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.