Sunday, December 29, 2019

They Say “Things are Too Urgent to Deal With THAT”

As the silly season (AKA the Presidential Elections) approaches, some American Catholics seem to be celebrate by throwing aside the timeless teachings of the Church for the ephemeral values of politics. “Yes,” we’re told, “these teachings are important. But we have to be realistic.”

“Being realistic,” apparently means sacrificing certain Church teachings that go against our preferred candidate because these individuals are outraged when the bishops speak out on the moral teachings that go against their party§. Oh, they say they accept those teachings. But they’re angry when these moral issues get mentioned. At the same time, when Catholics on the other side of the political divide get angry, these Catholics point to it as “proof” that the other side are bad Catholics because they refuse to listen to the Church.

The problem with that is: if one cites the authority of the bishops when it suits them, then they have no excuse to refuse obedience when it suits them because they have shown that they recognize that the authority exists.

It is true that both major political parties are in the wrong on some major issues if one recognizes that the Catholic Church teaches with God’s authority. It’s also true that—barring an unforeseen seismic shift in political views—one of the two major parties will gain control of the White House. That means one of the two parties will be able to implement evil policies and the other will be temporarily hindered. One of the parties will control the appointment of judges who will green light or block the policies of the party in charge; will sign bills into laws (or veto them). So, obviously it will matter which one gets in… even if both are at odds with Church teaching in different ways. So, how do we choose?

First, against the bullies who argue you must vote for Party X or you’re guilty of sin#, I would remind them of Archbishop Chaput’s wise words in a 2016 column:

It’s absurd—in fact, it’s blasphemous—to assume that God prefers any political party in any election year.  But God, by his nature, is always concerned with good and evil and the choices we make between the two.  For Catholics, no political or social issue stands in isolation.

That doesn’t mean “vote however you feel.” All of us will need to answer to God over how well we seek to form our conscience in accordance with the Church teachings and whether we follow it. Now there are certain evils that we must oppose without equivocation. If the issue involves an intrinsic evil, we had better have a justification proportionate to the evil enabled if we choose to vote for somebody who favors it. We had better be prepared to fight the “lesser” evil we endured to block the greater one. But if we stay silent out of fear of hindering “our” candidate’s chances, we become complicit in this evil.

It’s undeniable that the Catholic teaching on defending life is the key issue in America. Indeed, in Christifidelis Laici, St. John Paul II taught:

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, fĂ­nds 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.

We can’t pretend that the sum of other issues can outweigh the right to life. But some Catholics believe that as long as they vote for the candidate who claims to oppose abortion, they’ve done their duty. Others think that if they support a candidate who (often superficially) seems to agree with them on issues A+B+C, they are okay with the fact that the candidate openly supports abortion and euthanasia as good. But these Catholics of both sides fail to act on the fact that the Church defines the Right to Life far more broadly than they obey.

The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (#27) tells us:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

Pope Francis reminds us of these things in Gaudete et Exsultate when he writes:

100. I regret that ideologies lead us at times to two harmful errors. On the one hand, there is the error of those Christians who separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord, from their interior union with him, from openness to his grace. Christianity thus becomes a sort of NGO stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and many others. For these great saints, mental prayer, the love of God and the reading of the Gospel in no way detracted from their passionate and effective commitment to their neighbors; quite the opposite. 

101. The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ,” with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude.”

103. A similar approach is found in the Old Testament: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21). “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33–34). This is not a notion invented by some Pope, or a momentary fad. In today’s world too, we are called to follow the path of spiritual wisdom proposed by the prophet Isaiah to show what is pleasing to God. “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” (Is 58:7–8).

Tragically, factional Catholics seem to fall into one error or the other that he describes. Either they reduce the Church to a lobbying organization for certain laws and policies, or they reduce the important issues to what suits them. I can hardly think of a politicized Catholic who, while insisting, “you must vote for Party X”  even begins to acknowledge those issues of life their own party is at odds with. Instead I see sneering comments accusing the other side of hypocrisy, while being equally hypocritical themselves. Too many say that the issues their party fails at are “lesser” and say that this election is “too important” to sacrifice by holding their party accountable for them.

But while we can choose to live that way, we can’t pretend it’s authentically Catholic to do so. In the same letter I cited above, Archbishop Chaput wrote:

God created us with good brains.  It follows that he will hold us accountable to think deeply and clearly, rightly ordering the factors that guide us, before we act politically.  And yet modern American life, from its pervasive social media that too often resemble a mobocracy, to the relentless catechesis of consumption on our TVs, seems designed to do the opposite.  It seems bent on turning us into opinionated and distracted cattle unable to gain mastery over our own appetites and thoughts.  Thinking and praying require silence, and the only way we can get silence is by deciding to step back and unplug.

This year, a lot of good people will skip voting for president but vote for the “down ticket” names on their party’s ballot; or vote for a third party presidential candidate; or not vote at all; or find some mysterious calculus that will allow them to vote for one or the other of the major candidates.  I don’t yet know which course I’ll personally choose.  It’s a matter properly reserved for every citizen’s informed conscience.

So the question is: Will we think about what we must do, with God as our judge, to rightly form our conscience—to the best of our ability*—according to Church teaching? Will we determinedly oppose the evils that are unwillingly enabled by our vote? Or will we shout slogans and ignore the evils we enabled?

However we do vote, we need to remember that God will be our judge. We cannot deceive Him. He will know our sincerity or lack thereof.

I am merely a member of the laity. I have no authority to order you to vote a certain way. So I won’t even try to persuade you to do so. All I can do is point to the Church as the authority to follow, whether you agree with my own views or not. In doing so, I also urge you to beware of those who do try to pressure people (with no authority to do so) into accepting their political preference as Church teaching 


(§) During the 2008 and 2012 elections, the US bishops were condemned as “the Republican Party at prayer.” In 2016, they were accused of being “obviously” pro-Democrat. Their teachings had not changed in that period.

(#) Sadly, I’ve seen Catholic partisans of both sides try to strong-arm other Catholics into voting for their side regardless of any concerns of conscience.

(*) God does not hold us accountable for what is impossible for us to do. We’re all fallible human beings and can err without intending to break God’s law. But if we don’t make that effort, we can’t make that excuse.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Our Silly Season: Preparing Ourselves for the 2020 Election

350Every four years, American Catholics on social media celebrate our silly season (also known as “the presidential elections”) by taking an IQ nose dive while coming up with theological reasons why we are fully “justified” in setting aside Catholic teachings which our party is at odds with. In this season, Catholics who point out that Candidate X is at odds with Church teaching on a subject get accused of supporting every evil that candidate Y supports. And, if you decide to vote for a minor party or to only vote “downballot” (vote only for offices below the Presidential level), then you are also guilty enabling the victory of “the other side.”§ This isn’t a quirk of one faction. Catholics from both major parties do this while accusing the other side of doing it.

That doesn’t mean that the elections should be taken lightly. In each Presidential election, we are selecting who will be responsible for executing laws and appointing judges to rule on what is and isn’t licit. The values of the man elected are important because they will govern the choices made. As Catholics, we need to vote according to our Faith in such a way to promote the public good… or at least block the worse evil.

Unfortunately, American Catholics aren’t a voting block. Our votes are as diverse as the rest of the country#. So, despite the efforts of the bishops to teach on these values, we’re going see many Catholics pick the teachings their party agrees with and cast them as “the most important,” while treating the teachings their party opposes as “prudential judgment,” “opinions,” or even “bishops getting involved in politics.”* They will, of course, condemn Catholics of the “other side” for doing exactly the same thing. Such Catholics should be aware of Matthew 7:2. By citing the need to obey the Church where it agrees they show knowledge of the authority which they reject when they disagree.

Both sides are right when they say that neither side is perfect, and that some issues are more immediately pressing or involve graver matters than others. Take the Right to Life. The Church does indeed teach that the sanctity of life has to be defended from conception to natural death. That is much broader than partisan Catholics treat it. Some Catholics treat it as only involving abortion and euthanasia. Others try to say these things will never be outlawed and we can only hope to pass laws that reduce the need for them. Both accuse the other side of ignoring Church teaching when actually both sides are guilty. So, what is to be done?

I think that Archbishop Chaput, speaking about the abortion issue, laid down a wise guideline on dealing with voting for candidates who promote what the Church calls evil:

What distinguishes such voters, though, is that they put real effort into struggling with the abortion issue. They don’t reflexively vote for the candidate of “their” party. They don’t accept abortion as a closed matter. They refuse to stop pushing to change the direction of their party on the abortion issue. They won’t be quiet. They keep fighting for a more humane party platform—one that would vow to protect the unborn child. Their decision to vote for a “pro-choice” candidate is genuinely painful and never easy for them. 

One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false “right” to abortion. We sin if we support “pro-choice” candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so—that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions—as we someday will.

Render Unto Caesar,  pp. 229-230

I believe that this applies to every candidate we vote for who is at odds with Church teaching. We can’t accept abortion or torture or same sex marriage or the treatment of migrants as a closed matter. If we believe we must vote for Party X, we must fight to change our party when it is in the wrong. We cannot be silent out of fear that the “other side” might win.

But this is exactly what Catholics don’t do, and I wonder if we really do accept the Church teachings on the issues that our party is wrong about. It seems like we’re more inclined to say that issue X is outweighed by issues A+B+C when our party is in the wrong on X and A+B+C match our personal politics. But, using the archbishop’s challenge, will our reasoning for voting for the candidate who is wrong on issue X satisfy the victims of our vote on the Day of Judgment. Remember, the most dangerous sin is the one that sends us to hell, not the one we are in no danger of committing.

So, when the Pope teaches on an issue that our preferred party is in the wrong over, when the bishops speak out against our immoral national policies, we must listen and form our conscience. No, that doesn’t mean making the perfect the enemy of the good. But it does mean that—if we vote for a candidate in spite of¥ his support of an evil position—we need to ask ourselves what we are going to do to end the support for evil, remembering that God will be our judge and we cannot lie to Him.


(§) As a personal disclosure, I believed this one until 2016 when I believed both major party candidates were unfit for office.

(#) While it’s a popular maxim that the Catholic vote shows who will win the election, it only seems true in the sense that the “Catholic vote” will mirror the general sentiment of the country.

(*) In the past twelve years, for example, the US bishops have simultaneously been accused as a bloc of favoring the Democrats and the Republicans.

(€) The prevalence of contraception in America is of course a grave issue. But before we can hope to outlaw it, we will need to convert the moral attitudes of the nation, because an overwhelming number of Christians (including Catholics) see nothing wrong with it.

(¥) Of course, voting for a candidate because he supports that evil is condemned.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Beware: What You Personally Interpret Might Not Be What is True

Throughout the history of Christianity there have always been people who read Scripture, Patristics, Magisterial documents and other things and used the conclusions they drew to argue that the Church—whether through the teachings of Pope or Council—had gone wrong and, to get back in the right, needed to adopt their own interpretation of these things.

This goes back as far as the Gnostic heresies of the First Century AD and continues throughout history to the present day, sometimes it is heresy; sometimes it is schism; sometimes it is dissent. But it always involves the individual or group forgetting two things: 1) The Church, under the magisterium of the Pope and those bishops acting in communion with him, is protected from error when she teaches. 2) Those of us not in or not acting with that authority do not have that protection.

Once we figure out those two points, it becomes easy to identify who we should listen to when an individual or group attacks the Pope. Unfortunately, in the United States and Western Europe, a growing number of Catholics have lost sight of—or never understood—the two points and accuse him of heresy or (to avoid a schismatic act) of “causing confusion.”

Don’t be fooled. The confusion in the Church is not caused by the Pope but by those who rely on their own interpretation of what the Pope said and don’t check to see if they interpreted him—or the past teachings they put in contradistinction to the Pope—correctly. Such people either never had authority in the first place (your typical Pope-bashing site or religiously ignorant mainstream media) or they are offering their personal non-magisterial opinions (the Priest, Bishop, or Cardinal who disagrees with the Pope and is not acting in communion with him, but as a private individual).

There is nothing new here. Arius, Nestorius, Calvin, Luther, the Spiritual Franciscans, the Donatists, the Novatians, the SSPX, the “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics, etc., etc., etc. have caused the confusion in the Church by pointing to the personal interpretation of what the successor of Peter said, contrasted with their personal interpretation of other documents. But the personal interpretation§ has no authority against the interpretation by the Pope. 

To blame the Pope for the depressingly increasing number of false interpretations is like blaming the Popes in the 16th century because Calvin and Luther contrasted Church teaching on our personal obligations to avoid sin with their own faulty interpretation of Scripture and St. Augustine to argue that the Church was guilty of Pelagianism. But the Church never taught what this duo accused her of. The Church never contradicted herself or fell into error. Rather, people grossly mistaken about what the Church taught, believed that the Church either was previously or is currently in error.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Much of this could be avoided if we would remember that rash judgment and calumny are sins. As the Catechism tells us:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

But those who automatically assume that the Pope must err because they do not ask whether they properly understand him or the teachings they think contradict him before accusing him. Where are the attempts to assume a favorable interpretation? Where are the attempts to ask for clarification?* The critics have went straight to “it must be error.” That’s rash judgment.

Calumny comes in to play when falsehoods are leveled against the Pope or the Church. Whether they know it is false or not, those who accuse the Pope of saying, doing, or intending things he did not say, do, or intend. Whether they believed it or not, Calvin and Luther committed calumny when they accused the Church of inventing doctrines to justify their desire for money or power#. When critics accuse the Pope of wanting to promote divorce and remarriage or homosexual “marriage,” these are calumnies, whether those who made these accusations knew they were false or were in gross error.

We need to remember that what we think must be intended might be error. It is only by using the Church as our guide to proper understanding that we can avoid falling into error. But as soon as we respond to the teaching of the Pope by saying that the Church errs but we do not, we fall away from “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) which is the Church.


(§) Not even mine. If something I write turns out contrary to what the Church teaches under the leadership of the Pope (such a thing would be unintentional), you should of course listen to the Pope.

(*) The problems I have with the “dubia cardinals” is not that they had a question about interpretation. Dubia have been used for centuries to understand things properly, after all. My problem is that the text of their questions gave me the impression of the “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” complex question fallacy that assumed a heterodox intention by the Pope. They might not have intended it (to avoid rash judgment myself, I try to avoid attributing intention and motives to them). But it comes across disrespectfully.

(#) The false claims of the late Jack Chick can actually be traced back to the false claims from foundational writings of the men who established Protestantism.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Context and Intent Matter

There’s an old joke that runs as follows: A Catholic Priest and a Protestant Minister were debating. The Minister said, “You are an idolater, for you worship statues! You kneel before them and pray!” “No,” the Priest said, “because it is not our intention to worship an object.” “Who cares about your intention?” the Minister sneered. “You kneel down before statues, therefore you worship them.” The priest replied “You too are an idolator. You kneel down before a wooden bedpost every night and pray to it.” “No,” the Minister said. “That is not my intention.” The priest responded, “Who cares about your intention? You kneel down before it, therefore you worship it.”

One behavior I see when looking at the critics of the Pope, the Papacy in general, or the whole Church, is the assumption that the action they see is to be condemned. The problem is that the context and intention is left out of it or forgotten. But with many acts, the context and intention is the difference between a good act and an evil act.

For example, if we choose to condemn anyone who wields a sharpened blade to cut a person without considering the context, we would have to treat the surgeon in the same way we do an ax murderer. Likewise, if we were to consider the sexual act without context, we would be unable to make a distinction between marital intercourse, fornication, adultery, and rape. They all involve the sexual act. But with context, the first can be morally good, while the others are morally evil. Yet another example: Abortion is always an evil act. But not all acts leading to the removal of the unborn child from the mother is abortion. Hysterectomies and the removal of an ectopic pregnancy are not abortions because the direct destruction of the child is not intended—in fact, if it were possible to save the child, they would. People sometimes call annulments “Catholic divorce,” but annulments and divorce are two entirely different things that superficially seem the same. People call Natural Family Planning “contraception,” even though NFP is abstinence and not frustrating the completion of the sexual act. In all of these, context and intent matter in distinguishing between a morally good or neutral act and a morally evil act.

These examples might seem obvious, but people sometimes forget the concept when it comes to attacks on the Pope. Consider the recent case of the so-called “idol” at the Amazon Synod. There was an object, and people did bow down by it. The critics combined the fact that it was an image and people did bow down. But, the act of bowing, kneeling, etc., is not always an act of latria to something in front of the one bowing.

When we consider an act, we need to consider context and intent. If a person bows or kneels before an something, we need to understand whether it is an idol, a symbol of a different sort of reverence, or not the focus of the action at all. To judge whether an action is good or evil, we need to understand the context and intent.

So, with the so-called “Pachamama,” we need to ask several questions. Yes, we saw people bow. But to what purpose? Was it created as an idol? Apparently not. It was purchased from a vendor at a craft fair several years before the Synod. But if it was, did the missionaries who bought it know that? Did they use it as an object of worship when they used it as a tool in the missions? Did they intend to worship it as “Pachamama” when they performed the tree planting ceremony? Does bowing mean the same thing to those coming from the Amazon as it did to the Western European/American accusers? 

These are all questions that the accusers need to address before they can say, “An act of idol worship was committed in the Vatican Gardens and an idol was placed in the Church!” But the critics have not answered any of them with direct evidence. Instead, they rely on hearsay that claims it must be an idol and the ceremony was an act of pagan worship. From the action—without discovering the context and intent—the image was given a name and the act was called “worship. They cling to their unproven “fact” so tightly that anybody who says, “I do not believe your accusations,” is treated with derision… even though the burden of proof is on the accuser and the Pope’s defenders have pointed out the flaws in their claims.

In a similar way, critics take chapter 8§ of Amoris Laetitia and, taking the words out of all context and without considering the intention of the Pope in writing it, they accuse him of “changing Church teaching” because they believe it “contradicts” Familiaris Consortio #84.

The context they miss, however, is that St. John Paul II was speaking about those who wanted to allow reception of the Sacraments without repenting, and Pope Francis was speaking about getting people who were at odds with God and His Church back into right relationship. The Sacraments would be for those lacking all three required conditions for mortal sin and were striving to get back into right relationship with God. With the context, Amoris Laetitia can be understood as saying access to the sacraments in these cases were for those not in mortal sin due to insufficient knowledge or consent. This access is not a permission for the divorced/remarried to receive indiscriminately.

These examples demonstrate how critics of the Church go wrong when they rely on their own interpretation of text or events stripped of the context and intent needed to understand them. One section of the Church has become convinced that the successor of Peter is either openly “teaching error” or at least enabling it. But understanding context and intent is necessary if we are to be faithful to the actual teaching of the Church and not some unholy parody of our own creation. When one reads Calvin, reads Luther, reads the Patristic heresiarchs, etc., we can see that their understanding of the Scriptures and Church documents shows a failure to properly understand what they mean.

The modern critics need to look at these past errors and be wary. They might not cause a spectacular schism as those men did. But they will nevertheless cause harm to the Body of Christ by insisting that the Pope must err, never considering that they might have failed to understand. 

Context and intent do matter. If we ignore it, we will wind up believing that whatever the Church does that goes contrary to our context-free interpretation is “error.” History shows that is the path of heresy and schism. God only knows if the modern critics will go that far. But, as for me, defending the Church against these errors is essential for heading off—or at least reducing the numbers of the faithful involved in—heresy and schism before they happen.


(§) To be honest, I rather doubt that many of the combox critics read any more than Chapter 8 from the document (some seem to have read only parts of that chapter). They thus missed the context of what the Church needs to do to build healthy marriages. It’s only by understanding this context that we can understand what Chapter 8 sets out to do.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Luther’s Choice is Ours

When he was challenged by Eck at Leipzig, Luther was accused of being a Hussite because of the positions he held. Since Jan Hus had been condemned for heresy, Luther had three options: 1) To demonstrate that his position was different from the Hussite error and compatible with Catholic teaching. 2) To accept the criticism and modify his position so it was in keeping with Catholic teaching. 3) Reject the judgment of the Church and declare that the Church was in error, not him. Unfortunately, Luther chose the third option, saying “Ja, Ich bin ein Hussite.” Since he obstinately denied the authority of the Church in favor of one in error, Luther chose to side with error over truth.

I don’t doubt that the Protestants reading this article would disagree with this assessment of who was in error. But the Catholic, professing that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ and protected by Him, saying that the Church is in error is a denial of Christ’s teaching through His Church. 

Whatever culpability Luther might have had (by all accounts, he was scrupulous and had difficulty accepting his spiritual director’s instruction), we Catholics who pride ourselves on fidelity to the Church needs to recognize that whenever the Church—under the visible headship of the Pope—teaches differently than we prefer, we face the same choices Luther did in Leipzig. We can check to see if our position goes against what the Pope says. We can change our preferences to match the Church. Or we can argue that the Church erred, not us. But remember that to insist that the Church is in error but we are not is a dangerous thing.

Friday, December 13, 2019

A Forgotten Truth: Unity With Peter

I would like to remind everyone about Jesus’ words to Saint Peter. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). We have the assurance that this saying of Jesus is realized in what we call the infallibility of the Church. The spouse of Christ, headed by the successor of Peter, can live through crises and storms. Her members may sin and err. But if we remain united to Peter, we will never be able to separate ourselves from Christ profoundly or lastingly. Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia. Where Peter is, there is the Church.

—Cardinal Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent

I believe bishops are strong on two conditions. First of all is reliance on Peter and his successors. Our Blessed Lord told His Apostles: “The devil had asked to sift you as wheat.” There is no indication that Our Blessed Lord denied that there would be a demonic trial or testing; there is even a suggestion that He permitted it. Though the other Apostles were there, He spoke only to Peter: “Peter, I have prayed for you.” Our Lord did not say: “I will pray for all of you.” He prayed for Peter that his faith fail not, and after he recovered from his fall that he confirm his brethren. I think bishops are strong only when they are united with the Holy Father. As we begin to separate from him, we are no longer under the prayer of Christ And if we are not under the prayer of Christ, we are no longer protected, nor are we strong guardians or angels of the churches.

—Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, A Treasure In Clay

In these times, certain Catholics have forgotten a critical truth about the Catholic Church: that unity with the successor is essential to unity with Christ. This is not because of any special holiness of Karol Wojtyla, Joseph Ratzinger, or Jorge Bergoglio. It is because God protects His Church under the leadership of St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. If we want to remain united to Christ, we cannot pretend that we can oppose the Pope when he teaches.

Some of the Pope’s critics argue that they are not refusing union. They’re just defending the faith against the Pope speaking in error. The problem with that defense is that every schismatic group in Church history has used it: The Pope can go astray if he doesn’t teach infallibly! We must oppose him if he teaches error in the ordinary magisterium! Then whatever they dislike is portrayed as error. 

The problem is: the Church mostly teaches in the ordinary magisterium. The Church only issues infallible definitions when they need to clarify the ordinary teaching. For example, the Church has always believed in Transubstantiation. But she did not see a need to infallibly define it until Berengarius denied the teaching. But it was always obligatory to obey when the Pope taught.

This is an important thing to remember. If one claims that only binding teachings are ex cathedra#, then we have nothing to say to the dissenters who reject the teachings not yet defined infallibly§. But the Latin extraordinarius has the sense of  “out of the common order,” not “of higher quality.” When the Church teaches in an extraordinary manner, it is because she is dealing with an out of the ordinary situation. But, whether the situation is ordinary or extraordinary, the Church is to be obeyed when she teaches. When one teacher (priest, bishop, cardinal) contradicts another, we cannot use “confusion” as a reason to choose our own way: Unity with Peter determines who is right and who is not*.

Unfortunately, many people have misunderstood this. Because the Church stressed the infallibility of the ex cathedra definition, some think that the ordinary teaching can err. But the ordinary magisterium is also protected. The difference between the two is that the extraordinary is set out in a way that settles a definition once and for all. The ordinary is able to be refined and adapted to the conditions at hand. We must be careful not to confuse the two: refining how a teaching is applied is not a rejection of the past teaching. Addressing new circumstances is not “getting political.”

For example, the Pope addressing the possibility that some divorced and remarried Catholics might not meet all three criteria of mortal sin—nobody is denying grave matter—is not changing the Church teaching denying those in a state of mortal sin from receiving the Eucharist. Instead, it is addressing the fact that some Catholics have been badly catechized or are forced into a situation they cannot escape@. This doesn’t mean that a former sin is now allowed. It means that the Church is dealing with the new situation of Catholics who don’t know how to distinguish their right hand from their left (cf. Jonah 4:11) and are in need of help to escape their situation.

Now some have argued with me, saying that this means that the Pope could contradict past teaching and we’d have to obey. Such Catholics have forgotten that Jesus Christ protects His Church from teaching error. The Popes—even the most wicked—have never taught errors. They might have been tempted to. They might have personally been in error. But a Pope has never taught errors. This is not (as also mentioned above) because of personal holiness: human being (except Our Lady, by a special grace) are all sinners in need of salvation. It is because without protection from error by God, we could never know when to obey or disobey a Church teaching. Since God made the Church necessary (see Lumen Gentium #14), and made obedience to the Church obligatory (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16), it follows that He must protect the Church when the successor of Peter teaches if The Church is going to be the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

So, as Cardinal Sarah and the Ven. Fulton J. Sheen have warned us: if we want to be united with Christ, we must be united with the successor of Peter. If we forget this truth, we have wandered far from Our Lord, Jesus Christ, no matter how holy we might be.


(#) A view condemned by the Church. See Pius IX, A Syllabus of Errors; Pius XII, Humani Generis; Lumen Gentium #25; Canon 752; CCC #892.

(§) Some critics, remembering my past article on John XXII, might argue that I’m contradicting myself. But in the case of John XXII, there was not even an ordinary teaching. That doesn’t mean that the Church could have gone either way. God protects His Church—and did so here.

(*) Yes, some dissenters misuse the words of the Pope. That’s why it’s important to listen to what the Pope actually says, not what others (even me) say about him.

(@) See the 1997 document Vademecum for Confessors which makes a similar distinction for confessors over contraception.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Hijacking Legitimate Authority

As I continue to work my way through the dreary Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, I notice a good deal of what I call hijacking legitimate authority. By this I mean that he claimed his interpretation of Scripture was what Scripture actually means. Then, when the Church rejected his interpretation, he claimed that the Church was at odds with the Bible when it was actually at odds with him

Thus we see in the graphic (from Book IV, Chapter IX, Section 5) that Calvin accuses the Pope and bishops of discarding the truth and instead invent teachings at odds with God’s word. But his accusations only have merit if his interpretation of Scripture (and the teaching of the Church that he claims contradicts it) is correct. This means we must assess his authority to teach in a binding manner before we give him any credibility in condemning the Church.

And that’s where his claims collapse. He presupposed that the Church teaching he disagreed with must be wrong. Then, to deny the Church authority when it justly rebuked him, he lumped together the bad behavior of some Churchmen and heretical councils rejected by the Church as “proof” that the Church could “teach error.” But in all of his writings, he never could demonstrate that the Catholic Church taught error or contradicted herself in matters of doctrine. The best he could do is point to the Church legitimately changing discipline while alleging that the Church changed “teaching” and the corruption from some in the Church were willed as doctrines.

The modern anti-Catholic fundamentalists who, due to being taught from the beginning to (wrongly) think that the founders of Protestantism spoke the truth might have an excuse before God§. But the person who professes to be a faithful Catholic but rejects the authority of the successors of Peter does not have that excuse (see Lumen Gentium #14). We are supposed to believe in a Church established and protected by Christ and which teaches with His authority. If we do believe that, we will trust in Him to protect those who teach with authority—the successors of Peter and the Apostles—from teaching error. When acting in their role (see Lumen Gentium #25), their teaching binds, regardless of what we might think about their personal behavior.

This is not papalotry. This is what the Church has always expected of the faithful. What’s more, when we look at Church history, we see that even when saints rebuked the personal behavior of Popes, the saints always recognized the authority of the Popes to teach. Church History gives us a very different judgment of those who refused to obey the teachings of the Popes—schismatics and/or heretics.

People who struggle with what this Pope teaches should ask themselves this: Is it really possible that God would allow His Church to teach error when even the Ordinary Magisterium binds us to obedience?* Or is it more probable that—if we see “error” in the teachings of the Pope—we have somehow either misinterpreted the Pope or the Scripture and Church teaching we cite against him?

If one is tempted to respond that the Pope is the one in error, such a one should think again. They should look at Calvin and recognize that he is the one they’re emulating, not the saints.


(§) I say this in the sense of “I do not know their individual culpability before God.” Not in the sense of “What they do is okay.”

(*) See Pius IX Syllabus of Errors #22, Humani Generis #20, Lumen Gentium #25, The Catechism of the Catholic Church #892, Code of Canon Law #752 etc.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

On Anti-Francis Catholics, Calvin, and the False Case Against John XXII

Some people have reacted with hostility or mockery to my articles about the Pope Bashers behaving like Luther or Calvin. Presumably they think I mean they share the same errors on theology. Since they know they don’t, they think I’m making wild claims. But that misses the point. My point is that, whether or not they realize it, they show the same contempt for the Church that teaches against them and corrects them as the founders of Protestantism did. Both groups use the same arguments to deny the authority of the Pope while insisting that they are the true Christians for rejecting him

To give an example, let’s look at how the two groups point to the example of Pope John XXII.

To give a brief description, John XXII was a reforming Pope who ruled against the abuses of a certain religious order—the Spiritual Franciscans. This resented the restrictions he placed on their religious practices and, because they thought their ways were legitimate, responded by constantly accusing him of heresy. The main issue came about when, during some private homilies, he expressed the opinion that those who die do not experience the Beatific Vision until the Final Judgment. Certain French theologians expressed concerns. And they convinced John XXII that their understanding was correct. So he changed his personal opinion. Remember, that’s what his private homilies were: opinion. He gave no formal teaching on the subject. What’s important to remember here is that the Church had not yet defined the issue but some Catholics thought he was changing Church teaching. It’s similar to how some Catholics misinterpreted Benedict XVI when he used an example of “a male prostitute with AIDS” and thought he was relaxing the teaching on contraception. The Spiritual Franciscans portrayed this as “The Pope teaches heresy, therefore he has no right to condemn us!”

On the matter of when people experience the Beatific Vision, it was not defined until after his death. His successor, Benedict XII issued the decree after ordering both sides to present their case#. If a Catholic were to insist on John XXII’s position now, such a one would be a heretic because they would be obstinately holding a position against the teaching of the Church. Likewise, we regard St. Thomas Aquinas as a saint despite the fact that he did not believe that Mary was immaculately conceived. The topic had not yet been defined either by ordinary or extraordinary magisterium§. But if a person today were to deny it, that person would be a heretic.

With this background, let’s look at this section from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book IV, chapter 7, section 28). Where he misapplied the case to justify rejecting the authority of Popes:

28. Apostasy of John XXII

But let us imagine that the impiety of the pontiffs whom I mentioned is hidden, because they have neither published it by preaching nor by writings, but have betrayed it only in table, in bedchamber, or at least within walls. However, if they wish this privilege (which they allege) to hold good, let them expunge from the list of the popes John XXII, who openly asserted that souls are mortal and die along with bodies until the day of resurrection. And that you may mark that the whole see with its chief props was then utterly fallen, none of the cardinals opposed this great madness, but the School of Paris impelled the king of France to force him to recant. The king forbade his subjects to communicate with John unless he should promptly repent, and published this by herald in the usual way. Compelled by this necessity, the pope abjured his error, as Jean Gerson, who was then living, testifies. This example relieves me from having to dispute with my opponents any longer over their statement that the Roman see and its pontiffs cannot err in faith, because it was said to Peter: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” [Luke 22:32]. Surely with such a foul kind of fall did John XXII fall from the true faith that here is a notable proof to posterity that not all are Peters who succeed Peter in the bishop’s office. Yet of itself this claim is also so childish it needs no answer. For if they wish to apply to Peter’s successors everything that was said to Peter, it will follow that they are all Satans, since the Lord also said this to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” [Matt. 16:23]. Indeed, it will be as easy for us to turn back this latter saying upon them as for them to cast the other against us.

Under Calvin’s reasoning, because the Pope privately believed something that was not yet defined differently  from what we profess now, it was “proof” that Popes could formally “teach error.” Therefore the Catholic Church could not be the true Church.

The current crowd of Pope bashers don’t want to go that far. They only want to argue that the Popes they dislike can teach error and, therefore, be ignored. Meanwhile, the Popes they like are to be obeyed. But there are problems with that. Logically:

1. All Popes are human beings.
2. All human beings are sinners*.
3. Therefore all Popes are sinners.

So, you will always be able to find embarrassing things in the actions of any Pope that any critic who wants to use that argument can use to refuse obedience. When one faction argues that they don’t have to obey Pope Francis because of his “errors,” while another argues that they don’t have to obey St. John Paul II because of his “errors,” who decides whether the claims have merit? If the critics can make that decision, then no Pope can ever be trusted to teach and we might as well accept Calvin’s reasoning—or that of the sede vacantists

But, even though these critics accuse the Pope of “Protestantizing” the Church, they make the same error that Calvin did: they treat a personal error on an undefined matter (or, in the case of Pope Francis of thinking the Pope made an “error”) into a “proof” of heresy and use it to reject the Church when they disagree. Calvin goes further in his rejection, taking it to the “logical” conclusion that comes with denying that God protects the Pope in any case at all, but it’s still the same flaw that leads them to reject the legitimate use of papal authority.

These critics should be cautious. Rejecting obedience to a Pope is a schismatic act (canon 752), and performing a schismatic act while professing to be the true faithful shows a failure to understand Scripture or Tradition. As St. John Paul II (Ecclesia Dei #4) put it:

The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".

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.

If the modern Catholic critics resent being compared to the founders of Protestantism, they should tale pains to avoid the forms of schism and not think they can’t be guilty because they don’t share the form of Calvin’s schism.


(#) This doesn’t mean that the Church could have just as easily defined it the other way. God protects His Church from teaching error.

(§) Yes, the ordinary magisterium is binding. Berengarius was condemned for denying the Real Presence. It wasn’t infallibly defined until 1215, but had been consistently taught before then. 

(*) Obviously, we are not denying the Immaculate Conception here. I do confess that Our Lady received, from the moment of conception, a special grace that kept her sinless. But the rest of humanity does fall under that premise.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Sincerity is not Same as Accuracy

When I read Luther and Calvin in their attacks on the Catholic Church, two things become clear: First, that they were probably quite sincere about opposing what they thought was wrong. Second, that despite their sincerity, what they wrote to justify rejecting the Catholic Church was absolutely false and harmful. This brings us to something that should be remembered when people today launch attacks against the Pope or the Church: just because an attacker is sincere, it doesn’t make him or her right. What matters is if the actual evidence supports the allegations, not the accusations themselves.

Luther and Calvin confused their own interpretation of Scripture, St. Augustine, Church Councils, etc., with what was actually said. When the Catholic Church held a position that ran counter to their interpretation, the Church was declared guilty of Pelagianism, of inventing new teachings and so on. The problem was the interpretation is not necessarily the actual meaning. Both men cited Augustine and argued that his refutation of Pelagius was also a refutation of Catholic teaching on grace. But the Catholic teaching on grace does not allow for the Pelagian views of merit that these two men accused the Catholic Church of holding. So, even if they were sincere# in their refutations, they were still wrong because their accusations were simply untrue. If they had considered the possibility of being mistaken, they might have looked more closely and realized their accusations were false.

I could also bring up Calvin’s interpretation of the Patristics in trying to argue (book IV of the Institutes of the Christian Religion) that the primacy of Rome was a later innovation. Calvin confused his interpretation of the texts with what the actual texts said§. The result is a “history” that merely reflects his unproven belief that the early Church could not possibly have had a Pope*.

This is why I warn about the modern anti-Francis Catholics falling into the same errors as Luther and Calvin. No, their theology is not the same. But their tactics are. That’s why the modern critics are in danger. The difference between the founders of Protestantism and those leading the Catholic reform of the time is this: the members of the Catholic Reform gave religious submission of intellect and will to the teachings of the magisterium while the leaders of Protestantism rejected it.

But before a critic argues, “But that was different! We’re rejecting errors!” remember that this is what men like Luther and Calvin said too. No matter how sincere the modern critics might be, they are causing the same turmoil and using the same tactics.


(§) Modern religious software like Verbum or Logos allows for instantaneous investigation of the cited works. This lets us discover things taken out of context, paraphrases, and injected editorial comments that mix with or even replace the actual words of the early Church Fathers. Luther and Calvin went beyond what the anti-Pelagian writings actually said.

(#) It is not for me to judge their culpability. But, sincere or not, they were wrong.

(*) Begging the question is a fallacy that gets used frequently by anti-Catholics outside the Church and dissenters within the Church.

(€) Many of the critics are “cradle Catholics,” but it would be interesting to do a study to see if there are any residual assumptions among converts who are also anti-Francis Catholics. Unfortunately, I don’t have any way of conducting such a study to test the idea for accuracy.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Consider This: An Article for Perplexed Catholics Trying to Sort Through the Confusion

I address this article to Catholics of good will§ who are striving to be faithful to God through obedience to His Church, but find things confusing because of all the accusations made against the Pope.

I don’t doubt that you want to be faithful. But you’re probably struggling with the fear that if even a portion of the accusations against Pope Francis are true, then the Pope must be teaching error.

This is especially true if you don’t know the teachings as well as you like and an angry critic of the Church argues that some document you’ve never heard of, with a Latin title you can’t understand, contradicts what Pope Francis teaches. 

Or perhaps you liked what a certain layman, priest, bishop, or cardinal had to say about defending the Church when you first joined, reverted, or started paying attention to the Church, but now he’s speaking about how the Pope is teaching error. You’ve always trusted him before. Shouldn’t you keep trusting him?

The first thing to remember is that the Catholic Church was established by Jesus Christ and is not a merely human institution. He promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18) and that He would be with the Church until the end of the world (Matthew 28:20). As such, the Church teaches with His authority and is protected from teaching error. Appealing to Jesus Christ against the teachings of His Church shows a false understanding.

The second thing to remember is the fact that, within the Church, the ones who have the authority to bind and loose in the Church are the Pope, individually, and the bishops, when acting in communion with him—and only those bishops acting in communion with him. Priests, bishops, and cardinals who teach in opposition to the Pope, or refuse communion with him lack authority in what they say. This is why, for example, we are not bound to obey an Eastern Orthodox bishop or an SSPX bishop.

The third thing to remember is that the one who makes the final call on how to apply past Church documents in the present is the Pope. He’s the one who makes the infallible definitions, approves or rejects the documents from ecclesiastical councils, binds or looses disciplines, governs the Church, and so on. When he acts as Pope, we are required to obey—not only in the infallible statements, but the ordinary teachings as well*. Because of this we can either believe that we are required to obey error (which is absurd) or we can have faith that God will continue to keep His promise to protect His Church when it teaches. This is not a new claim. Prior to Pope Francis, this was generally understood and accepted as a mark of a faithful Catholic.

Fourth, every member of the Magisterium, like the rest of us, is a sinner in need of salvation. It doesn’t matter what Pope in history you look at. You will find sin in some area of his life. A Pope who neglects his salvation is in just as much danger as the rest of us would be. But that would not diminish his authority when he teaches. This is why it is irrelevant to bring up Paul rebuking Peter in Galatians 2:11-14. Peter’s moral failing (probably stemming from wanting to avoid a conflict) did not impact his authority to teach in a binding manner.

When we understand these truths, the attacks against the authority of the Pope are exposed. The people who claim that the Pope is in error when he teaches are either misunderstanding or rejecting one of the four points above. But, since they are Church teaching, the person who struggles must make a decision: Will they accept the teaching of the Church when the Pope teaches? Or will they reject the Church? There is no middle ground in this case. As Monsignor Ronald Knox wrote:

Here is another suggestion, which may not be without its value—if you find yourself thus apparently deserted by the light of faith, do not fluster and baffle your imagination by presenting to it all the most difficult doctrines of the Christian religion, those which unbelievers find it easiest to attack; do not be asking yourself, "Can I really believe marriage is indissoluble?  Can I really believe that it is possible to go to hell as the punishment for one mortal sin?"  Keep your attention fixed to the main point, which is a single point—Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth?  If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.

(In Soft Garments, pages 113-114).

Since the Pope is the final arbiter of what is or is not authentically Catholic, the perplexed Catholic needs to remember this: it is the one who denies the Pope’s authority, not the Pope himself when he teaches, that is responsible for spreading error in the Church.


(§) Non-Catholics of good will are welcome to come along for the ride. But be aware that the article will assume the teachings of the Church as a given. Those who do not believe that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ and teaches with His authority will doubtless disagree with some or all of the article.

(*) See (among others) Pius IX Syllabus of Errors #22, Vatican I (especially Pastor Aeternus Chapter 3), Pius XII Humani Generis #20, Lumen Gentium #25, canon 752 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and #890-892 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Umm, What? Reflecting on Bizarro World Catholicism

As the antics of some Catholics continue, I am reminded of the DC Comics Bizarro World. The basic concept here is whatever is seen as right, true, and good on Earth is seen as wrong, false, and bad. It’s played for laughs, and it works because we know what is supposed to be right.

In the Bizarro-Catholic world, we’re seeing cases of Catholics who are ignorant of past Church history hailed as knowledgeable and those rejecting the authority of the magisterium with the vehemence of Luther praised as “defending the Church from Protestantism.” Formal teaching today is called “opinion” while opinions from the past are called “doctrine§.When the Pope repeats the Church condemnation against nuclear weapons, he is condemned as ignoring the Church teaching on Just War; when he repeats the consistent Church teaching on caring for the poor and oppressed, he is condemned for being “political.” When he makes something clear, they accuse him of being vague; when his staff corrects a misinterpretation by his critics, the Bizarro Catholics say the Vatican is “walking it back,” or even “lying.”

I could go on and on about these ridiculous antics—and, tragically, the Bizarro Catholics will continue committing them—but it will get annoying. The point is: a certain group that accuses the Pope or the Church today of being in error are actually the ones in error, and the standards they use to judge orthodoxy are opposed to what the Church has always called on the faithful to accept as the guide of what is authentically Catholic.

Pointing this out angers this faction of Catholics. They point to excerpts of obscure Latin documents and contrast them with the actions of the Church today, arguing that it is a “contradiction” and proof of modern error. The problem is, they are arguing about authentic interpretation when the final decision about authentic interpretation is the Pope. They do not consider the development of Church teaching and discipline, and whether the Church sees a need for a changed approach in times that have grown deaf to the methods used in the past.

St. John Paul II warned about this attitude in Ecclesia Dei, when he explained how the SSPX fell into error:

4. The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".(5)

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.(6)

The Church will never contradict the doctrines she has previously taught, but that doesn’t mean that what was written in the past cannot be clarified or when loopholes arise. As a result, when someone stands up and says that the Pope or validly convened and ratified Council errs, we have seen the antics of a Bizarro Catholic. And, if we give these critics credence while rejecting the Church under the visible headship of the Pope, we too are Bizarro Catholics.


(§) Case in point, one of St. Robert Bellarmine’s evaluations of different opinions on whether a Pope can be a formal heretic is considered “doctrinal” when the work in question is simply a defense of Catholicism against Protestant claims. He no more intended to be magisterial that Benedict XVI did when he wrote theological works as Cardinal or as Pope.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

On Popular Anti-Papal Arguments That Are Actually Logical Fallacies

Since the Amazon Synod, there have been several arguments given as “irrefutable proof” that the Pope has promoted heresy, syncretism, and idolatry. The problem is, they are logical fallacies that do not prove what they claim. I write this piece both for those who don’t know how to respond so they don’t fear that it “might be true,” and for those who use them that they stop spreading nonsense.

The First Fallacy: Argument From Silence

I’ve seen an argument going around that tries to justify accusations against the Pope. This argument runs along the lines of “If the Pope didn’t believe X, he should have said something to refute it. Because he didn’t say something, it must be true.” The people who make the argument think it’s proof for the claims made by Scalfari or Vigano. Others have used it for the dubia from Cardinal Burke and others, arguing that since the Pope did not answer it, he could not answer it. 

The problem is, it’s a logical fallacy: The Argument From Silence. This fallacy assumes that if there was anything that could refute their position, then it would have been issued. Since it wasn’t issued, it means there’s nothing to refute it.

This argument overlooks the fact that the Pope is not required to give an answer and may choose not to for different reasons. Sometimes he has allowed his staff to issue the refutation. Sometimes the question was disrespectful in tone or means of distribution, not meriting a response. Sometimes the question is so stupid as to be unworthy of a reply. Perhaps in some cases, the decision not to answer is an imprudent one. But that’s something that the Pope must determine.

The point is: Silence neither proves something is true or false. Silence is simply an absence of proof.

The Second Fallacy: Begging the Question

“Why is Mary Crying?” by Jack Chick. Modern critics are repeating his errors by assuming such acts must be latria.

At the same time that they accuse him of silence, certain critics accuse him despite his response denying their charges. Based on their interpretation of what we all see, they accuse him of “promoting paganism.” To “prove” their point, they provide links to Wikipedia and other sources about Pachamama. They tell us, “See? Pachamama is a pagan idol, therefore the Pope is guilty of promoting idolatry!”

The problem is, these critics are starting with an assumption (apparently originating with an Evangelical§ indigenous chief) that this image was an idol and that all acts of prostration are acts of worship, regardless of culture. These are the points that need to be proven. But, instead of investigating the origin of the image, the religious affiliation of those performing the ceremony, and how it was used before coming to Rome, critics repeat the mantra that it was an idol and cite references against idolatry to “prove” that the Pope is guilty of idolatry. But those “proofs” are only of value if it is established that the object was an idol. But that’s assumed, without the proof needed to justify the accusation.

The Third Fallacy: Appeal to Irrelevant Authority

If one wants to invoke a big name in the Church in this matter, one must ask whether their authority is relevant to the matter at hand before one can accept their claims as authoritative. Certainly the priests, bishops and cardinals are to be heeded when they are acting in communion with the Church and the Pope. As Lumen Gentium #25 explains:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. 

Certainly, when members of the magisterium act in this role, they are to be listened to. But, while giving all due respect to them, clerical critics like Father Mitch Pacwa, Bishop Schneider, and Cardinal Burke@ (those most commonly cited by the most vocal critics on social media) are not experts on the culture and religion of the Amazon region. Moreover, they are offering their opinion#, not speaking in their role as teachers in the Church. If it was intended to be a pagan act of worship (see the Second Fallacy above), then their concerns have merit. But that has to be proven before we can accept their claims.

The Fourth Fallacy: Straw Man

“Aha,” some critics exclaim. “The Pope called it Pachamama. Therefore he proved the charge!” Well, no. The Pope used the common term bestowed on it by the Italian media for purpose of identifying which object he was referring to. Unfortunately, there are no neutral terms in use. For example, to avoid a similar problem, I choose to use the terms “image” or “object” to refer to it, only using the term “Pachamama” is quotation marks*. But it’s not a universal standard and I have to clarify which item I mean. I would certainly be annoyed if someone took my use of the term image to mean “religious image.”

Since the Vatican press office (that’s their job, see The First Fallacy, above) had stated the Pope did not use the term to identify the object as an idol, it should be a case of Roma locuta, causa finita.” But certain people refuse to accept that they misinterpreted him and insist on repeating their arguments as if the correction of their errors never happened.

The Fifth Fallacy: Ipse Dixit

Politics in the United States, unfortunately, operates under the practice of repeating one’s claim often enough that partisans think it’s irrational to question whether it’s actually true. Unfortunately, that’s becoming commonplace in attacks on the Pope. The technical term for this is ipse dixit (literally, “he himself said it”). It is to make a statement and expect everyone to just accept it as true.

Not all dogmatic statements are ipse dixit. One who teaches with authority (the Pope, the bishops in communion with him and teaching in accord with him) can make statements that are binding (see canons 752-754). That’s not because of their personal wisdom, but because of the authority granted their office by Christ. Experts in a field can be cited in their areas of expertise in a limited extent because they are explaining the vetted knowledge in their field. But if they should speak on matters outside their field (the Pope offering stock tips, scientists speaking on religion, actors speaking on politics), what they say does not have authority.

But those who are not experts teaching in their field or speaking with the authority of their office within the Church cannot expect that a statement of theirs be accepted without question. 

How does this differ from the fallacy of irrelevant authority (#3, above)? Irrelevant authority cites someone who might be an authority in topic A in the entirety different topic or context B, where he is not an authority. Ipse dixit is making a statement without authority. So, citing Stephen Hawking (an expert in science) to “debunk” religion is an appeal to irrelevant authority. Stephen Hawking making blanket statements dismissing religion are ipse dixit.

The person who says that “the Pope falsely teaches X” and expects everyone to accept it as true without question is making an ipse dixit statement. This is why (for example) I point to the Church teaching and actual statements by the magisterium when I say “we must do X.” This is also why I insist on accusations against the Pope be proven based on the proper interpretation of what he says/does vs. the proper interpretation of what past teaching is¥. Sure, one might object validly to my being imprecise on how many critics (I always mean “some critics”), but I always try to study how the Church interprets past teachings and cite where I draw my conclusions from. I certainly don’t expect anyone to accept something on my say-so alone.

The problem is: what passes for “proof” against the Pope these days have no basis in fact but only in bare assertions. Claiming that the Pope is a “heretical NWO socialist Peronist etc. etc. etc.” is an ipse dixit clam. The accuser simply lacks the authority to make such a declaration based on his reading of Church teaching.


These are neither the only fallacies nor the only attacks used against the Pope, but they are current ones used since the Amazon Synod. In pointing out that they are logical fallacies, I show that the reasoning used to accuse the Pope do not prove their point.

To be proven logically true, the premises must be true and the logical form must be valid. The arguments used against the Pope meet neither criteria and should not be accepted by the faithful.


(§) Keep in mind that many anti-Catholics come from this background. That doesn’t prove that this individual is one (that would be the fallacy of division), but personal biases do need to be considered before accepting non-Catholic claims against Catholics.

(@) Before anyone should accuse me of personal animosity against them, I always found Fr. Pacwa’s talks enlightening and personally favored Cardinal Burke to become the Pope in the 2013 conclave (I had never heard of Cardinal Bergoglio before he became Pope). My current concern with them comes from statements that they made which might be interpreted as being at odds with the respect and obedience always expected towards Pope Francis’ predecessors.

(#) I don’t believe they have any intention to claim magisterial authority against the Pope in their statements.

(*) I have been told, but cannot independently verify, that the use of italics (which the Pope’s statement used) in Italy serves the same purpose as scare quotes in the United States.

(¥) Other examples might be the “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics who argue that a certain passage “allows” them to dissent from a Church teaching because the latter teaching “contradicts” Vatican II. They don’t have the authority to interpret Vatican II contra the Pope.

(€) I suspect many of the people who cry “socialist” based on the Pope’s denunciation of abuses in capitalism have never read Pius XI in his denunciations of the abuses in capitalism.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

They Aren’t Remembering History. Will They Repeat It?

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it§.

—George Santayana, The Life of Reason, volume I

I’ve been reading different Patristic Church histories lately. I find accounts from Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Rufinius, Theodoret, etc. fascinating in describing how the various schisms tried to impose their errors (if they were heretical) or rigorism (if they were schisms) on the Church. 

What made them successful in the short term was how they controlled the narrative and had the ear of important people. They selectively miscited the writings of those with authority in the Church, portraying the Popes and bishops as rejecting “authentic” teaching and falsely accusing them of all sorts of vile crimes. Idolatry, supporting heresy, debauchery, etc. The heretical and schismatic groups tried to get the Popes and bishops deposed from their positions. But in the long term, the orthodox Catholic position triumphed.

When they finally lost in the battle for the Church as a whole, they declared that the Church itself was wrong and broke communion with the successor of Peter and insisted that they were the faithful remnant. Montanism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, etc., were some of the heretical movements that rose from clinging from things the Church condemned. But there were other movements that rose from those who accepted the same beliefs as the Catholic Church but falsely claimed something the Church taught something that she did not* or claimed that the Church approach of mercy to sinners was allowing sin. Groups like the Novatians and Donatists fell into this category.

4. The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".(5)

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.(6)

—St. John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei 

I find that the modern attacks on the Pope and bishops is tragically similar to the attacks in the first centuries of the Church. Many of those hostile to the Pope like to think of themselves as being like St. Athanasius against the Arians or St. Paul opposing St. Peter. But they act more like Hippolytus, Novatian or Donatus, assuming that a position of mercy from the Pope must be a position of laxity or actual sympathy towards error.

While certain critics might think that Santayana’s comment on history justifies their stance, actually they fit what he warned against. They don’t understand the history and development of the Church. Instead they rely on perpetually new interpretations of a fixed moment in the Church that they consider ideal, assume was always the case, and remain ignorant of the actual development and struggle to defend the faith. Being ignorant about this development, they assume deviation from their ideal is error even if it’s orthodox Catholic teaching.

Because they fail to remember history, they cannot see the direction the Church has gone in and how she has changed discipline and custom but left doctrine intact. If certain critics will not remember this history, they might wind up repeating the tragedies that led to error and schism.


(§) This is the context of the oft paraphrased quote.

(*) Men like Photius, Michael Celularius, Luther, and Calvin also used false accusations to justify breaking with the Church.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

I Don’t Have a Problem With Your Eyes. It’s Your Interpretation That Bothers Me

Depending on one’s outlook, this article might be seen as correcting misconceptions about my approach to fidelity vs. dissent, or it might be seen as “doubling down” on inflammatory comments made against concerned Catholics.  So, let’s talk about the issues.

Issue #1: To Accurately Speak of What Is or Is Not

When Catholics accuse the Pope of something, the first question is whether the accusations are true. That means asking whether the facts are true of course. But it also means asking whether the motives attributed to the facts are true. 

Using Aristotle’s definition of truth, we have to ask whether what accusers say is saying of what is, that it is. If it is not, the accuser does not speak the truth. That doesn’t automatically mean that the accuser is automatically proven guilty of lying. Someone can sincerely believe that a false statement is true. But if they say something false, they do harm regardless of the culpability. Therefore, when someone makes an accusation against the Pope, we have an obligation to determine whether or not it’s true. If it’s false or unproven, we must not pass it along.

Issue #2: I Don’t Have a Problem With Your Eyes. It’s Your Interpretation That Bothers Me

That brings us to one of the popular albeit—in my opinion—stupid quips passed around by Catholics on social media about the video of the ceremony that took place  In the Vatican gardens. Because some people in native garments§ seemed to prostrate themselves before the image popularly known as Pachamama, certain people declared it was worship of an idol. When this was questioned, certain Catholics came forward with the quip# “Who are you going to believe? Me? Or your own lying eyes?”

The quip is supposed to mean that we’re brazenly saying that the “obvious” evidence is wrong. Since we all saw the video, we can’t deny it was an act of pagan worship. The problem is, the question is not what the people did. The question is whether the critics properly interpreted the visuals. 

For example, when St. John Paul II visited Papua-New Guinea, he was greeted by indigenous Catholics who performed one of their cultural rituals. But some of his critics accused him of taking part in a “pagan ritual.” Yes, we all saw the same visuals. But the interpretation was false. This brings us to the Amazon Synod.

Yes, we saw the video too. We saw people who wore strange clothing and did strange things before a strange object. But what has to be proven is that a group of pagans brought an idol to the Vatican gardens and intended to worship it. It’s not enough to say it might be true. The Church has never condemned anyone on the basis of unproven accusations. So where are the anthropological experts that identify the individuals as pagans, identify the image as an idol, and the activity as an Amazonian type of worship? Not only did nobody interview the people involved, but the accusations seem to have one indigenous chief who is an Evangelical as the source of the claims. But since when do we accept the word of one outside the Church as an expert of those within the Church? How would this person describe ordinary Catholic practices?

Some of you might say “But the Pope called it Pachamama!” But that doesn’t work. The Pope used the common Italian media label—a label applied with none of the required experts evaluating it. Think of it this way. We often use common but inaccurate terms for things because that is what everybody knows them by. “Sunrise and sunset” being one major example. Or we refer to the antics launched by men like Martin Luther as the “Reformation,” even though we do not believe that his actions “reformed” anything.

Combine this with the fact that the Pope explicitly denying that this was an idol, and that it was an act of worship¥. Combine it with the fact that the Vatican explicitly denied that the Pope intended to identify the image as literally being Pachamama. Combine it with the fact that those who brought the object said they bought it in a craft market and used it as a symbol for the indigenous people, not an image from the indigenous people. Either the critics have to prove a deception, or withdraw their charges. But don’t say that the video proves it—because the interpretation for the motives of the actions is very much under challenge.

Issue #3: Rash Judgment

The Church, in teaching against false witness, has some strong things to say about rash judgment. Rash judgment assumes a fault without proof for it. As I pointed out in Issue #2, there is no proof for these accusations against the Pope and the Synod. Instead, people judge according to the meaning they put on what they saw and repeat what others claim it means without verifying that the person doing the criticism is an expert on both Catholic theology and indigenous Amazon culture.

This is important. People may cite Father A, Bishop B, or Cardinal C as thinking it was an act of idolatry. But are they speaking with expertise on how indigenous Catholics in the Amazon do things? Or do they think of how American and Western Europeans do things and react negatively? This has to be asked and answered.

This cuts both ways of course. That’s why you’ll never see me accuse Father A, Bishop B, or Cardinal C of promoting heresy or schism*. I focus on dangerous attitudes in the hope of getting people to ask questions rather than make rash assumptions.

Issue #4: Nego Accusatio^The Credibility Gap of Accusers

One of the problems I have when critics tell us that the Pope is committing an error is that those making the claims have been consistently wrong. Small excerpts of long statements are taken out of context and people accuse the Pope of holding things he has actually opposed. Remember the 2015 Synod on the family? The critics said that the Synod would allow same sex “marriage” and contraception. Remember how everyone interpreted “Who am I to judge?” as promoting homosexuality? Remember how they accused him of planning to allow women priests, married priests and women deacons? 

These were all false accusations, regardless of whether the people spreading them did so intentionally or through gullibility. Whenever the full transcripts of what the Pope says have been made available@, the supposedly outrageous soundbites turned out to be very nuanced statements that assume Catholic orthodoxy as a basis. The Pope simply was pointing out that sometimes the practices have fallen into a legalism that spends more focus on keeping notorious sinners away from sacraments than actually reconciling them to the Church. 

Unfortunately, those who are critics of the Pope seem to rely on the sources that have been constantly wrong (whether from bias or simply not knowing what Catholics believe). Perhaps it’s time to start asking ourselves whether we should stop believing those sites who have been consistently wrong about the Pope every time they accused him.

Issue #4: Guilt by Association Fallacy

One doesn’t judge whether an idea is right or wrong based on the people who favor or support it. That’s a logical fallacy. An idea might be good even if unpopular or unsavory people like it. An idea might be wrong even if respectable people support it.

And this also comes into play here. Some critics have pointed to members of the Church who seem to hold heterodox ideas that cheer on the Pope. Yes, these people try to use his actions to promote their own agenda. But it doesn’t mean that the Pope supports their agenda or thinks like them. Yes, some people of questionable orthodoxy have expressed support for the Pope. But you’ll find that some people of questionable orthodoxy have expressed support for his opponents too. If the Pope is supposed to be guilty because some people with agendas think they can exploit his words, then those theologians who oppose the Pope stand condemned whenever a sede vacantist expresses support for those who disagree with the Pope.

But that’s absurd. The bad supporters of Pope Francis and the bad supporters of the “Dubia Cardinals” do not make their ideas wrong. But some critics of the Pope are trying to use those bad supporters to insinuate exactly that without proving that the Pope agrees with those bad ideas.

Issue #5: Misusing the terms None, Some, All; Equivocation 


There is a tendency to turn “some” into “all” or “none” depending on how a critic wants to portray it. If you want to downplay something, turn his “some people are saying…” into “nobody” or “hardly anyone says.” If you want to make a claim that somebody exaggerates, portray his “some people” into “all” or “most people.” Then you can say that the person expressing concern is “accusing” everyone who disagrees.

So, when the Pope speaks out against a dangerous attitude, some critics interpret his “some” as “all” and say he’s targeting “faithful Catholics.” But let’s face it: if somebody actually champions an attitude he warns against, that person has a fundamental misunderstanding about the Catholic Faith.

A similar error is to misuse a word which can have multiple meanings to benefit the person by using a different meaning than the intended one. For example, the Church uses the term Social Justice to refer to how our Christian  obligations must be applied in society. Christians must not only live rightly personally, but must also work to govern rightly. Unfortunately, the term is also used to mean a certain political platform, usually associated with socialism. As a result, when the Pope talks about Social Justice in different areas, certain critics replace that meaning with the political meaning and argue that the Pope supports whatever the American£ politicians also invoke the term “social justice.” The result is rash judgment (Issue #2) that accuses the Pope of supporting moral evils that he is on record as opposing. The person who makes these accusations (knowingly or out of ignorance) are causing scandal, not the Pope they fail to understand.

Conclusion: Confusion of Their Own Making

I do not say that all people with difficulties are guilty of this (Issue #5). But certain critics do, and they have stirred up a great deal of confusion, misrepresenting the Pope and bishops to the point that many Catholics believe that the claims made by radical dissenters must have some merit. But we cannot use our lack of knowledge as an excuse for not seeking to learn the truth.

Catholics are to give religious submission of intellect and will to the Pope when he teaches—even if it is not an ex cathedra teaching. This doesn’t mean, “the Pope can do whatever he feels like.” It means that we trust God to protect His Church. If we think that the Pope is “teaching error,” we have the obligation to determine whether our fears are true before making accusations out of them.

If we will not, any ignorance on our part becomes vincible ignorance—the kind we are morally responsible for if we do wrong. It’s not for me to point at you, the reader, and accuse you. I write this simply to warn people about dangerous attitudes and flaws in reasoning that could lead to the devil deceiving individuals into breaking with the Church while convinced they are the “true defenders of the faith.”


(#) The quote comes from the Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup.

(§) One individual wore what looked like a brown religious habit. If it was one and legitimately worn, it discredits claims that the individuals must be “pagan.”

(†) Heretical bishops (Arians, Nestorians, etc) did accuse the saints of crimes to get them out of their dioceses.

(¥) The worst accusation one could level against him is that he was lied to. 

(*) I might say that a Priest, Bishop, or Cardinal uses rhetoric that troubles me, but I try to keep in mind that actual dissenters might be twisting or misinterpreting their words just as much as they do with the Pope.

(^) “I Deny the Accusation”

(@) Finding transcripts are not difficult. Personally, I go to the Vatican website or Zenit. You just need to remember that it takes time to get them translated and posted.

(€) If one compares Amoris Laetitia with Cardinal Kasper’s The Gospel of the Family, you’ll see the first pages of the latter are similar to what the Pope wrote. But then there is a sharp break where the Pope remains within Catholic teaching while Kasper proposes following the Eastern Orthodox customs.

(£) I am an American, but let’s face it. Sometimes American Catholics badly confuse the Church teaching with politics, thinking that a faithful Catholic will support their own political views, but Catholic moral teaching predated the existence of the United States by almost two millennia.