproven by a reading of a transcript of his actual words. The controversies arose from partial quotes ripped out of context (for example, the “Who am I to judge” comment of 2013). Yet people repeat these debunked claims, and when disproved, argue that the Pope is to blame for “not speaking clearly.”

When it reaches this point, the person of good will must start asking questions about the usual suspects making the same mistakes and the same accusations. Why do we give credibility to the angry bloggers and borderline schismatics (see canon 751) when they allege the Pope is in error instead of the successor of Peter who has been given the authority to bind and loose.

And before one says, “that doesn’t happen if the Pope teaches error,” let me point out that the charge of the Pope teaching “error” is unproven. It’s based on the interpretation of those who do not have the authority to contradict the teaching of the Pope who has power over the entire Church and all parts and whose decisions cannot be appealed (canon 3331404). To make the argument that one can reject a “false teaching” by the Pope is to show that the claimant has a fatally flawed understanding of Church teaching.

Nobody who is informed claims that when the Pope gives a homily or holds.a press conference that he is teaching. A Pope can be mistaken about some details (like St. John Paul II kissing the Qur’an because he mistakenly thought it was a token of respect), or express himself poorly (like Benedict XVI and his unfortunate comment on a “gay male prostitute with AIDS” which many misinterpreted as changing Church teaching. A Pope might be unable to remember the details of a CDF study made decades before (like Pope Francis calling for a study on deaconesses). These were mistakes. They were not teaching error.

Yet the critics of the Pope falsely claim he is teaching error in these situations too. And this leads us to the decision we must make. Will we listen to the Pope and give a “religious submission of the intellect and will” that is even required with the ordinary magisterium? Or will we listen to some angry blogger, or a churchman who rejects what the Pope teaches?

When we think about the religious obligation in place since the first century AD, it would be foolish to listen to those who say we can disobey. So each Catholic needs to stop pretending that their disobedience is really a “higher obedience” to God. Our Lord told us that rejecting the Apostles was rejecting Him (Luke 10:16). Since we profess Apostolic succession, Our Lord’s words must apply to the successors of the Apostles as well. 

For two thousand years, the Pope has been the standard of orthodoxy. In the case of bad Popes, they failed to teach when they should have, but they never taught falsely. We can either continue to believe that, listening to the magisterium that interprets how Church teaching is to be applied. Or we can stop believing that, and choose to follow whoever tells us what we want to hear.

But the person who does that is being deceived.


[†] Given how badly Catholic dissenters on social media misinterpret and misrepresent the Pope, it’s only fair to consider the possibility that they also misinterpret the Churchmen they cite against the Pope and these Churchmen do not approve of it. Hence, I have no intention to name or accuse individuals in this case. I leave it to the magisterium to judge their orthodoxy.

[§] The same can be said for Catholics who accept Laudato Si and reject Humanae Vitae.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Does Our Reaction Show Our Preconceived Notions?

In his Mere Christianity, CS Lewis wrote, “We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort.” Depending on the accent the reader puts on certain words, this can either be interpreted as “God wants us to continually turn to him and not simply check off boxes,” or as “God doesn’t care what you do.” The first interpretation would be theologically correct. The second would be false. But the person who praised or condemned CS Lewis because that person assumed the second interpretation would be wrong. 

That is a problem I constantly see in the attacks on Pope Francis. This week, we had a beautiful Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, which urges the readers to constantly seek a life of holiness and evaluate where one needs to change ways of thinking. The exhortation is inspiring and accessible to the average reader. In my first reading (this is something that rewards repeated reading), I found things that confirmed what I thought the Church thought, and I found things that challenged me to go beyond my previous assumptions. In no way did I feel like I was being unjustly attacked by the Holy Father. 

But some people do. People have accused him of contradicting St. John Paul II on the teaching of the Right to Life. People have accused him of denigrating religious life. People have accused him of being a Marxist. But, when I compare what the Pope actually wrote with what his accusers claimed he said, I found no truth to their claims.

In fact, when one reads St. John Paul II in Christifideles Laici #38, we see that what he said on the right to life gives a definition that goes beyond (but must include) opposing abortion:

38. In effect the acknowledgment of the personal dignity of every human being demands the respect, the defence and the promotion of the rights of the human person. It is a question of inherent, universal and inviolable rights. No one, no individual, no group, no authority, no State, can change—let alone eliminate—them because such rights find their source in God himself.

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

The Church has never yielded in the face of all the violations that the right to life of every human being has received, and continues to receive, both from individuals and from those in authority. The human being is entitled to such rights, in every phase of development, from conception until natural death; and in every condition, whether healthy or sick, whole or handicapped, rich or poor. The Second Vatican Council openly proclaimed: “All offences against life itself, such as every kind of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures; all offences against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where men are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons; all these and the like are certainly criminal: they poison human society; and they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator”(137).

If, indeed, everyone has the mission and responsibility of acknowledging the personal dignity of every human being and of defending the right to life, some lay faithful are given a particular title to this task: such as parents, teachers, healthworkers and the many who hold economic and political power.

Nor can we say that this is merely an opinion of St. John Paul II. The sacredness of human life has long been taught by the Catholic Church. Take St. John Chrysostom in his Homilies on Matthew (Homily 50, #4):

St. John Chrysostom Homily on Matthew #50, ¶4
The problem is people have preconceived notions on what the Church teaches. If their assumptions are excessive, then they accuse those who do less of laxity. If their assumptions are lax, then they accuse those who do more of being excessive. Moreover—and this is the most dangerous part—if the person is error about what the Church teaches, then they accuse the actual Church teaching of being in error. The liberal dissenter might argue that Church teaching “goes against Jesus.” The conservative dissenter might argue that Church teaching goes against Sacred Tradition. But both are using their erroneous views to judge the Church when they should be listening to the Church in order to judge their own values.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
The Church can teach in an ex cathedra manner. The Church can teach using the ordinary magisterium. But in both cases, we must give obedience to the teaching. Tragically, some in the Church assume that what God intends mirrors their own preferences. The conservative assumes Church teaching must mirror conservative ideology while the liberal assumes the Church must mirror liberal values. The lax assume Jesus was lax while the rigid assume He was rigid.

So, when we see people claiming that the divisions in the Church are the fault of the Pope, we need to realize that these divisions are caused by people who insist on their preconceived notions are “true” and judges whatever a Pope should formally teach according to their notions. The confusion in the Church can be laid at their doorstep.

If we want to be faithful to the Church, and we find a stumbling block, then let us remember the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises:

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises
That does not mean “follow the Church if she teaches error.” It means, “When there is a conflict between your view and the Church, follow the Church as the Pope teaches.” Otherwise, we’re following our preconceived notions into error.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Same God, Same Church, Same Promise of Protection

In the past week we’ve seen more reminders about the dissent in the Church that claims to be faithful in a higher way. Some show outrage that bishops take a stand against moral wrongs done by the government—but cheered them when they happened to agree to their opposition to previous administrations. We’ve seen people cheer princes of the Church when they undermine the authority of the Pope, implying that the Pope is not following Christ. 

What makes this surreal is the fact that these critics celebrate the past Popes and bishops; saints who not only defended the Church against the wrongdoing of Cæsar, but also recognized that the Pope is the head of the Church and opposed those who claimed that being faithful to Christ meant rejecting the authority of the Pope.

These critics recognize that God protected His Church from error during the reigns of undeniably bad Popes in past centuries. But they will not recognize that God continues to protect His Church today. Instead, they claim that a Church teaching they dislike is not a teaching at all yet, at the same time, argue that when the Pope teaches contrary to Christ, he has no authority.

Canon Law 752-753
So... which one is it? Is it not a teaching at all? If so, the issue of teaching does not apply. But if it is a teaching, then why do they argue that the teaching lacks authority? Personally, I think the issue is these critics are realizing that the Pope is teaching but they do not want to accept it. To avoid violating Canon 752, they argue that a Pope’s teaching is not a valid teaching, and therefore not binding. The problem is the Church is quite clear that nobody has authority to act against the Pope:

Canon Law 1404
Yes, St. Paul can rebuke St. Peter for personal wrongdoing. Yes, we can speak of the shameful behavior of Benedict IX, John XII, Liberius, or Honorius I. But we can’t claim their acts of personal wrongdoing as proofs that we can pass judgment over whether.a teaching is a teaching or not. When the Pope exercises his magisterium, even if not ex cathedra, we are bound to give a religious submission of intellect and will.

To believe that the Pope, exercising his teaching office in the ordinary magisterium, can teach in opposition to Christ is to open a Pandora’s Box that undermines the authority of the Church. It’s a claim that God will let His Church teach error and we have to scrutinize everything a Pope says to be clear he is not teaching error. 

I find that a blasphemous claim—it makes Christ a liar when He says He will be with the Church always (Matthew 28:19-20) and will bind and loose what the Church binds and looses (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). Since Our Lord makes clear that to reject the Church is to reject Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16) and that the successor of Peter is the head of the Church (Matthew 16:18), we have a choice. We can either:
  1. Trust that God will not let a Pope bind error or loose truth, OR...
  2. Deny that God protects His Church so she can be the Pillar of Truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and Light of the World (Matthew 5:14-16)
Either we believe that the same God who protected His Church from the beginning protects His Church today, or we have to admit that we cannot know for certain whether God protected His Church in other circumstances. Can we really be certain that the canon of Scripture is correct without the authority of the Church? How about whether we can be sure God protected us in ourTrinitarian belief and that the Church didn’t make a wrong turn in the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) while Arius was right? 

If one wants to claim that God didn’t protect His Church in 1958 (when St. John XXIII became Pope), or in 1963 (when Vatican II began), or in 1970 (When Blessed Paul VI promulgated the new form of the Mass), or in 2013 (when Francis became Pope), then how can you know that God protected His Church in 1570 (when St. Pius V promulgated his Mass) or in 1545 (the beginning of the Council of Trent)?

It is only if we realize that it is the same God, same Church, and same promise of protection that we can trust any teaching of the Church. If one accepts the authority of Pius XII while rejecting the authority of St. John XXIII (or Francis), that person denies God keeps His promise. If one accepts Trent, but not Vatican II as a lawful Council, that person denies God kept His promise. 

Because of my faith in God and His promise, I will trust that when the Church teaches—even when not ex cathedra—she teaches under God’s authority. Because of this, when the Pope teaches one thing and a cardinal, bishop, or priest teaches against him, I will listen to the Pope. I don’t do this out of “papiolatry” or “ultramontanism” that treats the Pope as intrinsically holding inerrancy. I will follow Him because I believe that to do so is to do God’s will.