Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Deafening Our Conscience Through Outrage

Everyone notices the wrongdoing done by other people. We see something that seems unjust and we are outraged. We demand instantaneous retraction and until that is done, the one we see as guilty loses all rights to being treated as a human person. If that person is a member of the clergy, he is treated as if he forfeits all rights to the respect and submission due his office.

Meanwhile, more often than not, people refuse to consider their own wrongdoing as anything worth considering. Refusing obedience to the Church because their teachings and actions do not mesh with one’s own beliefs is not recognized as disobedience. Instead it’s treated as “standing up against evil,” where everyone imagines they are a miniature St. Paul, withstanding an erring Peter to his face.

The problem is, we are not like St. Paul. We’re more like the Pharisee who treats the sinner—or the one we think is sinning—as beneath contempt while thinking we’re superior because we don’t sin... or, if we do, at least we don’t sin as badly as them.

That’s a dangerous attitude. It shows we’ve forgotten or ignored our own guilt. As long as we aren’t as bad (in our own eyes) as them, we’re the good ones, the wise ones. That’s a dangerous attitude because it shows we we have become deaf to our conscience. As Benedict XVI put it:

“The Pharisee is no longer aware that he too is guilty. He is perfectly at ease with his own conscience. But this silence of his conscience makes it impossible for God and men to penetrate his carapace—whereas the cry of conscience that torments the tax collector opens him to receive truth and love. Jesus can work effectively among sinners because they have not become inaccessible behind the screen of an erring conscience, which would put them out of reach of the changes that God awaits from them—and from us. Jesus cannot work effectively among the righteous because they sense no need for forgiveness and repentance; their conscience no longer accuses them but only justifies them.”

Values in a Time of Upheaval, p. 82

When we are deaf to conscience, we justify the evil we do, saying it’s not as bad as the evil they do, therefore it’s unimportant. We protest, asking “Why does the Church focus on us when those people are doing worse? What we forget is that the deadliest sin for an individual is the one that sends that individual to hell. 

So you don’t support abortion? Congratulations. You’ve none nothing more than demanded of you. But if you’re committing other sins while refusing to acknowledge and repent of them, you might be no better off in the eyes of God—even if the magnitude of your sins are objectively less.

Our Lord shocked the Pharisees when He said, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.” [Matthew 21:31 (NABRE)]. If He wanted to shock us equally today, He might say, “the pro-abortion politicians and cowardly bishops” (to name two popular targets of revulsion). If they repent but we do not, then they are in the same situation as the tax collectors [§] while we are in the same situation as the Pharisees. This doesn’t mean, “treat sins as unimportant.” It means “don’t exalt yourself just because you haven’t done that.” 

Or, as St. John Chrysostom, (Homily III on 2 Timothy), discusses on our focus on the great sins of others:

“Let each therefore, with an upright conscience, entering into a review of what he has done, and bringing his whole life before him, consider, whether he is not deserving of chastisements and punishments without number? And when he is indignant that some one, who has been guilty of many bad actions, escapes with impunity; let him consider his own faults, and his indignation will cease. For those crimes appear great, because they are in great and notorious matters; but if he will enquire into his own, he will perhaps find them more numerous.”

So, when we see sin in the Church—especially when it seems to go unnoticed—it’s not wrong to want justice and reform. But it is wrong to play the Pharisee, using the sins of others to justify ourselves. We might be risking our souls by using another’s sins as an excuse to ignore our own wrongdoing.


[§] To put it in historical context: Tax collectors (publicani) of the Roman Empire were not the equivalent of the modern IRS. Their greed and corruption ruined and destabilized entire provinces. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Heavier Than the Burden of Sand

Stone is heavy, and sand a burden, but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both. Proverbs 27:3 (NABRE)

As the fallout continues from the “Excommunicate Cuomo” movement (discussed HERE , I’m seeing a deadly snare that the anticlerical movement has set. Having consistently preached a message of “cowardly and heretical” bishops, this movement has undermined trust in the Church to the point that if the bishops don’t do what they want, people are deceived into thinking the bishops are deliberately rejecting Church teaching.

In this case, the snare is telling everyone that the bishops must excommunicate Cuomo. When the bishops point out that canon law doesn’t include politicians in canon 1398, their statement of fact is portrayed as a “refusal” to carry out their task. It’s devious because it’s a “heads I win, tails you lose” proposition. Regardless of what the bishops do, it simply cannot include excommunication unless Canon Law is changed. But the Church doesn’t do ex post facto [@] laws, so this won’t affect Cuomo anyway [§]. 

But since the anticlerical faction has ramped everybody up to demand excommunication, anything the bishops do will be written off as sympathy or laxity. Their enemies will demand that the bishops be replaced by those who will “enforce Church teaching,” even though what they want has nothing to do with real Church teaching.

Authentic interpretation of the Church teaching in each age is determined by the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. This isn’t an ecclesial version of legal positivism [#]. This acknowledges the fact that this is where God bestows His authority (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). Canon law is human, so it can be amended for a good reason. But a mob of pissed off Catholics clamoring for vengeance is not a good reason.

I believe we need to start looking at the anger and bitterness that drives these movements. These are not the righteous anger of the prophets. These are wrathful responses to something hated. That something hated is the Church and those entrusted to lead her. The problem is, these attitudes are completely opposite to the Fruits of the Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” [Galatians 5:22–23 (NABRE)].

That doesn’t mean we’re to be indifferent to wrongdoing by Catholics. But it does mean that a reaction of wrath and hatred is a warning sign that we are not acting in a Christian way. We should remember God’s words to Cain: “Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it.” [Genesis 4:6–7 (NABRE)]. 

It’s time to stop getting needlessly angry at the Church. In the course of the past week, Catholics have forgotten the abuse crisis, the March For Life, and World Youth Day in favor of Covington and New York. Not in a righteous anger, but in a screaming fit very much like the “snowflakes” they mock in the political arena. That’s not the behavior Catholics are called to.

Let’s all remember this: You won’t always like everything that happens in the Church. But our response should be seeking to understand, not assuming that the Church can and should meet our preferences. You won’t ever find a bishop (or anyone else in the Church) who’s not affected by sin. Remember even the Apostles cut and ran once upon a time. Our response should be to pray for them, so they might have the strength and grace needed for their task.

If we won’t do that, then we’re part of the problem by adding the weight of our needless wrath to the real troubles of the Church.


[@] “law that makes illegal an act that was legal when committed, increases the penalties for an infraction after it has been committed, or changes the rules of evidence to make conviction easier.”

[§] It should be noted that Cuomo is already barred from Communion (canon 915) on account of his cohabitation relationship. So, unless he formally commits heresy or schism or another excommunicatable offense, there’s not much left the Church can do to him.

[#] The theory that whatever is law is right because it’s law.

Friday, January 25, 2019

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

After New York passed its barbaric abortion law, Catholic Social Media attacked Cardinal Dolan for not excommunicating Cuomo. There were two problems with this. First, it’s not Cardinal Dolan, but the bishop of Albany (Bishop Scharfenberger) who has jurisdiction over Cuomo. Second, Excommunication for abortion is for those involved in the act of procuring [brings about, achieves] abortion. Canon 1398 states 

person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication.

When it comes to the Catholic politicians that legalize abortion, the proper canon is 915:

Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

In most cases, the individual is told by the bishop not to present themselves for Communion and the appropriate pastors are notified. Usually this is done privately. In rare cases (e.g. Sibelius, during the Obama administration), this is made public.

So, the attacks on the Cardinal Dolan were doubly wrong. First, because they demanded action from someone who could not perform it. Second, the action demanded was not the action that the Church applies. All excommunications involve grave sin, but not all grave sins have the penalty of excommunication. The bishops cannot arbitrarily go beyond the penalty set. This is a safeguard against abuse of power. Otherwise a bishop could excommunicate someone for any minor irritation.

This incident is an example of one problem in the Church. Many people do not know how the Church governs herself. The Church is not a tyranny (rule by the whim of one with dictatorial powers). She is governed by canon law which lists rights, responsibilities, and procedures. The Pope can amend canon law when needed (it is a human law, after all) to serve justice, but he doesn’t do so arbitrarily.

So, it is unreasonable for a Catholic to get angry with a bishop when the bishop doesn’t have the authority to do something through jurisdiction or the obligations of law.

So, the Catholic must ask whether he or she understands how the Church handles things in general and whether he or she has all the information needed to correctly judge what is going on. If the Catholic does not, he or she has no right to condemn the bishop.

If, however, a Catholic should do the required study, and remain concerned that wrong is being done, he or she has an obligation to convey that concern properly. As Canon 212 §3 puts it:

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

Even if you’re concerned that a bishop made a “bad call,” you have the obligation to be reverent and respectful. That means no snide comments about “backbone” or insults. The bishops are successors to the Apostles and must be treated as such.

This is an example of why the adage, “a little knowledge is dangerous,” is true. A person ignorant of what the Church requires, accusing the Pope or bishop of doing wrong, is risking committing schismatic or heretical behavior because they don’t understand the responsibility and obligations of their office. They are effectively picking a needless “hill to die on.”

Understanding what the Church does and why is essential for assessing the actions of the Pope and bishops. Without that knowledge, those clamoring for “justice” are merely committing rash judgment.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

What’s Wrong With the World? “Everything Except Me!”

When the London Times asked the question, “What’s Wrong With the World?” G.K. Chesterton responded with a letter: “Dear Sir, I am.”

If a newspaper were to ask that today, there would be a flood of responses, pointing at a lot of people but summed up as, “Dear Sir, Everything except me.”

The Catholic Social Media, in responding to the news stories of the past week, served as a reminder of that problem. We all have our idea on what should have happened in each case which absolutely cannot be challenged. If anyone should challenge it, it is seen as proof that the challenger is a terrible person deserving of our contempt... even if that person happens to be the Pope or a bishop who is making use of his authority to teach or discipline to meet the needs of the faithful.

Do not think I am saying that the Pope or bishop is incapable of sinning or making bad decisions. They are human, and sinners, just like we are. But they have been entrusted with the authority to determine whether something is in keeping with Catholic Faith. Even if one should think that a matter of discipline or judgment is misapplied, we are required to express our concerns with reverence (see canon 212). We are required to give a favorable interpretation to their actions as much as possible (CCC #2477 and #2478).

This is not happening. Nowadays, when they exercise their office, they are treated as if this exercise is nothing more than an uninformed opinion from a hated politician. The Pope and bishops are assumed to be ignorant of Church teaching and (contradictorily) aimed at maliciously supporting enemies of the Church. Then people are “shocked” to learn that other people are rejecting the Church on matters they happen to agree with. The fact that they are guilty of the same thing as the others they condemn never occurs to them.

We have two choices. We can either try to regain the reverence and respect we are required to give the Church (Luke 10:16), starting with ourselves, or we can contribute to the breakdown by picking out “heroes” and “villains” based on whether they say only what we already favor. 

This is where we fail. We hear that, and our first thought is to point to the worst behavior—real or hypothetical—and use that as an excuse not to obey. Were there priests and bishops who fell away from the Faith? Yes. But part of that falling away involved rejecting the authority of the Pope. They assumed that what they stood for was right, and the Pope’s rejection of their view was seen as “proof” that the Pope was in error.

See how those past heresies and schisms mirrored the attitude of today. Instead of considering the possibility of being wrong, they assumed that disagreement meant the Church herself was wrong. They wound up outside of the Church. We should beware that we don’t wind up the same, deceived by the belief that we can’t be mistaken about something we feel strongly about.

I believe that’s why G.K. Chesterton’s insight into what’s wrong with the world was right. Each of us must answer “I am,” because each one of us believes we’re the only one who isn’t.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Anticlerical Trojan Horses in Our Causes

Beware of Greeks bearing Gifts—Aeneid

Beware of Gifts bearing Greeks—Every person who riffed on Aeneid 

The Covington incident, among Catholics, has metastasized. It’s no longer the media or the “Black Hebrew Israelites” that are the target of outrage. Now it’s the bishop of Covington and other bishops who echoed him in denouncing the events before it turned out the video was out of context. It’s not my intention to pass judgment defending or attacking the bishops in this article. Bishops aren’t infallible of course. They can make errors in judgment. They can sin in doing so. But there’s a big difference between an error in judgment and maliciously rejecting their obligations to shepherd the Church. 

This concerns me because, while this incident is less than a week old, the rhetoric we’re hearing dates back to at least the pontificate of St. John Paul II. That rhetoric is of the “corrupt and cowardly bishops” which assumes that whatever mistake of judgment or sinful behavior that an individual bishop might commit is willfully and maliciously practiced by all the bishops. The argument is that, if they weren’t guilty of X (fill in your own blank here), they’d be denouncing the disliked position. 

People forget there is an anticlerical movement in the Church that seizes on any incident of bad judgment or scandal and uses it to bash the Pope and/or bishops. Whether the incident is a Bishop in Point A not barring a pro-abortion politician from the Eucharist (per Canon 915), a Bishop from Point B not disclosing cases of clergy abuse, or a Bishop from Point C saying something that turns out to be false, those critics with issues against the Church seize on these things to push their agenda—that the bishops they dislike are “proof” of the corruption of the Church as a whole. According to their views, the Church is in error unless they change to act as they prefer.

No, not all Catholics are members of this anticlerical mindset. It’s not wrong to want justice. We want politicians to be held accountable. We want the abuse scandals to stop. We wish certain bishops didn’t jump the gun on Covington. But, we need to beware of falling for the rhetoric of the Catholics alienated from  and hostile to the Church. If we look to the anticlerical sources when they attack wrongdoing in the Church, we might be swept up when these sources start attacking the authority of the Church.

The sources most loudly attacking the Bishop of Covington are notorious for their hostility to the Pope. Their mantra is that the Church is overrun by liberalism and modernism. They are using each incident that comes along as “proof” that justifies their dissent. They treat Incidents X, Y, and Z in locations A, B, and C as if all the evil was maliciously done by every diocese across the world simultaneously... except for the bishops they happen to agree with.

The danger is accepting the false narrative of the anticlerical movements. If one listens to their attacks too long, one might be tempted to accept that their dissent is justified. This is why I say beware of accepting the accounts of those at odds with the Church. You might happen to agree with them on disliking how a bishop handled something. But if one accepts their narrative uncritically, they might find themselves accepting the dissent that everyone is guilty, because there always was and always will always be sinners in the Church, and some of them will be priests or bishops.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

On MAGA Hats and the (Ongoing) Rush to Judgment

What you see in the picture to the left of the text is probably a Rorschach test reflecting your political views.

When the story of Covington Catholic broke, people immediately formed reactions. In my case, I first thought “set up!” When the diocese issued an apology and promised an investigation, I thought there might be something to the charges. 

Mea culpa. I was wrong both times. Once I realized that, I decided to step back and wait, deleting some of my commentary on my blog’s Facebook page that was based on those early reports.

I’m glad I did that [#] because, when people started taking a deeper look, it was plain that different factions focused on parts of the video that fit their preconceived notions while others (like me) assumed due diligence had been performed. In other words, everyone who formed an opinion thought (and many still do think) that what they knew was all they needed to know. 

Unfortunately, much of that “thought” was caused by what people think of the MAGA hat. Some people who support Trump focused on the MAGA hats and saw allies under fire. Some who oppose Trump focused on the hats and saw thugs bullying a Native American veteran. Either way, it was a view of “100% of the blame goes to your faction, 0% goes to mine!”

As more is known about the story, it’s clear that three [§] parties were involved and it’s possible that some members of both the Covington Catholic students and the Native American group responded in unacceptable ways. Unfortunately, the partisans won’t step back. They scour the video for minute clues that they claim exonerates their position and refuse to consider that some of the actions on “their” side may have been wrong.

Not only are they refusing to consider that, they’re expanding their targets. Now some are blasting the diocese and the school for initially announcing an investigation (with potentially dire consequences) and apologizing to the Native Americans. Never mind the fact that they’ll still need to investigate whether the students violated the code of conduct expected of them. Others are blasting the media (in general) for the initial reporting. No doubt there were errors in judgment based on the assumption that all the facts were out. But the partisans are still doing what they accused others of. They’re assuming their knee-jerk reactions were true and act as if they’re looking for vindication, not truth.

This has to stop. 

It’s one thing to be mistaken. It’s quite another to obstinately refuse to consider the possibility that things are different than your first impression led you to believe. Assuming that those you mistrust must be guilty and those who you agree with must be innocent is rash judgment. As the Catechism teaches:

There’s time for all of us to step back, calm down, and wait for the facts to emerge—recognizing that our biases may be distorting our views. But if we will not do that, we’re just as guilty as the “other side” we blame.


[#] I’m especially glad that I didn’t write a blog post based on my first impressions. That would have been even more embarrassing to retract.

[§] I find it interesting that the group identified as the “Black Israelites,” which seem to have instigated the incident, are the group that seems to be ignored by both sides in this faction war. They do seem to be the necessary and sufficient cause that caused the incident. However, that doesn’t excuse any subsequent wrongdoing by members of the other two groups.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Signal to Noise Ratio and the Catholic Social Media

In science and engineering, the Signal:Noise ratio is described as “the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. SNR is defined as the ratio of signal power to the noise power. A ratio higher than 1:1 (greater than 0 dB) indicates more signal than noise.”

It strikes me as a good analogy for the situation of Catholics on social media. As part of our Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), the Catholic witness should be a strong signal, clear to all. But if you scroll through the self-righteous posts and partisan comments, we see the noise of the worldly views held by Catholics drown it out.

This is understandable. All of us are afflicted by original sin and are tempted to embrace views that suit us. But while it is understandable, it is not justifiable. We are called to be the light of the world, the city on a hill, where our witness should be clear to all. But instead it’s drowned out by political and social opinions. Pro- or anti-Trump; Pro- or anti-Democrat; pro- or anti-Republican... these views are the noise that drown out the legitimate message.

I see bloggers [§] of pro- and anti- positions who angrily point out the hypocrisy of their opponents positions, rightly pointing out that their opponents support things incompatible with the Catholic Faith. But, tragically, they are blind to where they too compromise and ignore the moral faults in their own politics. The beams of Matthew 7:3-4 are equally distributed across the Catholic Social Media... probably I have one as well, mea culpa.

The problem is not only the danger to our own souls. When we play the hypocrite, the people we are pointing to recognize that hypocrisy and reject any part of the signal that gets through as part of the noise. Thus we see some Catholics downplay or even reject the Catholic teaching on sex and abortion, calling it “right wing.” Other Catholics downplay or even reject the Catholic teaching on social justice, calling it “left wing.”

Yes, some of that rejection is the fault of the listener who refuses to listen to truth. But some of it is because of our own bad behavior and self-righteousness. We’re more interested in condemning than converting, using insults and rash judgments. (And before invoking St. Paul against St. Peter, consider the words of St. Francis de Sales that I’ve reprinted HERE). If God will punish the listener for ignoring the truth, what will He do to the speaker who buries the signal of Christian truth with the noise of personal partisanship?

We should consider our behavior and the words we write... how will God view them? Perhaps we should be more concerned than we are.


[§] If you’re thinking, “I know who he’s talking about,” you should be aware that I have in mind many people across the political spectrum who do this.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Rendering Unto Caesar That Which Belongs to God

Reading the comments made in response to news about Catholic teaching can be disheartening. Some of the most vocal responses come from Catholics who spew the slogans of their party as if they were dogma and the teaching of the Church as mere opinions that can be “set aside” for a greater good.

Two of the most common examples involve abortion and immigration. Catholics who hold positions at odds with Church teaching (whether by actively rejecting Church teaching or thinking it’s “less important” than other teachings) argue that the authority of the Church doesn’t really forbid their actions—because they are being faithful to a “higher” teaching of the Church. 

So, one one side, a Catholic who either supports abortion or thinks it’s “less important” than a combination of other issues, misuses the Seamless Garment idea of the late Cardinal Bernadin to say that their vote is not undermining Church teaching because it “also” or “really” defends life, ignoring the words of St. John Paul II:

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.

Christifideles Laici, 38

In other words, you can’t invoke those things as a counterbalance to the obligation of ending abortion because they depend on defending the right to life in the first place.

On the other side, we see Catholics arguing that the defense of borders (they usually cite part of CCC 2241) outweighs the teaching of charity. Our Lord, in Matthew 25:31-45, warns us that the final judgment will involve how we treated “one of these least ones.” That obligation will not be negated by what side of the border the “least one” should be on. Whatever the legitimate defense of the borders might be in a specific case, they cannot allow us to ignore the suffering of those we think are on the wrong side of it. Yet, when the Church speaks out on this, some Catholics respond with hostility, effectively saying “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9b).

There are many other issues, where Catholics disagree with or downplay Church teaching and side with a political party instead. When the Church contradicts them, they either try to explain away the Church teaching as “non-binding,” or attack the leaders of the Church that they dislike. For example, with the current sex abuse scandal, there’s a tendency to focus on the bishops they identify with a disliked faction and claim that this faction is the cause of the scandal. For these Catholics, the “liberal/conservative” nature of the Church is to blame for the spread of homosexuality or the concealment of abuse.

This example shows the problem that must be corrected. By treating Church teaching as a political view or opinion that can be ignored while treating disagreement with a political view as a sign of “heresy,” people are making political orthodoxy the criteria for judging the theological orthodoxy of a member of the Church. Since we believe that the Church was established by Christ with the authority to teach in His name, those that reject what the Church teaches in the name of their ideology are placing political loyalty over fidelity. 

That’s effectively rendering unto Caesar what is God’s. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

Missing the Clues, Missing the Answer

Among the dangers of misunderstanding out there, one that comes to my mind is the fact that members of the faithful are all too quick to draw assumptions from what they think they know, treating it as all the information needed to form a judgment. The problem is it is easy to make mistakes over cause and effect, or assume that there is only one conclusion to be drawn.

Assumptions can be falsely positive or excessively negative. I’m reminded of some triumphalistic books written by English Catholics in the early 20th century about the rising divorce rate in Protestant countries. They rightly deplored the divorce rate (back then it was “only” 3 in 10 ending in divorce), but wrongly assumed that the problem was caused by Protestant theology and that Catholics would never run into these problems. Unfortunately, that assumption was based on false interpretation of information. Yes, the Protestant mindset about marriage caused this to appear more quickly among their denominations, but they mistook the cause and effect. The problem was a growing indifference to moral and religious obligations... something that would fester later (after World War II) among Catholics. The reaction of the authors was rather like the above (repurposed) comic by David Low. These authors failed to grasp that the growing threat put them in the same boat if the problem was left unchecked.

Another example might be one described by C.S. Lewis in his essay, “The Decline of Religion” (found in the book God in the Dock). Talking about the missed clues that led to the decline of attendance at chapel in Oxford, he pointed out that the assumed cause and effect was wrong. He wrote:

The ‘decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels. Now it is quite true that that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory. It was not in fact a decline; it was a precipice. The sixty men who had come because chapel was a little later than ‘rollers’ (its only alternative) came no more; the five Christians remained. The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the ‘decline in religion’ all over England.

In other words, when chapel was mandatory (and attendance was taken), the nonconformists had to report in early. So many came to chapel not out of conviction, but because it meant sleeping in an extra ten minutes. It could not simply be fixed by reinstating mandatory attendance because the attitude had appeared long before.

Another issue is mentioned by Benedict XVI in his work, Milestones. In discussing the attempt of the bishops to defend the schools from the Nazis (page 15), he discusses a problem that doomed their efforts:

Already then it dawned on me that, with their insistence on preserving institutions, these letters in part misread the reality. I mean that merely to guarantee institutions is useless if there are no people to support those institutions from inner conviction. But this was only partially the case. To be sure, teachers could be found in both the older and the younger generations who had deep convictions of faith, people who in their hearts saw Christian faith was the foundation of our culture and, therefore, of its work of education. But in the older generation there existed an anti-clerical resentment that was understandable, considering that the prerogative to inspect schools belonged to priests. In the younger generation there were convinced Nazis. So in both these cases it was inane to insist on an institutionally guaranteed Christianity.

Yes, the bishops were fighting to save an institutionally guaranteed Christianity, but the people didn’t.

This is why I think the Catholics who say things like “Vatican II caused X,” miss the point. The fact that much of our abuse scandal involved priests ordained before Vatican II shows the problem had another cause. The fact that there was a false “hope” among many Catholics that the Church would overturn the contraception teachings after the discovery of “the pill,” and the abandonment of Friday fasting from meat (even though some penance was still required) showed that a large number of Catholics didn’t obey previously out of conviction but out of compulsion. When the social upheavals of the late 1960s arose, many Catholics simply stopped obeying... and if they stop obeying, how can the magisterium succeed in standing for the Church?

It would be wrong to assume that “the magisterium” was to blame. Pope Pius XII was the first to warn about the loss of the sense of sin in the Church. His successors continued that warning, targeting specific evils of that time. It would also be wrong to blame one political faction. Yes, the Catholic “left” rebelled against sexual morality teaching. But the Catholic “right” rebelled against social teachings. Both led to the later Catholics believing they could set aside whatever they disliked. In both cases the rebelling Catholics used the same argument: the teaching they didn’t like “was not binding” and not free of error.

The Popes didn’t miss the clues though. They continued to teach on what Christians had to avoid, and continued to encourage us to go beyond the letter of the law. Pope Francis’ letter to the US Bishops (PDF) is an example of that—saying it was not enough to create policies. We had to change our hearts as well.

As I see it, the problem today involves a legalism which condemns whatever others do that we agree with while evading obedience which condemns what we want to do. In that, we’re little different from the students C.S. Lewis mentioned who only did something so long as it was required under pain of sanction. 

We need to stop assuming that the problem in the Church exist because we changed or did not change a discipline in the Church. That’s being so focused on our pet theories for cause/effect that we miss the real causes. We need to watch for the signs that people no longer care to defend the Church and live it wholeheartedly. If we miss those clues, we miss the solutions.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Who Watches the (Self-Appointed) Watchmen?

Rorschach, “The Watchmen”Vigilantes have been a part of the superhero genre since at least the 1980s. People tired of the clean-cut Superman type of hero became interested in the antihero who repaid violence with violence while the legitimate law-enforcement was portrayed as inept or corrupt.

Of course, the times made the vigilante stories popular. Stories about corruption and criminals getting off scott-free—especially when the two seemed to be linked—tempts people to think that the institutions have failed and we need someone who will defend us if the authorities will not.

There is a problem with that line of thought though. Yes, even with those given the authority to determine what is or isn’t in keeping with the law, there is always a concern over whether they follow the law themselves. But rules do exist (regardless of how well they’re enforced) to govern the abuse of power.

However, the self-appointed vigilante (as graphically demonstrated here by the character Rorschach in the graphic novel The Watchmen [§]) has no authority except brute force, and follows no rule of conduct. If they violate the law in doing what is “just,” they protest that the authorities are focused on petty matters in “persecuting” them while “real” criminals get away.

This strikes me as a good analogy for the self-appointed “orthodoxy cops” who take it upon themselves to determine what is or is not an authentic interpretation of the Catholic Faith... going so far as to pass judgment on the orthodoxy of bishops or even the Pope if these shepherds of the Church should dare interpret the Catholic Faith differently than they do. If you’re not on this “orthodoxy cop’s” side, you’re seen as part of the problem.

The result is, more often than not, symbolically like the panel above. The character Rorschach, investigating a murder, takes it on himself to brutalize people in the hopes (ie. no basis of fact) that one of them will provide the information needed. When it doesn’t, he moves on, justifying himself by assuming that they must be guilty of something.  Likewise, the self-appointed “orthodoxy cop” assumes the guilt in his targets and justifies his or her own attacks by assuming that if others don’t think the way he or she does, they must be heretical and deserves whatever savaging they get.

Think I’m being ridiculous? Consider how many times you’ve seen a “combox warrior” show up in the comments  section on a social media post to accuse a bishop or the Pope of error, based on his or her reading of what was said vs. his or her reading of past Church teaching. If one defends the Pope or bishop in question, or challenges the veracity of the combox warrior, that defender is assumed to be ignorant and a heretic. 

Vigilante comics were spawned from a mistrust of those entrusted to enforce the law, thinking them part of the problem. But the authority to uphold the law exists with law enforcement, not the vigilante. The current attacks on the Church also come from the mistrust of those who interpret and defend the Faith. But, like the vigilante, the self-proclaimed defenders of orthodoxy have no right to impose themselves as judge, jury, and executioner over and above the teaching of the Pope and bishops. Any attempts to claim Catholics must go against the Pope to be faithful has no authority for their actions.

Keep this in mind the next time you see the “orthodoxy cops” at work online. When they equate their opinions with Church teaching and pass judgment on those who reject their opinions, they are basically the online equivalent of a thuggish vigilante.


[§] The entire graphic novel involves “heroes” who have no problem with committing evil acts in the name of a “greater good.” It escalates to the point that one character commits mass murder with the “justification” of preventing nuclear war. The characters display a very Utilitarian morality. While I’m not entirely sure of the intended meaning of the comic as a whole, I think it involves raising questions about vigilantes and morality.