Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Grammar of Dissent: Reflection on Modern Rebellion in the Church

From An Essay in Aid to a Grammar of Assemt (page 240). 
I believe it also applies to “cradle Catholic” dissenters.

The current dissent within the Church today is scandalous. Catholics who were once diehard defenders of the Papacy are now undermining the current Pope, inventing a theology of dissent while pretending to be faithful. At the same time, certain Catholics who rejected previous Popes are now misapplying what Pope Francis says to portray their long-running dissent as being justified.

The only way I can think to explain it: one faction of Catholics merely happened to agree with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and mistook that agreement for obedience. Now that we have Pope Francis, they don’t agree and justify disobedience because they never learned the obedience the Church has always required. Another faction rejected Church teaching under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI and just happen to agree with what they think (inaccurately, in my view) Pope Francis is saying. 

Some confused conservatism with Catholicism. They assumed that because some teachings lined up with their labels, Church teaching was “conservative.” They praised or condemned it based on their ideology. Others confuse Pope Francis’ Catholicism with liberalism. Both factions downplay or attack Catholic teaching that doesn’t match their ideology. None of them consider the possibility that they’re wrong; that they, not the Pope, cause the confusion in the Church by pushing an ideology and calling it “Catholic.”

We must remember we still have the same Church which teaches with the same authority. Discipline has changed in different eras of the Church but it still revolves around gathering people in so they might learn what they must do to be saved (Acts 2:37). An act that is intrinsically evil (always wrong, regardless of circumstances) remains wrong. But how the Church reaches out to the sinners who commit these acts can change depending on the needs of the time.

So, both insistence on changing what the Church cannot change and insisting that the Church remain attached to the discipline, customs, or practices of a certain age are to replace the virtue of obedience with following the Church only to the extent that it supports what we were going to do in the first place. That’s not obedience. That’s just membership in a group.

One of the radical ideas of Catholicism is that Jesus Christ established a Church which He intends to teach with His authority. He made clear that rejection of this Church was a rejection of Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). If this is true, then we must obey the Church when she intends to teach. If it is not true, then there is no real reason to be a Catholic in the first place.

I think we’ve lost this sense today. We think that we are the ones who “know” the truth and we are “cursed” with a Church steeped in “error.” But we forget that in past ages, when we really did have Popes of dubious character, the saints still insisted on obedience, that we trust and obey the Church even if it ran counter to our own perception.

From The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

Note that St. Ignatius does not create exceptions for Popes we dislike. He does not limit this obedience to ex cathedra statements. He affirms that when there is a conflict between ourselves and the Church, we must obey the Church because of we believe God protects and guides her. If we do not believe this then, again, there is no reason to be a Catholic to begin with. If we believe that God can protect the Church from a Benedict IX, John XII, Liberius, or Honorius I, why do we believe that He stopped protecting the Church in 1958 (the beginning of St. John XXIII’s pontificate), 1962 (the beginning of Vatican II), 1970 (the implementation of the Ordinary Form of the Mass), or 2013 (the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate)?

Either we trust the Church because we trust God to protect her, or we lie when we say we have faith in God. The authority of the Church is not in the holiness of her members (we would have been debunked millennia ago if that were the case) but from God. Sometimes, this authority of the Church shocks—remember that members of the Church were shocked when St. Peter baptized the first gentiles (Acts 11:1-3)—but we believe that teaching is binding.

The problem is people confuse things that are not universally binding with teaching. When the Pope has a private conversation or a press conference, this is not teaching. When a Pope promulgates a law for Vatican City (or previously, the Papal States), this is not teaching. But when the Pope published Laudato Si and Amoris Lætitia, he was teaching [†]. For example, he explicitly identified the authority of Laudato Si saying:

We cannot call this an “opinion.” The Code of Canon Law makes clear that when the Pope teaches, we must give our submission—even if the teaching is not ex cathedra.

So, regardless of the faction one comes from, there is no basis for the rejecting the teaching authority of the Pope and there is no basis for trying to deny that a teaching is a teaching. Accepting the authority of the Church comes from putting faith in God protecting His Church. If we won’t do that, we are NOT faithful Catholics. We’re merely dissenting about different things.


[†] It is downright bizarre that critics of Pope Francis reject Amoris Lætitia because it is “only” an Apostolic Exhortation and appeal to Familiaris Consortio—which is also an Apostolic Exhortation.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Context is Key: Thoughts on Misinterpreting the Pope


Another unconfirmed story is going around that the Pope said that God “made” a certain person with a same sex attraction, and that he (the Pope) did not care either. The usual suspects are floating the same stories. Those who believe that the Pope intends to “change Church teaching,” interpret these words according to their narrative. Those who think the Church should change Church teaching are treating this as justifying their stance. Those who think that the Pope supports error also treat this as supporting their stance. Assuming that the reported dialogue took place as claimed, the reported words sound to me like the Pope was saying God loves and calls everyone to turn to Him regardless of their situation.

The Church on Same Sex Attraction

Let’s look at the Catechism:

The “psychological genesis” from the CCC was the first thing I thought of when I heard this story. IF the quotes were accurate and in context, then the most we could say is that the Pope has a private opinion on the origin of these inclinations. We must remember there is a difference between an inclination and an act. The Pope did not say the act was okay. In fact, he’s on record as saying the act is intrinsically wrong. Nor can we accuse the Pope of claiming that God deliberately makes a person with evil inclination. God made us. We are born with original sin. But that doesn’t mean God intends us to live according to original sin. He gives us grace—especially through the sacraments—and calls us to respond. If homosexual inclinations are a part of nature and not nurture (remember, the Church has not defined this), then it’s part of original sin. Each of us struggle with our own sinful inclinations in trying to be faithful to God.

An Example of Context and Meaning

But in the midst of this brawl, nobody is asking whether the Pope said what is claimed. Nobody is asking whether the words were properly understood or relayed by person making the claim. We don’t even know the context of the words—if said and accurately repeated. Without knowing that, we can’t know anything about the real meaning.

Here’s an example. Would you believe that the Pope said that people are less important than material at the service of the rich? Here’s the quote from A Year With Pope Francis:

From A Year With Pope Francis...sort of...

So, an Ayn Rand conservative could argue that the words of the Pope mean “things that provide profit to the wealthy are more important than people.” But context is given by the next line, not listed in this entry: “What point have we come to?” The fact that the book left out that line is baffling. But it is not the fault of the Pope.

The Pope was not praising economic injustice. He was opposing it. A person who took the given quote and interpreted it literally, without checking context, would likely give a false interpretation. However, any person who should take that quote and argue that “the Pope was not speaking clearly” would be wrong. The Pope did speak clearly. The problem is when people see only the soundbite quote, they tend to interpret it according to those words alone without seeing if there are any other words that modify the meaning of those limited words.

We MUST Avoid Rash Judgment!

By relying only on soundbite quotes and not looking for context when something seems unusual, is to risk falling into error. To assume that a soundbite quote “proves” error on the part of the Pope is to commit rash judgment—which the Catechism teaches is a sin:

If we would avoid rash judgment, we must recognize the importance of context and not insert meaning into what we hear. We must verify what is said. If it cannot be verified, we cannot assume a meaning that fits our ideology.

That is what we must remember.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Back to Basics: Reflections on Anti-Catholic Attacks

There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church —which is, of course, quite a different thing. These millions can hardly be blamed for hating Catholics because Catholics “adore statues”; because they “put the Blessed Mother on the same level with God”; because they say “indulgence is a permission to commit sin”; because the Pope “is a Fascist”; because the “Church is the defender of Capitalism.” If the Church taught or believed any one of these things it should be hated, but the fact is that the Church does not believe nor teach any one of them. It follows then that the hatred of the millions is directed against error and not against truth.

—Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (Introduction to Radio Replies)

Preliminary Note: Not all non-Catholics are anti-Catholic. This article does NOT intend to accuse all non-Catholics. Rather this article is focused on those who not only disagree with us, but also accuse us of spreading error through ignorance, corruption, and/or malice. For the non-Catholics reading this who may disagree with us but are not anti-Catholic, I do not intend to lump you in with them.

Also, this article involves anti-Catholicism within Christianity. It will not deal with any non-Christian versions of anti-Catholicism.


I find anti-Catholic attitudes are similar to anti-Francis attitudes. Both rely on a misunderstanding of what we believe and, instead of determining what we really do believe, presume ignorance, corruption, or malice as the reason for “believing” what we never believed in the first place or “rejecting” what we hold was never part of the faith to begin with.

Under this way of thinking, something the Church has long rejected is accepted by a certain group as “true.” Then our rejection is considered “proof” of our “falling into error.” So long as we refuse to accept how they see things, we are accused of error. But this is the begging the question fallacy. What they assume to be proof of our “apostasy” actually has to be proven.

Separating Anti-Catholicism from Mere Disagreement

Non-Catholics who are not anti-Catholic disagree with us on issues of authority. We hold in common with Protestants a belief in the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, but we disagree that authority stops there. We hold in common with the Orthodox a belief in Sacraments, Apostolic Succession, Councils, and Sacred Tradition. But we disagree that authority stops there. We believe that there can be a legitimate development of Church teaching that does not contradict Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

The Catholic and the non-Catholic (assuming them equally educated about their beliefs) will disagree about what Scripture means in some places. They will disagree about the weight and meaning of Sacred Tradition. They will disagree about who has the authority to make binding interpretation. Of course these differences are contrary to each other and they cannot all be true. At least some of them must be false. But the existence of this disagreement does not mean that the person who disagrees must be anti-Catholic.

The anti-Catholic hates what they (wrongly) think the Catholic Church is. Because they think we embrace error, the anti-Catholic believes that the Catholic Church is a force of evil that must be opposed. Those people who are members of the Church are assumed to be “ignorant” about what the Bible says—deceived by “heresy.” Those people who are not ignorant are assumed to be willful heretics doomed to be damned for spreading error. I’ve encountered some anti-Catholic Protestants who accused me of being a “reprobate” (those predestined to damnation). I’ve encountered anti-Catholic Orthodox who called on God to curse me.

If an anti-Catholic member of one of the Orthodox churches accuses us of inventing Papal primacy, or if an anti-Catholic member of a Protestant church who accuses us of inventing teaching contrary to Scripture, the Catholic must respond, “No, we cannot accept that. We believe what you say is at odds with what the first Christians believed and the legitimate development of doctrine.” We cannot hold that the Pope is merely “the first among equals” as the Orthodox claim. We cannot hold “Sola Scriptura” like the Protestants claim. These claims strike me as a reason created to reject the authority that the Church has always held.

Sincere or not, Anti-Catholicism is Bearing False Witness

Aristotle once defined truth as saying of what is that it is and of saying what is not that it is not. In this context, this means that the person who disagrees with what the Catholic Church teaches has an obligation to know what we believe before condemning us. For example, we do not reject the Bible. We do not believe “earning salvation.” We do not “worship” Mary or the Pope. The person who accuses us of doing these things bears false witness against us. They might not do so deliberately—they might sincerely believe we hold these things—but the fact of false witness remains.

We have an obligation to learn what is true instead of assume that what has been told to us is true. Unfortunately, some people who do not know what Catholicism teaches are willing to believe any number of accusations against us. They assume we are ignorant. They assume our Church is willing to do evil if it serves our purpose. So, when someone tells them something false about us, they believe it to be true... sometimes to the extent of assuming the Catholic trying to correct their false understanding is either deceived or lying.

A variant of this is the “horrifying past history” tactic. Let’s face it, by 21st century standards, crime and punishment of past eras was barbaric. Much of it came from the Germanic barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire (trials by ordeal, burning at the stake etc. are Germanic, not Christian in origin), but even the Romans did some pretty barbaric things. The thing to remember is this: The Catholic Church did not invent and impose these barbarisms. It was not a case that some bishop said “Hey, why don’t we set people we dislike on fire?” Rather, it was a case of governments changing but the means of punishment remaining constant. My point here is, when we hear about horrifying things in history, we need to understand why things were done that way without making excuses for it.

This means when someone says a thing about the Church that sounds horrible, people have an obligation to get to the truth of it before spreading it around. Do you hear someone say that we believe that we can earn salvation? Before you spread it around, you have an obligation to find out if it is true—and the truth is we do not believe that.

Does it Cut Both Ways? A Warning to Catholics

Our Lord, teaching the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31) tells us we must do to others what we would have them do to us. If we would have others stop speaking falsely about us, we must be sure we speak truth about others rather than assume the worst is true. For example, I have encountered incredibly vicious members of the Orthodox Church online. But I learned that these individuals generally came from a small faction within the Church. It would be wrong if I portrayed the wrongdoing of this faction as if it was practiced by all members of the Orthodox churches. Likewise, not all Protestants believe in things like the “prosperity Gospel” or “Once Saved, Always Saved.” It would be wrong if I accused all Protestants of believing it. 

It is not intolerance to believe that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Our Lord. It is not intolerance to believe that where non-Catholic churches disagree with the Catholic Church, they are wrong. But it is wrong if we are willing to believe the worst about them without discerning if those accusations are true. It is wrong to act with a lack of charity towards non-Catholics.

Whatever level of culpability those who broke away from or opposed the Catholic Church at the time of a schism may have had (something I will NOT discuss), the modern non-Catholic was not party to those actions and should not be treated as if they shared that guilt. We should avoid debating “body counts” and whether actions done in the brutality of the 16th century were “justified” or proof of the other side’s barbarism today.

In short, we should not use the tactics that offend us when they are used against us. Regardless of how anti-Catholics may act, we have an obligation to respond in charity.


My point on writing this is not to shame non-Catholics or to claim that the Catholic Church is impeccable. Rather I hope people reading this might reflect on their assumptions and ask whether what they think about us is really true. Obviously we can’t hold to a form of relativism that says “what we believe doesn’t matter. But I do hope we can respond to each other in charity while learning what is true.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Different Approach

Benedict XVI, Homily, September 13, 2008
Homily, September 13, 2008

Scripture and Church history remind us that what we think is the reasonable response is not always what God wants us to do. It’s easy for us to focus on justice in the sense of God putting the smackdown on those we think are doing wrong. That’s certainly what the Jews were expecting in a Messiah. They were expecting a king who would drive out the Romans and vindicate them. But Our Lord did not meet their expectations. Instead, He spoke to them about the need for repentance and the rejoicing of the sinner who returns. He not speak about the evil of the Romans. Instead He spoke about mercy and the need to turn back to God—not referring to one faction, but to all. 

In this context, I was reflecting on the words of Our Lord at His crucifixion (Luke 23:34) and the words of His servant, St. Stephen (Acts 7:60). Despite the tremendous injustice done to them, they did not call for vengeance on their persecutors but prayed for God to forgive them. The reason this registered in my mind was because of the latest round of anti-Francis spin. As usual, it was a distortion of the facts and thoroughly unjust. The injustice angered me. I wondered how God would ultimately judge it.

Then it occurred to me that getting angry and wanting the anti-Francis faction defeated and punished did not reflect God’s will. While it is true that people will have to answer for undermining the peace and authority in the Church, our task is not to wait around thinking “they’ll get theirs someday!” Nor does it mean we have to act like the Zealots who were set to attack the enemies of what they saw as right. Our task is to emulate Our Lord and St. Stephen, interceding for those who attack the Church while believing they are defending it. That doesn’t mean we stay silent in the face of wrongdoing. The spiritual works of mercy include admonishing the sinner after all. But it does mean we don’t act like the Boanerges (Luke 9:54-55) when we’re rejected.

Yes, there are entire factions devoted to tearing down the authority of the Church when the Church does not match their visions. There are a lot of bitter, angry sites out there who act unjustly. Yes, it’s natural to want the injustice to be corrected. But Our Lady, at Fatima, said that many go to hell because they have nobody to pray for them. I think that we should keep that in mind: It is better to pray for those who attack and undermine the Church than it is to become as angry and bitter as they are.