Sunday, July 29, 2018

Institution? Family? Thoughts on the Church

Venerable Fulton J Sheen, in his Your Life is Worth Living series, once said:

What do you think of when you first hear the word Church, an institution, an organization, a kind of an administrative body? It is the way we have too often presented the Church.

It’s a good point. Many people view the Church as as a means of organizing the Christian religion. A person who sees the Church as a positive thing thinks the organization cannot be questioned. A person who sees the Church as a negative thing thinks of the organization as interfering between the relationship between God and the individual or as an arbitrary rule maker.

Those views are understandable if a person sees the Church as a thing, then they will see that thing in either a positive or negative way, and everything that thing produces in the same way. The problem is, the Church is not a thing but a relationship: between God and man; between fellow men in relationship with God. If the Church is a relationship, a family, then the people within it are not overlords and minions but are members of a family.

As the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 1960, each one of us has a relationship with God only if we are part of His community:

In fact this word [“Our”] does have great importance, for only one man has the right to say “my Father” to God, and that is Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son. All other men must say “our Father”, for the Father is God for us only so long as we are part of the community of his children. For “me” he becomes a Father only through my being in the “we” of his children. The Christian prayer to the Father “is not the call of a soul that knows nothing outside God and itself”, but is bound to the community of brothers. Together with these brothers we make up the one Christ, in whom and through whom alone we are able to say “Father”, because only through Christ and in Christ are we his “children”.

(The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, page 51)

When we grasp that truth, Our Lord’s admonition to love our brother takes on deeper meaning. If we hate our brother, we are not in communion with him, and therefore not in communion with God. But, if we continue to love our brothers, even if they do not love us, we remain in communion with God and each other.

The difference is like night and day. If we think of the Church as an institution, those who shepherd as rulers, and teachings as edicts, then it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I will only listen if they act as I think good.” In those circumstances, we are deceived if we think we can serve God while rejecting an external institution. But if we see Church as a properly functioning family, then we can understand the authority of the Church like the authority of the family. Our parents do not cease to be our parents just because they make a decision we dislike. The parents can listen to our input, but the responsibility for seeking the good of the family and the final decision rests with them. So if we desire something harmful, the Church (acting in persona Christi) like the parents, must refuse. If we do not like our parents decision, that does not negate their authority. If we dislike a Church teaching, it does not negate Church authority.

Unfortunately, whenever the Church makes a decision we dislike, we immediately drop into “Church as institution” mode and seek an excuse that justifies disobedience. But when we remember Luke 10:16, rejecting the Church is rejecting Our Lord... it breaks the relationship with God and with a His community. So, though we may think we’re doing good in rebellion, we’re actually doing wrong.

Of course all analogies limp if taken too far. Yes, in literal families we have problems. Yes we can have dysfunctional families that cause harm. But we trust God that He will protect His family, the Church, from leading us astray. Yes, we will have heretics, incompetents, and predators that seek to misuse the Church for their own purposes. But we believe they will not prevail in leading the Church, under the visible headship of the Pope, astray.

This is why we must look at the Church as family and be concerned for our brethren in loving God. To look at it any other way damages the communion.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Apostolate of the Wrathful? A Reflection on Going Past Anger to Find Just Solutions

Preliminary Notes: In these times, it is easy to accuse those don’t jump on a bandwagon over what should be done of indifference, complacency, or even support of the evil done. I want to make clear that anyone who thinks this article advocates any of these things or is making excuses for wrongdoers has rashly judged me. I certainly don’t support a status quo. The point of this article is to sort out the difference between rightly directed anger and misdirected wrath that some pundits seem to be promoting.


The fallout from the recent McCarrick revelations and Latin America continues. There’s no doubt that wrongdoing exists. The problem that I see is that, among the legitimate shock and anger against wrongdoing, there are some Catholics who are publicly presuming that all of the bishops are guilty through negligence or deliberate coverup. That’s what needs to be investigated, not assumed to be true.
(This news broke during the writing of this article. It’s a reminder that
just because we don’t hear about something doesn’t mean nothing is being done)

While the case of McCarrick himself was handled until the canonical process is finished and more serious censures are handed down, we still have to deal with the arguments over who actually knew and were silent (as opposed to guilt by association).

In terms of logic, the contradiction of “all are guilty” is not “none are guilty.” The contradiction is “some are not guilty.” [§] Recognizing that, the task is to identify the ones who are actually guilty and the failures that allowed them to get away with it. This should be done with the intention of seeking justice for past and current wrongdoing while trying to prevent future wrongdoing. Doing this requires meticulous investigation to avoid punishing the innocent and preventing rushed policies that are either ineffective or do more harm than good.

The danger of that approach is that it can be stonewalled or can have the appearance of stonewalling if we don’t get immediate results. Of course working on stopping this evil cannot be done at a leisurely pace. The fact that these problems were revealed after we were assured that the problem was solved rightly inspires shock and anger.

Anger and Response 

The problem with anger, however, is that it can lead people to unreasonable and unjust responses. Think about the concept of “frontier justice” where an angry lynch mob would take the law into their own hands, assuming guilt and demanding their own standard of punishment. These mobs were often wrong about the guilt of the accused and always wrong in exacting their own punishment apart from the law.

While nobody is advocating literal “frontier justice” (though a few Catholics on social media are using reckless rhetoric that might eventually spark it) against the bishops, some are getting out of hand in their anger, assuming guilt where an investigation must happen first. Badly written articles and blog posts make accusations of widespread or even universal guilt without proof and people believe them without discernment, believing “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

The Church cannot rush to judgment, even when she must act swiftly. Letting the guilty go free is an injustice. But so is punishing the innocent. Being so lax that predators operate freely must be stopped. But being so strict that it hinders the mission of the Church is wrong too. In other words, the Church cannot be unjust in seeking justice.

Dealing with Delays 

And this frustrates people. Deliberations can be seen as stonewalling, and no doubt some would like to turn deliberations into stonewalling. Real harm was done and must be stopped. But while identifying the evil that must be stopped is relatively straightforward, finding the cause and solution is not necessarily so. After the rise of Protestantism, the Catholic Church began the Council of Trent to root out the abuses that led to it. But the Council of Trent ran from 1545 to 1563 (around 18 years!). Some of that length was due to slow moving (reading the early sessions, we see a lot of “let’s reconvene later” decrees). But some of the length was due to the need to identify the best possible response and decree how it must be done.

(There’s a lot of this in the earliest sessions)

Likewise, in dealing with the current crisis, we can get angry with unnecessary delays. There were problems with the 2002 policy that never thought to investigate allegations about those who rose high in the Church—problems that should not have happened. But in solving them, we must discern between unnecessary delays and unavoidable delays that come with seeking truth and just solutions.

The Apostolate of the Wrathful 

Adding to the confusion is the fact that among the rightly offended are what I call “the apostolate of the wrathful.”  I see this collection of factions as already being angry at the Church for one reason or another and seeing this scandal as justifying their previous anger. These factions (and I have no intention of pointing fingers at specific individuals) have carried out private wars against the Church and see their perceived enemy as the cause to this current crisis. Some allege celibacy, a male priesthood, or the Church teaching on homosexuality as the problem. Others see Vatican II, liberal clergy, or Pope Francis as a cause. There certainly seems to be a strong anti-clericalism present, assuming Church-wide corruption of the bishops and cardinals, fueling the claim that it’s impossible that they could be ignorant of the problem.

Distinguishing Mistakes From Malfeasance

While the Church receives her authority from God, she remains governed by finite human beings. All of them, like us, are in need of salvation and all of them can be mistaken (barring the areas where the Pope is protected from error). This means that even a good bishop can be deceived by a lie from someone they thought was trustworthy. It means that even a saintly bishop can make a decision that seems right to them but is actually flawed. Other bishops might do wrong out of cowardice or a desire not to “rock the boat.” Some, sadly, do participate knowingly in evil. That’s inevitable.

However, the fact that this happens in general is inevitable does not mean we can be apathetic about the specific wrongdoing in our time. For example, heresy will inevitably arise, but that doesn’t permit apathy or complacency to the rise of a specific heresy. Rather this means we will never achieve a state where no evil, cowardice, or mistakes occur within the Church, but we will have to deal with each case when it comes along to prevent loopholes or vicious customs from thriving.

Distinguishing the Authority of the Church from her Shameful Members

With that in mind, we have to remember that the Church herself, led by the magisterium continues to have the authority to bind and loose and we have the obligation to give religious submission of intellect and will when they teach (see canons 752-753). We cannot withdraw obedience from that authority when we are offended by the members of the magisterium. We still have the obligation to follow the precepts of the Church. So, when someone invokes a scandal as an excuse to ignore obedience, that remains wrong. Jesus binds in Heaven what is bound on earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18).

So, when determining the proper response to scandal and corruption, disobedience is not an option. Dissent remains a sin. Catholics who advocate disobedience on account of the scandal are doing wrong, and we cannot do evil so good may come of it (CCC #1789). That can be hard to bear, but we must trust that God protects His Church in this case.

The Obligation of Mercy

Another thing we must remember. The Church is not a business that can simply fire an incompetent or wrongdoing employee. The Church exists to carry out the mission of bringing Our Lord’s salvation to the world, calling the wrongdoing sinners to be reconciled to God. No matter how heinous the sin, there is not one person whom we can “write off” as irredeemable. Wrath tends to sacrifice the mercy for notorious sinner in the name of punishment. It tends to presume guilt must be present and insists we move onto the punishment phase

Consider Genesis 18:22ff.

22 As the men turned and walked on toward Sodom, Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there were fifty righteous people in the city; would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! Far be it from you! Should not the judge of all the world do what is just?” 26 The Lord replied: If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.

Abraham kept pleading down to ten just men, with God promising to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if they existed. As it turned out, they didn’t, so God spared Lot and his family. The problem is, unlike God, the Apostolate of the Wrathful seems willing to sacrifice the innocent so long as they get the guilty. They are willing to presume guilt and if a few innocent get swept away, they were probably guilty of something. If a bishop was an associate of a wrongdoer, that bishop is presumed to be complicit in the evil through association. But the Catholic Church cannot act that way. She cannot punish without proof of wrongdoing and she cannot arbitrarily change her rules to behave mercilessly. The Church must work to bring salvation even the most heinous sinner. The punishments issued must not drive the person into despair or defiance. Yes, a wrongdoer might be defiant anyway, but the Church herself must not drive them to that point or erect roadbloacks in the road to salvation while imposing penalties.

“But Everybody Knew That...”

Hearsay is not proof.

If a victim comes forward and provided credible and usable evidence, and a bishop refused to pass it on or attacked the victim for coming forward, that is wrongdoing that must be investigated. No excuses can be made for that. It is also true that the victims can be too ashamed or otherwise traumatized to come forward. That’s understandable. I would not blame the victim for being unable to come forward.

The problem is, some Catholic pundits are saying that these bishops and cardinals must have heard rumors and should have acted on them. The problem is, rumors themselves (what “everybody knows”) are not always true, and sometimes even false [†].  

Of course if a lot of rumors come from different sources in the same region, all saying the same thing, there should be an investigation to see if they are more than mere rumors and a failure to do so is a problem that must be corrected. But we need to remember that the existence of rumors in themselves are not proof. Bishops cannot build a case on hearsay. So hearing these things does not automatically mean that they have enough to act on. 

An investigation into what individual bishops knew and were silent on must determine who had the responsibility to act and whether they had the information necessary to act. It’s not enough to say, “everybody heard of this, so bishop X must be guilty.”

The Search for Truth, Justice, and Mercy

I don’t want anyone to think this is easy. But I also don’t want anyone to think this is impossible. The closer someone is to a victim, the harder it will be for them to deal with a wrongdoer getting away. I can’t even imagine what an actual victim must have gone through seeing Cardinal McCarick, Bishop Barrios or others being elevated despite wrongdoing. I can’t imagine their frustration if the case turns up unable to establish guilt. One can understand this anger is justified. But if we are going to truly find a solution to this problem, the Church needs to be clear on why this is happening, investigate how it can keep happening, and where the system we have is ineffective or unjust, we must make reforms. In other words: People understandably and justly want reform. But there’s a vast difference between calling for an undefined reform and making actual reforms.

We cannot make unjust reforms. We cannot have the Spanish Inquisition kind of injustice (I actually saw someone advocate this!) to be more efficient in punishing the accused. We must make sure that the accused is guilty before punishing and make sure the procedure does not let the guilty get away. We must make sure that the penalties are aimed at protecting the innocent from harm and inspire seeking repentance.


I think it should be clear that going from “something must be done!” to actually fixing the problem is going to take a lot of difficult work and difficult soul searching. For example, I get the impression that the reason there is a bishop sized hole in the protection of minors is because the bishops found it hard to believe someone reaching that level in the Church was capable of this evil without being caught before that point. Clearly that thinking was wrong, and it must be corrected as quickly as possible. 

But it also must be corrected justly. And that’s the difficulty. It’s easy to pass a law. But it’s harder to pass a just law. No doubt the bishops believed they established a just solution in 2002. We now know that belief was false. But we should keep that failure in mind. We do not want to rush through a solution that turns out to have numerous flaws in another 15 years or so. But neither do we want to be paralyzed into inaction.

That’s why it’s the wrong approach for pundits to just say “We must do X.” We must consider all the consequences of X and make sure we don’t do a rush job we will later regret. That means we need to pray for the Church to guide the magisterium to find the right solution. We must make known our concerns (a la canon 212 §3) respectfully. But we must not reduce the process to mob rule, committing injustice in our attempts to reform. Nor can we behave like rebels against the legitimate authority which the Church exercises.

On social media, I see a lot of anger and a lot of desire to accuse people of complicity. But unless we go beyond slogans and determine real culpability we’re not helping find a solution. We’re merely behaving like a mob and that will not solve the problem.


[§] This also applies to anger in the Catholic media towards this scandal. Only a fraction of them are doing what I am writing against and I have no intention of saying ALL are guilty.

[†] I suspect one of the reasons the original response was so slow was people believed the perpetrators could never do this because the reported perversion was so evil. Sadly, it turned out that some clergy could be that vile.

Monday, July 23, 2018

When Factionalism Drives Evaluation

The latest news cycle brought out reports of scandalous things inside and outside of the Church. And of course, when wrongdoing happens, we must strive to correct it in a way that not only reflects our belief in justice, but the Christian obligation of mercy as well. That’s always hard. When we sympathize with someone, we want the mercy done but not the justice. But when we dislike someone, we want the justice done, but not the mercy. This is, of course, a corrupt attitude to take.

Making it worse, there is a tendency among some to use a scandal to target people one dislikes. Take the recent Cardinal McCarrick scandal. There are credible charges against him which—barring any exonerating evidence unexpectedly appearing—must be addressed. But some Catholics are using the scandal to target other clergy which they dislike. It’s the “guilt by association” fallacy. The question asked is, “is it really possible that [disliked clergy member] could have been ignorant about this?”

It attempts to imply that because a disliked cardinal (for example, Wuerl, Farrell) knew or were friends with McCarrick, they must have known and were complicit in covering up the abuse. The problem is, most people who commit shameful crimes don’t boast about it. They keep it hidden. The victims also keep it hidden out of shame, humiliation, or feelings of guilt (I understand it is common for the innocent victims of rape or other sexual crimes feel guilt over what they suffered). So, yes, it is possible that his friends didn’t know. Association does not prove knowledge and coverup. That has to be proven. Repeating the insinuation without proof is at the very least rash judgment.

But it is interesting that the cardinals targeted in this way were already hated by certain factions. So the fact that members of these factions are also insinuating that complicity exists should be noted. There may be a bias that seeks to misuse a scandal for the purpose of discrediting someone unrelated. On the other hand, we can’t simply argue from the fact that the person is hostile that the accusation is automatically a lie either. What this means is, we can’t draw an accusation against someone simply because of their affiliation with someone who does wrong. 

If we want to do what is right and avoid either false accusations or letting the evildoers get away with their evil, we must evaluate accusations. Is there any basis to them? Would I be willing to tolerate an accusation of evil if it came from someone I opposed? Would I be willing to accept that accusation if directed against someone I supported? How one answers these questions may indicate a factional spirit instead of a desire for justice.

Acting rightly when it comes to accusations can be real struggle sometimes. For example, when the Fr. Maciel story broke, I remember thinking that the accusations sounded so extreme that they had to be a lie being made to attack the Church. I was dead wrong about that. I remember being angry at the news stories about certain bishops taking a stand against Church teaching—only to discover the stories were false and my anger was misplaced. We can be wrong about what another is capable or incapable of and we have to be careful not to let our assumptions get in the way of our seeking out what is true, whether that truth is guilt or exoneration.

Rash judgment and calumny are sins. If we repeat as true what we do not know to be true, it is rash judgment. If we repeat what we know is false as if it were true, we commit calumny. We must not commit either. Instead, we must seek out truth and apply justice with the mercy Our Lord requires of us. If we presume the person we oppose must be guilty or the person we support must be innocent and refuse to seek out the truth, we do wrong in the name of our ideology.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

What Happened to Seeking Truth?

Being on Facebook and Twitter over the past few days have been interesting—in the sense of the old Chinese curse, May You Live in Interesting Times. Witnessing the fallout of the Trump-Putin meeting and the continual sniping against Pope Francis, I’m struck by the fact that many reach a conclusion without having all the facts, and make claims that are clearly in error. I don’t have any interest in rehashing or refuting the social media arguments in this article. But I am interested in how little respect people have for seeking out the truth and living in accord with it.

During his trial, Socrates could point out that the person who was aware of the fact that he was ignorant knew more than the person who was ignorant but thought he knew the truth. Aristotle could define truth as saying of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not. Both of these ancient Greeks point to the truth that we Christians ought to know: That we can never stand on what we think we know. We must always ask questions about our assumptions and, if we find them to be false, stop living according to them.

To be clear, I am not advocating some sort of agnosticism which says we must question our Christian faith. Rather I am calling for Christians to investigate whether what they think is Christianity is actually what Christians are called to be. As a Catholic, I believe that the Church teaches with authority given to her by The Lord Himself. What the Church binds or looses on Earth is bound or loosed in Heaven (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). So, I hold that the search for truth does not mean that we can deny the teaching of the Church. 

What it does mean is we must investigate whether our interpretation of Church teaching is compatible with what the Church intends to teach. The judge of whether an interpretation is correct is the magisterium—which is the Pope and the bishops in communion with him in every age. If a pundit or a member of the clergy takes a stance at odds with the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, that should be a red flag telling us that we have an obligation to question the one saying the Pope and bishops are wrong. Yes, when the Pope has no intention to teach (press conference, governing the Vatican City, etc), he can be mistaken. But when he intends to teach—even if not ex cathedra—we have an obligation to give religious submission of intellect and will.

I find it tragic that many Catholics can think they are being faithful while refusing to consider the elements of Church teaching they find inconvenient. Catholics who identify with the political “left” [†] often rebel on sexual morality and abortion, while those identifying with the political “right” often downplay Catholic teaching on social justice. Both groups are wrong. Whether they knowingly reject Church teaching or are ignorant about it (I leave this discernment to the individual’s confessor), they are not speaking the truth when they claim they are right and the Church is wrong.

Go on the internet and you’ll probably find people arguing about what the Church needs to do. They focus on the top down approach, which has it’s own merits. I think that there is also an approach from the bottom (all of us) up we need to consider:

Speaking at the level of the individual believer, we have an obligation to investigate whether our personal preferences are really compatible with Christianity. We do that by looking to Church teaching and to the witness of the magisterium today to make sure that our reading of past documents is compatible with how the magisterium understands it. If we think “The Pope is a liberal/conservative!” then we must take that as a warning sign that our understanding has gone wrong.

Some readers may correctly argue that Church history shows we have had bishops falling into error. They can also argue that we have had morally bad Popes. They can even argue that certain Popes were suspected of personally holding error. But none of these facts can be used to deny the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him when they intend to teach.

Perhaps, in recovering the obligation to seek the truth, that is a good place to start.


[†] I dislike using “Left” and “Right” in relationship to Church teaching because it makes Church teaching seem “partisan.” Unfortunately, certain errors among Catholics line up with their political views.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Bigotry vs. Truth

“It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.”

—G.K. Chesterton 

In response to the objections from religious groups to certain government actions, the common response is to either:
  1. Praise the religious group if you agree with them on that issue.
  2. Condemn the religious group if it goes against your political ideology.
There’s no real attempt to investigate whether one’s own politics are actually wrong. Many assume they are right and, if someone dares take a view that an ideology is wrong, these people savage them and accuse them of holding their views out of malicious intent.

Bigotry can be defined as, “obstinate or intolerant devotion to one's own opinions and prejudices.” Unfortunately, many seem to think it means “hostility to a certain group.” (This is actually prejudice, not bigotry). Then we see people argue that people from a currently trendy “protected group” can’t be bigoted when they express intolerance for those they disagree with.

Seeking truth is different from blindly holding to one’s own views. I can oppose something as morally wrong without being a bigot. I become a bigot when I assume that whoever holds a different view from me must actively be evil, rather than mistaken.

(A popular meme, mocking online accusations of intolerance when others disagree)

I think the problem is we’ve lost sight of the need to investigate what is true. We need to ask ourselves whether we properly understand an issue and whether we actually understand what our opponents believe and why. If we do understand, we can still say something is wrong. But understanding means we won’t automatically assume whoever disagrees is secretly a Nazi or an Antifa.