Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Without an Excuse

When one is at odds with Church teaching, dissenters of any stripe usually have an excuse for rejecting it. They’re quick to cite Bible verse A or Church teaching B as the standard for doing so. The problem is, as I pointed out elsewhere, that their interpretation is not at all authoritative and cannot be cited contra the Scriptures or the document as interpreted by the magisterium.

If the Church was merely a human institution, that would be a monstrous claim, locking in people to the whims of a spiritual dictator. But if one believed that the Catholic Church is merely a human institution, that person would be foolish to be a Catholic in the first place. This is because the Catholic Church teaches as the Church established by Jesus Christ and under His protection. If we profess to be faithful Catholics, we accept that belief about the Church.

But once we accept that belief, we are without an excuse if we refuse to accept a teaching of the Church*. If we say that Pope X or Council Y is binding, then we are acknowledging that we know Papal teaching and Council documents are binding. Indeed, the arguments used for refusing obedience shows that these dissenters do know the authority and protection God gives His Church. Whether or not they recognize it, their excuses are merely attempts to justify disobedience while insisting others obey. 

The general arguments to justify disobedience is to argue that the Church has gone wrong on something and, because we cannot follow error, we must disobey those who teach with authority. This is why you’ll see many dissenters combing past documents to find a “break” in continuity with the present. Dissenters handle this in different ways, depending on whether they support illicit change or oppose licit change. 

If the dissenter wants to illicitly change Church teaching, they look for what they see as a “break” and argue that since the Church “changed” Church teaching in the past, they can do it now. In making this argument, they don’t distinguish the difference between Church teaching and Church discipline. One example of this involves the past obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays. These dissenters argue that it used to be a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays, but now it’s not. Therefore (they argue) we can change Church teaching on contraception. The problem is, this is a fallacy of false analogy. The ban on eating meat on Fridays was a discipline, while the ban on contraception involves an intrinsic evil. The mortal sin in eating meat on Fridays would be in knowingly and freely rejecting the authority of the Church to impose a discipline. The mortal sin in contraception would have been in knowingly and freely choosing a gravely evil act.

If the dissenter wants to oppose a licit change in discipline, they either look for a past discipline which they elevate to a doctrine (for example, the rite of the Mass) to call the change “heresy” (this would be the false analogy again), or they rely on their personal interpretation of the changed discipline and accuse the Church of contradicting actual doctrine (committing the begging the question fallacy. For example, saying Vatican II taught “indifferentism” or that Pope Francis opened up The Eucharist to the divorced and remarried.

Conscience frequently gets cited by dissenters of both types. The first type argues that their conscience “can’t allow them” to impose rules contrary to their understanding of compassion. The second type appeals to conscience that “demands” obedience to their personal interpretation of past documents over their personal interpretation of current documents. But the CDF document Donum Veritatis tells us both of these invocations of conscience are wrong:

38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.

The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised.

The reason we are without an excuse if we refuse obedience is that we claim to be “faithful,” while we refuse an important part of being faithful, obedience to God’s Church. If we would be faithful when we find ourselves at odds with the Church, we should not ask “how did the Church go wrong?” We should ask ourselves, “how did we go wrong in understanding the Church?”


(*) I occasionally run across members of the SSPX who complain that the Church is more compassionate to Protestants and Eastern Orthodox who reject the Church than to them who refuse obedience. They shouldn’t. The Protestants and Eastern Orthodox were born long after the schisms and have never been part of the Communion with us. The dissenters claim to be in Communion with the Church but refuse obedience. The culpability is entirely different.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ignorance and Arrogance: A Reflection


The saints and the philosophers made a distinction between being ignorant and being arrogantly ignorant. The former involved not knowing. The latter involved not knowing but still assuming one’s rash assumptions were true. The former might or might not involve sin, depending on whether one made the effort to learn to the best of one’s ability (God being the ultimate judge). The latter certainly involves rash judgments. Both of them are to be avoided, though the consequences might differ.


Ignorance can be defined as being “uninformed about or unaware of a specific subject or fact,” or “lacking knowledge or awareness in general.” We tend to see the term “ignorant” as an insult or a condemnation. But that isn’t always the case. Humans, being finite, will always have things they don’t know. Sometimes, what we don’t know is inconsequential (What was Gary Kasparov’s seventh move in the final game of his first victorious tournament?)* Sometimes, what we don’t know can have life-threatening consequences (Is it safe to pass that truck while going over the hill?).

Obviously, ignorance about things impacting our or other lives can be harmful. We can be held responsible if we could have learned the answer but never bothered or refused to learn to avoid acting on it. But if it was impossible for us to learn something (invincible ignorance), we can’t be held responsible. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (#16) tells us

Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

Even if we strive to be faithful Catholics, there is always more to learn. There will be things we didn’t know previously that the Church taught on, or discover nuance in a teaching we had previously thought was more blunt. When we do discover this deficiency, we need to correct our thinking, trying to live according to those teachings. 

To do so, we need to be attentive to the Church, under the visible head, the Pope and bishops in communion with him. When the Church admonishes us that a behavior is incompatible with being a disciple of Christ, we act wisely if we listen to the Church, and foolishly if we refuse to listen and insist on our own views.


Arrogance can be defined as “having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” It combines with ignorance when we have an exaggerated sense of our own knowledge, when we are actually ignorant—we think we know what is important to know, passing judgment without considering the possibility of our own being in error. For example, I have seen numerous instances of people responding to the Pope condemning injustice related to our politics by saying “why doesn’t he speak out on the mistreatment of Christians in the Middle East?”

This is where I wish I could reach through the computer screen to smack the person. The Pope has frequently spoken out on this subject, and a Google search would quickly correct the accusers error. The arrogance is assuming that one’s lack of knowledge is a knowledge of lack. Through arrogance, the accuser turns what they know nothing about into a belief that the Pope is negligent.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns against thinking that way, teaching:

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.

Assuming the moral fault of another requires knowledge that a thing is so, and not merely assuming that what we think we know is sufficient to level accusations. To accuse the Pope of letting priests marry, of letting the divorced/remarried receive the Eucharist, of supporting Marxism, one has to determine that it is what the Pope intends to do and not what one thinks follows from their interpretation of what he says or writes (I discuss this more, HERE).

The Catholic Church is a catholic (universal) Church. It teaches to people of all languages, cultures, and times. But if we assume that our language, culture, and time is the only way to interpret the Church teaching, we are ignorant and arrogant when we condemn the Church—under the visible head the Pope—for pointing out that we have gone wrong in an assumption.


(*) No idea. After writing the sentence, I tried Googling it out of curiosity. No luck.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

No, They Don’t, Actually

In writing my articles comparing the Catholics who attack Pope Francis with the founders of Protestantism and anti-Catholics, I inevitably get comments from those Catholics. The language varies, but the gist of it is, we do respect the Papacy or we have read what Pope Francis wrote/said. They claim that the real problem is Pope Francis and his “errors.” To which, I can only say, “Doubtful.” 

The reason I say this is the actual transcripts and documents don’t allow for the interpretation these critics give. They can only come about by focusing entirely on one quote or footnote, combined with the assumption that Pope Francis is morally or intellectually bad in saying it. Actually reading with discernment shows that in context, what the Pope said is different from what he’s portrayed as saying. 

For example, take the calumny that will not die… that the Pope is going to “approve” same sex activity. This goes back to the mantra of who am I to judge. While those misguided Catholics who want “same sex marriage” supported by the Church have by now conceded that the Pope didn’t say what they hoped it meant, his critics repeat it as a charge of “heresy.” But when we actually READ THE FREAKING TRANSCRIPTS§, we can see that the context excludes that interpretation. What the Pope said, in context was

But if a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives. When we confess our sins and we truly say, “I have sinned in this”, the Lord forgets, and so we have no right not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not forgetting our sins. That is a danger. This is important: a theology of sin. Many times I think of Saint Peter. He committed one of the worst sins, that is he denied Christ, and even with this sin they made him Pope. We have to think a great deal about that. But, returning to your question more concretely. In this case, I conducted the preliminary investigation and we didn’t find anything. This is the first question. Then, you spoke about the gay lobby. So much is written about the gay lobby. I still haven’t found anyone with an identity card in the Vatican with “gay” on it. They say there are some there. I believe that when you are dealing with such a person, you must distinguish between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of someone forming a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. This one is not good. If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying ... wait a moment, how does it say it ... it says: “no one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society”. The problem is not having this tendency, no, we must be brothers and sisters to one another, and there is this one and there is that one.

The Pope was speaking of a priest accused of having a notorious past. Everyone was wondering if the Pope would fire him from his position. But, since the priest repented, the Pope would not. 

The Pope’s position on “same sex marriage” was reinforced in the same interview by the following exchange with a reporter:

Patricia Zorzan:

Speaking on behalf of the Brazilians: society has changed, young people have changed, and in Brazil we have seen a great many young people. You did not speak about abortion, about same-sex marriage. In Brazil a law has been approved which widens the right to abortion and permits marriage between people of the same sex. Why did you not speak about this?

Pope Francis:

The Church has already spoken quite clearly on this. It was unnecessary to return to it, just as I didn’t speak about cheating, lying, or other matters on which the Church has a clear teaching!

Patricia Zorzan:

But the young are interested in this ...

Pope Francis:

Yes, though it wasn’t necessary to speak of it, but rather of the positive things that open up the path to young people. Isn’t that right! Besides, young people know perfectly well what the Church’s position is.

Patricia Zorzan:

What is Your Holiness’ position, if we may ask?

Pope Francis:

The position of the Church. I am a son of the Church.

The Pope’s accusers were committing an argument from silence fallacy, assuming that the Pope not mentioning abortion and same sex “marriage” at the World Youth Day meant he supported these things. But his point was that he doesn’t need to keep invoking them for them to remain valid teachings.

This misrepresentation of the Pope set the template for how his pontificate was viewed. No, the Pope didn’t condemn large families. He spoke of a woman under the error of “providentialism.*” No, the Pope didn’t say that civil marriages were no different from sacramental marriages. He said that some people seeking a marriage in the Church are so grossly misinformed that they have less of an understanding of what marriage is than those in civil marriages. No, he didn’t say that the divorced and remarried could receive the Eucharist. He said that those individuals lacking might receive sacraments if some of the conditions of mortal sin were absent and the person  was trying to live properly. He didn’t say that the existence of different religions was God’s will. He said that the divisions were part of God’s permissive will and we needed to approach ecumenism and interreligious dialogue# with that understanding.

I could go on and on. And these Catholics undoubtedly will. But in each case, certain Catholics have assumed the false interpretation as the Pope’s actual intent. They base their opposition to the Pope on misinterpretation@. That misinterpretation comes from either failing to seek what the Pope means, or from the assumption that the Pope is morally bad (“a heretic”) or intellectually bad (“doesn’t know Church teaching.”)

So, if I seem skeptical about the claims by the critics of the Pope, this is why. Actually reading what he has to say shows he does not seek to attack or undermine Church teachings.


(§) After dealing with this one for close to 7 years, you might detect I’m getting a mite bit testy over it.

(*) Providentialism is essentially putting God to the test, living imprudently and relying on God to protect us from the consequences.

(#) While people use the terms interchangeably, they’re not the same thing. Ecumenism is dialogue between Christians of different denominations. Interreligious Dialogue is discussion with non-Christian religions.

(@) To be clear, “misinterpretation” is wrongly understanding something, thinking that error is correct. The person may or may not be culpable. “Misrepresentation” is a deliberate attempt to portray something as different than intended.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Continuity of Magisterium

There are, unfortunately, Catholics who think that defending Pope Francis involves tearing down his predecessors. What Pope Francis does is either portrayed as “finally correcting” bad practices of the past or trying to bury the good his predecessors did under the problems that became public at the time of their pontificates. It’s a problem because they fall into the same error as those who claim that Pope Francis is a “disaster” for the Church. Both factions falsely believe there is a “break” in continuity and merely disagree on whether that “break” is good or bad.

In doing so, both are forgetting about the nature of the Church as God’s chosen means to evangelize the world, protected from error in doing so. The individual needs of an era can require changes in discipline or emphasis, but the central truth remains. When we take both the changeable and unchangeable into account, arguing that a break has occurred is to either deny or be ignorant about God’s role in the Church.

It doesn’t matter which Pope you use as a yardstick. You will always find something that went wrong during his pontificate or at least something you might wish had been done differently. But that is an unavoidable part of God’s choice to make use of weak, finite, and sinful human beings. Without God’s protection, His Church would have collapsed right after Pentecost, if not the Last Supper.

Some things are not protected, of course. We might look at certain acts of governing the Papal States and Vatican City and wince. We might wish that the concordat with Nazi Germany or the agreement with China had been handled differently. We might wish that St. John Paul II had not kissed the Qur’an, that Benedict XVI had not given that interview in Light of the World§, or that Pope Francis didn’t give press conferences. Cringing in those cases is not being rejecting the magisterium*. Regretting how Popes handled the sexual abuse crisis is not against the magisterium. We can lament how some priests escaped or took refuge behind bad interpretations of canon law@. But, if somebody uses these non magisterial events to argue that a Pope is a heretic, and we can reject when a Pope does teach—that is dissent.

Pope Francis is not “a Marxist.” His warnings on the evils of Capitalism are no different from his predecessors. St. John Paul II was not “heartless” with Familiaris Consortio. Nor did Pope Francis contradict him. The two Popes wrote on two different aspects of communion after remarriage. St. John Paul II wrote on the fact that those not seeking to rectify their situation cannot be admitted to communion. Pope Francis wrote about evaluating every person to determine whether the conditions of mortal sin are present#, and helping those earnestly trying to get right with God and the Church. What Pope Francis said would not apply to the unrepentant. St. John Paul II denying communion would not apply to those trying (and occasionally failing) to live as brother and sister.

But if one assumes a break in teaching by a non magisterial act or a change in a discipline, it’s the same error whether one supports or opposes the “break.”

I would ask my fellow defenders of Pope Francis not to tear down his predecessors while defending him. From a worldly perspective, it might seem to be a break or change in teaching. But it’s actually only a change in approach to deal with where our society went wrong today.


(§) This was where Benedict XVI used the infamous example of “the male prostitute with AIDS” that many (wrongly) thought was opening the doors to using condoms.

(*) It might be sinful based on how one responds. We should always remember that the account we hear might not accurate.

(@) Reading the 1917 Code of Canon Law, it appears (to me anyway) that the canons did not consider that victims might be too ashamed to come forward, that abusive priests might not confess their sins, or that the canons seemed to block bishops from acting until the victim came forward.

(#) Unfortunately, some interpretations of FC assumed that mortal sin was present in all cases. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Catholics Out of Control

Benedict XVI’s spokesman, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, issued a statement at the request of the Pope emeritus asking that the book not identify him as a co-author. Cardinal Sarah later announced that he would respect Benedict XVI’s request and that Benedict XVI would not be listed as a co-author, but as a contributor.

Judging by the accounts out there, Benedict XVI had written a small piece on priestly celibacy and okayed it being used in Cardinal Sarah’s book. So there’s no question of the Cardinal “hijacking” the piece. My guess is that Benedict XVI was concerned that some Catholics and the secular media would use this to create a myth of a “counter-magisterium” and asked that his role in the book be clarified. Both he and Cardinal Sarah§ have reiterated their obedience to the Pope. 

You might think that this was simply resolved and whatever confusion existed between the two men was cleared up. You’d be wrong, because the Catholic Internet went berserk. Not just on one side either. Some Catholics—on both sides—are falling into rash judgment.

English language publisher Ignatius Press announced (in something that struck me as problematic reasoning) that they would not change the identification of Benedict XVI as co-author. Apparently their reading of the Chicago Manual of Style overrules Benedict XVI’s express wishes. Some opponents of the Pope also treated criticism of how publishers handled it as if they were accusations of disloyalty (unfortunately, some criticism did sink to this level. See below) and attempting to stir up attacks on those defending the faith. Those hostile to Pope Francis claimed that Archbishop Gänswein was lying about it, delivering a message contrary to what Benedict wanted—some claiming this was ordered by the Pope, implying it was at the orders of the Pope.

At the same time, some supporters of Pope Francis tried to portray Benedict and Cardinal Sarah as disloyal, even part of a cabal. The two stand accused of deliberately trying to preemptively undermine Pope Francis’ final decision on whether married priests would be allowed, trying to “rally support” against the Pope. They are accused of hostility to the Eastern Rites which do have married priests. There is no evidence for this of course. Just some excerpts that sound harsh, though we have no sense of context. Then, once Benedict XVI asked that his name be removed as co-author, some turned and started portraying Cardinal Sarah as dishonest, misrepresenting his book to the Pope emeritus.

Catholics should not be rushing to judgment. We might say that some of the excerpts seem to be harsh, while remembering we have no sense of context to claim certainty. There’s no basis to accuse Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah of disloyalty. There’s no basis to say Archbishop Gänswein issued a false statement or that the Pope was “furious.” While we may later find some of our suspicions may turn out to be true, we have no basis for those claims now.

We need to stop looking for heroes and villains in this story and start doing research unclouded by our personal likes and dislikes. Otherwise, we’re damaging the Church and causing scandal.


(§) Cardinal Sarah’s writings sometimes strike me as blunt to the point of being a bit over the top, but I have never read anything of his that struck me as disloyal to Pope Francis. I think this is simply a matter of his temperament. I don’t say this as a condemnation. All of us have things we need to deal with in our lives. Moreover, we certainly should not make any accusations before the book is published. Cardinal Sarah has stated his obedience and fidelity to the Pope. I will take him at his word unless credible evidence to the contrary emerges (none has yet).

Monday, January 13, 2020

Brief Reflection on the Hype over the New Book by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah

People are making a big to-do about the book coming out by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah. It’s being portrayed as these two men “opposing” the Pope. I have some brief thoughts about that.

This book isn’t even out yet. We have a few excerpts coming from the French version and some claiming access to the galleys of the Ignatius Press translation. We have no sense of context. Secular media and Catholic media hostile to the Pope are portraying it as a rift. Other Catholics, supportive of the Pope, are portraying it as a betrayal. But right now, any speculation is exactly that. Speculation. 

Remember the fuss over the 2011 interview when people thought the excerpt of “a male prostitute with AIDS” using a condom meant a change in Church teaching? As it turned out, he was describing a person moving slowly turning towards thinking about consequences of actions. I suspect in this book, we’ll find out that the conflict was not a conflict at all.

Another thing to remember is that there is no counter-magisterium here. If I’m wrong and it turns out that what the Pope ultimately decides—and remember, he is opposed to ending celibacy—is different from the views presented in this book, what the Pope decides will be binding. 

But now is not the time to look for heroes and villains, nor battle to the death for the teachings we think must or must not be. It’s certainly not time to bewail disasters to the Church. We don’t know the context of the presented snippets, and once we do know, we know who has the authority to shepherd the Church.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Church and Politics

One tendency many American Catholics have is to argue that “The Church should stay out of politics and focus on saving souls.” Invariably, what they label “politics” happens to be whatever rebukes the Church has for their own political party. That doesn’t always mean that these Catholics support those evils. But it shows that they view them as less important than the issues that offend them more. Whatever their political beliefs, they think the Church should focus more on the evils of the other side.

I think these Catholics miss the point. The Church is not replacing the mission to bring people to Christ with political beliefs. Rather, the Church is carrying out their mission by warning people when they are giving support to Caesar in opposition to what God commands. Regardless of what party an individual Catholic favors—and in a universal Church, there are more political parties to worry about than just the Americans’ Democrats and Republicans—if that party tries to implement an agenda contrary to God’s law, they are usurping what belongs to God. Benedict XVI makes a good point here:

To the extent that the Roman emperor safeguards the law, he can demand obedience. Of course, the scope of the duty of obedience is reduced at the same time: there are the things that are Caesar’s and those that are God’s. Whenever Caesar exalts himself as God, he has exceeded his limits, and obedience then would be the denial of God. Essentially along these same lines is Jesus’ reply to Pilate, in which the Lord, in the presence of an unjust judge, still acknowledges that the authority to act as judge, a role of service to the law, can be given only from above (Jn 19:11).

—Benedict XVI, Western Culture, Today and Tomorrow

If a party tries to legalize something contrary to God’s law (for example, try to declare abortion or homosexual actions as “good” or try to redefine the nature of sex and gender) or carries out a potentially neutral act in an evil way (such as turning the right of the state to control who enters the country into forced family separation or to live in disgraceful conditions), they have gone beyond the authority that was given from above.

It’s always easy to see when the “other side” does evil. But it is much harder to see when our own party does evil. I have seen Catholics claim that “the bishops got played” when the bishops stood up to condemn abortion. I’ve seen Catholics claim that “the bishops support open borders” when they condemn mistreatment and callousness directed against migrants. These Catholics should remember something else Benedict XVI said:

Politics is the sphere of reason; more precisely, not a purely technical, calculating reason, but moral reasoning, since the end of the State, and thus the ultimate purpose of all politics, is by its very nature moral, namely, peace and justice. This means that moral reasoning about, or more precisely, rational discernment of what fosters justice and peace (and therefore is moral) must be constantly carried on and defended against all that could obscure and diminish reason’s capacity for discernment. The party mentality that goes along with power will always produce myths in various forms, which are presented as the true path of moral reality in politics but are in fact merely masks and disguises of power.


We should beware of those myths. In America, they tend to be negative: if you don’t vote for us, you will be responsible for whatever evil happens is one of the most common. Another is we can’t focus on that issue right now when this is so much worse. But let’s face it: Obama did many of the things we condemn Trump for. Planned Parenthood remains fully funded despite warnings and promises, and the contraception mandate is still in place. Both sides point out the hypocrisy of their rival. But Matthew 7:3-5 applies to both parties. So these myths are shown to be masks of power.

Does this mean voting is futile? Of course not. We do need to act to promote the good and oppose the evil in accord with Church teaching, and voting is part of that action. Vatican II (Apostolicam actuositatem 5) tells us:

Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience.

But if we make use of myths to promote our own party and excuse our own disobedience to the Church, we are letting Caesar—or at least the person we want as Caesar—attempt to take the place of God. We must be always ready to draw the line when Caesar tries to usurp the power of God—even if that Caesar is of our own party—and tell him or her we will not tolerate their actions*. If our preferred party is at odds with the Church, we have an obligation to change the party to do be closer to what we are morally obligated to do.

It is easy to decry when the fellow Catholic doing this is part of the “other side.” But if we refuse to oppose it—or worse, we even support it—when our “own side” does it, we are also guilty, regardless of the fact that the other side does it too.


(*) While America is effectively a two-party system, we must avoid the either-or fallacy here. The fact that Party X promotes evil does not make Party Y good. We must evaluate both. If we accept one or reject both, it needs to be done through formation of conscience through the teaching of the Church. We might successfully lie to each other, we cannot lie to God.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Pressing Forward, Blindly

Certain Catholics who oppose the decisions and teachings of Pope Francis (or other recent popes) proudly announce their “orthodoxy” by citing certain Scripture and Church documents—the latter frequently from the time of St. Pius X—in order to argue that the more recent statements they dislike must be heretical. Their behavior is very much like that of those Protestant Christians who claim to rely solely on the authority of the Bible.

The reason I say that the two are similar is because they make the same error, even though both would disagree with the other’s theoretical understanding of the Church. That error is confusing their own interpretation with what is actually taught. Because they rely on their own interpretation instead of on the Church established by Christ to bind and loose, they assume that they have not erred in their interpretation and—as a result—will not heed anyone who warns them that their interpretation went wrong. If the Church should warn them, that correction is assumed to be proof of error on the part of the Church.

Ultimately, what they seem to do is (perhaps unwittingly) assume that their conviction over the meaning is a sign that they are right and, as a consequence, the Church must be wrong. But conviction is not proof of error. Numerous heretics were convinced that Arius or Nestorius was right. Many Christians today are convinced that God, being love, didn’t really mean that God condemned certain acts as evil—even though it is literally in the Bible. Many are convinced that despite Our Lord founding a visible Church and giving it His authority to teach, that they can freely ignore the Church or accuse it of error when it teaches contrary to their interpretation. The question that they need to answer is: what gives them the authority to interpret contrary to the Church?

Such questions usually are answered with a begging the question fallacy. The one rejecting the Church authority assumes that the “errors” of the Church—based on their interpretation—mean that Scripture on false teachers and Church teachings on heretics must apply. Social media discussion usually turns into something like this:

Why do you say that the Pope/Church is in error?
Because the Bible/Church teaching contradicts them.
But how do we know that you interpret correctly? 
Because that’s what it says. 
But what about others who interpret it differently and say you’re in error?
They’re in error.
Why are they in error?
Because the Bible/Church teaching contradicts them*.

But it’s precisely their own interpretation that they have to prove is correct, and that is precisely what they don’t answer. The fact is, when someone tries to argue their own interpretation, we have to see if it squares with what the Church teaches—under the leadership of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him—before we accept it.

This has always been the criterion for discerning what is authentic vs. what is counterfeit. When the Church teaches, whether ex cathedra or from the ordinary magisterium, we are bound to accept it. If one will not, they should remember that refusing obedience is a schismatic act (see canon 751).

The mentioning of bad Popes and heretical bishops throughout history are a fallacy of false analogy. Those bishops who fell into heresy or schism acted in opposition to the Popes, not in concert. We have never had a Pope who was a manifest heretic. The history of the Papacy gives us three categories of bad Popes: 
  1. Those who were morally or intellectually bad but did not teach#.
  2. Those who were suspected of privately holding error but did not teach@.
  3. Those who were derelict or incompetent in their administration, but did not teach§.
But, when it comes to the current attacks on Popes and Councils, the accusations are about teaching, not private behavior, private error, or failure to act. Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia are Papal teachings. Vatican II is an Ecumenical Council. They, not individuals (even clergy), make binding interpretation.

This has always been understood: even when there were Saints who challenged the moral or administrative faults of Popes, they were always respectful of the teachings of the Popes, giving obedience when he taught. But now, we see people claiming to be faithful Catholics but refusing obedience out of the belief that the Pope and bishops in communion with him are the ones spreading error or causing confusion. That is the accusation made by every heretical and schismatic group that emerged throughout Church history.

They might sincerely think that their rebellion is faithful. But they are blind in doing so. They are pressing forward blindly, confusing their interpretation for what actually is true. If one would follow them, that person would be the blind being led by the blind.


(With thanks to Mike Lewis for suggested edits)

(*) This is also what reading Luther or Calvin feels like.
(#) We would include Popes like Benedict IX and John XII here.
(@) We might put John XXII here.
(§) We might include Honorius I here. He was not condemned (posthumously) for holding error—scholars disagree on that. He was condemned for failing to take actions against it. It should be noted that the Pope at the time of the Council’s condemnation rejected that canon, so it seems to have no validity.
(€) The criticism by St. Catherine of Sienna was about the Pope not being in Rome and the moral decay in a Rome that came from that fact.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Dear “Karens on Facebook.” Please Stop

I came across a meme (creator unknown) on Facebook and decided to repurpose it for the declining state of Catholic theological understanding. 

In the beginning, Catholics looked to the Pope, the bishops, and the theologians in good standing to understand the teachings of the Church. But there was a problem we didn’t see. So long as we could find magisterial figures who taught what we agreed with, we would follow that part of what they taught, and downplay the rest. But things began changing when the Pope and bishops began reminding us of the teachings we didn’t like. Then Catholics began looking to non-experts with the views we held. 

These non-experts were used to explain why we didn’t always have to obey the Pope and the Church. Theologians Not in good standing with the Church invented a theology of dissent in the “spirit of Vatican II,” or “defense of tradition.” If St. Paul VI taught on contraception; if St. John XXIII taught on social justice, we could find a theologian who told us it was all right to dissent against it.

Once that door was opened, it became easier to pick and choose what we would believe and invoke whoever would support the decision as proof. We skipped past the non-magisterial theologians to the media pundits who did not know the Church teachings but reported on it anyway. People who would not believe the media when it reporting on their favored political figures would uncritically accept everything they said about the Pope or the Church. Eventually, Catholics on the internet would go so far as to accept ipse dixit claims from anybody who said that “everyone knows that.” These baseless statements were repeated so often that it was considered irrational to question it. 

Some go so far as to make themselves “experts.” Where laity once looked to the magisterium to make clear the things they did not understand about Church teaching, they now interpreted them for themselves and sat in judgment on the Pope or bishops who dared to teach differently. 

These people became the “Karen of Facebook,” offering false interpretation as “proof” of magisterial “heterodoxy.” They repeated other people’s statements and others repeated theirs to the point that everyone believed the false interpretation and thought that those who said the interpretations were wrong were either blind or part of the deception.

Now, people just chant slogans and occasionally cite agreeable media personalities or those theologians, lacking (or not using) the magisterial authority to teach, as if they were reporting fact in order to accuse those who do use authentic magisterium. From a Church that was strong in obedience to Our Lord and those tasked to lead the Church, we’ve become an ochlocracy (mob rule) following every demagogue instead.

People complain about confusion in the Church. But the confusion isn’t caused by the Pope. It’s caused by “Karen of Facebook.” Who are these Karens? Those who spread their own views or repeat the views of others across social media as if they were authoritative against the true authority of the Church.

How do we end the confusion? We stop listening to the Karens and stop being the Karens. We need to start listening to the Magisterium under the authority of the Church. We need to trust that Our Lord protects His Church that He built on the Rock of Peter. THAT is the mark of the faithful Catholic. 

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Anti-Catholic and the Anti-Francis Catholic

[EDIT 1/21/20] A reader on Where Peter Is pointed out that I botched my syllogism. He was correct. I must have made the error by changing the word order during editing and automatically changing antecedent/consequent to match without seeing if that changed the meaning. I’ve made edits to make the article correct without changing the text more than necessary. Mea culpa for my mistake.

The non-Catholic who happens to think the Church is wrong is different from the anti-Catholic. The former believes their own denomination is right and has been (wrongly) taught that the Church is in error. Because they believe what they have been taught, they tend to interpret what the Church does in light of what they have been taught.

The latter, on the other hand, believes that the Catholic Church is an evil institution that must be opposed in her “lies” and “manmade doctrines.” Those of us who are members of the Catholic Church are either “blind” to her “errors” and need “rescuing,” or are part of the reprobate because we refuse to leave when faced with their dubious “evidence.” Because they believe the Church is an evil institution, they believe every lie told against us because they think we are capable of it. What the Church actually teaches is misinterpreted or misrepresented and those falsehoods are repeated so widely that the anti-Catholics think they must be true. Often they point to the shameful events in history and treat them as “Catholic” inventions, forgetting they were cultural practices that both predated Christianity and were used in Protestant nations*.

Here, apologetics play a role. By pointing out the falsehoods, we can explain what we really do believe to the non-Catholics of good will and help inoculate them and Catholics unfamiliar with what we do believe from believing the calumny spread against us. Apologetics might not always lead people to accept the Catholic Church. But we can at least make the truth known.

The attitude of anti-Catholics often exists among Catholics who are hostile to the Pope. They believe that Pope Francis is an evil to be opposed. They believe the oft-repeated calumnies against him because they think he is capable of it. Those of us who defend him are either deceived or willfully part of his plans.

Here, apologetics can help the people of good will realize that the anti-Francis calumnies are untrue. They can point out that the oft-repeated quotes are either taken out of context or sheer fabrication, and point out the preconceived biases that lead to the accusations.

It is ridiculous for anti-Catholics to claim that the Spanish Inquisition killed 100 million people when the whole of Europe didn’t have that many people before the Industrial Revolution. It is ridiculous to claim (a la Jack Chick’s “The Death Cookie”) that the IHS on some hosts stands for “Isis Horus Set” when it really is Latinizing the Greek letters ΙΗΣ which stands for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (IESOUS—Jesus#).

In a similar way, it is absurd for anti-Francis Catholics to claim that the Pope is promoting same sex marriage when he explicitly says that the Church cannot do so. It is absurd to say he is promoting idolatry when he consistently preaches about Jesus being the only way to salvation. It is absurd to call him a socialist breaking with the Church when he makes the same criticism of unfettered capitalism that his predecessors.made.

I could go on and on, and the Pope bashers and anti-Catholics undoubtedly will. In both cases, we see groups who are quite convinced of their own self-righteousness but absolutely in the wrong about the truth. In defending the Pope, we are not defending error. We are flatly denying that the accusations are true. 

Now some people I know protest that they are not Pope bashers, but only expressing “concern” about what the Pope said that seems to “prove” he is in error. They say they reject the extremists and only want to be faithful to the truth. It sounds nice, but I have encountered anti-Catholics back in this blog’s Xanga days who claimed that they opposed to the extremism of Jack Chick and merely were concerned about the “errors” taught by the Church.

In both cases, the people assumed that:
  • If I was [anti-Catholic (or anti-Francis)], I would be [an extremist]. 
  • I am not [an extremist]. 
  • Therefore, I am not anti-Catholic (or anti-Francis)].
This is logically correct§. But the premise is false. To understand this, let’s restate the form of the argument with different terms:
  • If I was [in California], I would be [in Los Angeles].
  • I am not [in Los Angeles].
  • Therefore I am not [in California].
One can be anti-Catholic without being part of the Thomas Nast, Jack Chick, Tony Alamo extremes. One can be anti-Francis without being a sedevacantist or a member of the SSPX. What makes a person an anti-Catholic or an anti-Francis Catholic is not extremism. It is an opposition that automatically assumes that the target must be wrong and is guilty of whatever charges are leveled, even though the charges have been refuted.

And many people are in these groups, even when they deny it.


(*) Burning witches at the stake happened much less frequently in countries with the Inquisition than Protestant England and Germany (and in Catholic countries without the Inquisition). I don’t say that as a tu quoque. Rather, it this method of execution (like trials by ordeal) was more common in Germanic nations than elsewhere where the law of the Roman Empire existed.

(#) H in Greek is the capitalized letter ETA, a long vowel sound.

(§) I’m embarrassed to admit I got things twisted in editing where my intent went one way and the edit reversed the order of the syllogism. WPI commenter “Bernie” pointed it out. I’ve made edits in a way to avoid drastically changing the text. Mea culpa.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Does Conscience Cease to Matter in a “Purple” State?

Norfolk I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names.… You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship? 

More (moved) And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

—Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons, Act II

Preliminary Note: The purpose of this article is not to argue that the Catholic voter is required to vote for a minor party. It is intended to point out why the “You must vote for Candidate A or you are guilty if candidate B gets elected” argument—used by Catholics of both major parties—is not part of Catholic moral obligation.


In election years, I find that certain arguments get made by Catholics from both major parties. But if you point out that it is the same argument with merely a different conclusion on who to vote for, you can expect some serious hostility. After all, they’re different from us. Their side is wrong. The problem is, some of these arguments aren’t merely partisan. They’re wrong according to moral theology too.

One of these arguments is that: It might be okay to vote for a minor party, “down vote,” or decline to vote if the state is solidly Blue or Red* and your vote will have no impact on the final result. But if you vote in a purple state, you have the obligation to vote for the right party… That right party being theirs. Such Catholics (and their attitude are found in both parties) act as if those who reach a different conclusion from them are guilty of grave sin.

It’s a puzzling attitude that they take because what it boils down to is: “You can only vote as your conscience dictates, as long as your vote doesn’t matter,” as if conscience was suspended based on where you happened to live. 

The Catholic Church and Conscience

The Catholic Church takes conscience seriously. We are tasked with properly forming our conscience. When we are convicted that we must act in a certain way, or we cannot do what we believe to be evil. Conscience, unfortunately, sometimes gets misrepresented as “if I don’t see anything wrong with X, I’m following my conscience.” But that’s not conscience. Conscience tells me I must do X; I must not do Y.

Sometimes, conscience is erroneous. A person wrongly thinks he must do something he should not, or thinks he must not do something he should. This is why we are obligated to look to the teaching of the Church to properly form our conscience. Gaudium et Spes makes clear.

16. In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

The idea of being bound to obey an erroneous conscience might scandalize us, but it should understand it this way: if (IN A NON-SCRUPULOUS WAY#) we wrongly think we do evil to act in a certain way but choose to do it anyway, thinking it is evil, we are choosing to act wrongly.

But, if we simply refuse to look for the teaching of the Church, we have no such excuse. Lumen Gentium #14 tells us:

They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

As Catholics, we have all the advantages of a Church established by Christ, teaching with a His authority. That means we have to look to the Church to form our conscience.

But sometimes, the manner of following Church teachings can take different legitimate forms. Provided that this manner is not a Pharisaical evasion (cf. Mark 7:9), we can choose the manner we think is best—especially if our conscience insists on it—despite what others think best.

The Ratzinger Memorandum

This requires nuance of course. Many Catholics misuse the Ratzinger Memorandum§ to justify voting for a candidate who supports an evil. The document was written to address presenting oneself for Communion if their actions are at odds with Church teaching. Much of it deals with Catholic but pro-abortion politicians. It points out that being in disagreement on other issues—such as capital punishment@ or war—does not disqualify one from receiving the Eucharist. But voting in a way rejecting the Church teachings on abortion does

The point relevant to voting is at the end:

[N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.] 

The debate over this passage is over what remote material cooperation means and what is considered a proportionate reason. A link to a 2016 article I wrote explaining this can be found HERE. My summary was:

The action of voting for a pro-abortion politician without directly supporting abortion does make the moral evil possible (material cooperation). That action is remote because, while it does not directly cause abortion, it still makes the continuation of abortion possible. Therefore, a vote for such a candidate requires a reason that justifies electing a person who will defend the right to abort over one million babies a year.

This all makes clear that we must not vote for a candidate because he supports evil, and if we vote for a candidate despite his evil, we had better have a proportionate reason that will justify remotely enabling the evil. 

Voting for a Minor Party is NOT the Same as Voting for an Evil Candidate

But what the Memorandum does not include in “remote cooperation with evil” is voting for a minor party that otherwise fits the moral qualifications. Bishop Conley of Nebraska wrote an article on the subject in 2016. In it, he raises a very wise point:

My third point is that when we vote, we need to carefully consider the specifics of each race. Blind partisanship can be dangerous, and we have to look past political rhetoric and media alarmism to make prudent discernments.  

In each race, we need to discern whether there is a candidate who can advance human dignity, the right to life, and the common good. When there is, we should feel free to vote for that candidate—whether they are a member of a major party or not. In extraordinary circumstances, some Catholics may decide, in good conscience, there is not a suitable candidate for some particular office and abstain from voting in that particular race.  

We also need to remember that we are not responsible for the votes of other people.  Choosing not to vote for “Candidate A” is not the same as actively voting for “Candidate B.” No Catholic should feel obliged to vote for one candidate just to prevent the election of another.

We should remember this point well. One is not obligated to vote for someone believed to be a bad candidate simply because they can win—especially if one’s conscience does not permit it.


It is especially false for a member of the laity to say that the Catholic who does not vote for a preferred candidate is guilty of sin and to blame if the worst candidate wins. Those who make that argument are usurping the authority of the Church to pressure people into following their personal beliefs. If the Catholic voter believes that a vote for Candidate A is the best moral choice, then let him set forth his reasoning in a way that convinces, not one that tries to coerce those who disagree. If we think that a person is following an erroneous conscience, then let us point out the teaching they missed, not behave in an arrogant manner.


(*) For my non-American readers, a “Blue” state is going to vote Democrat. A “Red” state is going to vote Republican. A “Purple” state (mixture of Blue and Red) is evenly divided and could go either way. Since our national elections are essentially 51 state elections (50 states plus the District of Columbia) where the electoral votes of a state goes to the winner of the state, these “purple” states are important in determining who becomes President, as the Blue and Red electoral votes are virtually guaranteed (see the map for an example. It may not be accurate come November 2020).

(#) This needs to be stressed. The scrupulous person often sees sin where there is none, or mortal sin where the matter is venial. Such people need the gentle guidance of a spiritual director to avoid being driven to despair. Such people are especially vulnerable to partisan Catholics who insist it is sinful to vote differently than their own views.

(§) Yes, it’s addressed to that McCarrick. But the unworthiness of the recipient does not negate the truth of the document.

(@) With Pope Francis refining the Catechism on the Death Penalty, that might change.

(€) If I rewrote this today, I probably would have phrased it “without intending to support abortion” to avoid giving the impression that indirectly supporting abortion is okay.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

What is Our Focus? Building the Kingdom? Or Supporting a Party?


Every four years, American Catholics tend to forget the focus of the teachings of the Church and instead turn to the ephemeral disputes of getting their preferred candidate elected. We get so distracted by this dispute that we turn our individual political opinions into dogma, declaring that those who disagree with us are enemies of the Church.

If I go on Facebook, I can be sure of seeing “MAGA cult” and “Never Trumper” hurled around as anathemas. Both sides are utterly convinced of their righteousness, claiming to possess the only authentic Catholic position and condemning the other side of openly supporting evil. 

Tragically, while they condemn the other side for their failings, they are perfectly happy with excusing their own. We are told that, Yes, X is important, but this election is too crucial to risk having the other side win. So we have to worry about that issue later. The temptation is to think that provided that as long as the intended good outweighs the evil, we say our action is good and we can forget about the bad parts. We might try to excuse it double effect, but that’s not the case*. Rather, what we are doing here is Proportionalism.

What is Wrong With Proportionalism?

We should remember what Cardinal Sarah wrote:

A false conception of good, replaced by duty, gives rise to erroneous theories like consequentialism. According to this system, nothing is good or bad in itself; the goodness of an act depends solely on its end or purpose and its foreseeable consequences. The end then justifies the means. There is an American form of moderate consequentialism, proportionalism, in which the morality of the act results from the calculation of the proportion of good and evil that the subject sees involved in it.

—Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent

Most of the time, Catholics seeking to be faithful to the Church know that Proportionalism is wrong. We may never choose to do intrinsic evils, for example. No matter what good we think it might do, there is a line we cannot cross.

Germain Grisez (Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 1, p. 159) defines Proportionalism this way:

Some Catholic moral theologians have adopted a theory called “consequentialism” or “proportionalism.” This is the view that a moral judgment is based on a comparative evaluation of benefits and harms promised by the possibilities for choice; one ought to choose the possibility which offers the best proportion of good to bad. There are many varieties of proportionalism, but this comparative evaluation of benefits and harms is central to all.

He goes on to critique why it doesn’t work (ibid p. 160):

Its proponents cannot say how to measure benefits and harms in the options so that their proportion can be settled. Moreover, it involves two incompatible conditions: first, that a morally wrong choice be possible; second, that the alternative which is superior in terms of the proportion of good to bad be known. But this cannot be, for if the alternative which is superior in these terms is known, other possibilities fall away, and there can be no morally wrong choice. In other words, proportionalism simply says it would be wrong to choose what its account of moral judgment would render it impossible to choose. Since proportionalism is inherently unworkable, it is not false but incoherent.

American Catholics often fall into the Proportionalism trap when it comes to our political parties because the parties are at odds with Catholic teaching on serious matter in some way. Because American politics are dualistic (either Democrat or Republican), many American Catholics of good will feel torn between choosing a party that calls the legalized slaughter of the unborn a moral good and a party that justifies the mistreatment of migrants.

Turning “Weighing the Issues” into “Evading Our Responsibilities”

Sincere or not, many American Catholics practice proportionalism by weighing Church teachings and drawing a line that inevitably puts their favored party on the right side and the other party on the wrong side. If pressed, they might admit that the other issue is wrong too—but it’s not as important as the issue their party is right on. Because of this, they treat a vote for their party as morally good, and a vote that is NOT for their party (whether for the other major party, a minor party, or not voting) as a moral evil.

Archbishop Chaput, in a 2016 article, rejected that way of thinking:

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.  But neither are all pressing issues equal in foundational importance or gravity.  The right to life undergirds all other rights and all genuine social progress.  It cannot be set aside or contextualized in the name of other “rights” or priorities without prostituting the whole idea of human dignity.

Of course, the right to life is the first right (all subsequent rights depend on being alive first). What some Catholics of both parties forget is that the Right to Life is defined more broadly by the Church than the partisan Catholics admit. 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.

The Church calls a number of actions infamies that the partisan Catholics treat as “less important” to the point that it effectively means “not important.”  

Effectively Negating the Obligation to Oppose Abortion

On one hand, we have a group of Catholics who argue that we will never end legalized abortion and we should work to make it less sought after. This group exercises proportionalism by evading the fact that abortion is the legalized killing of human beings. The argument of the Catholic justifying a vote for a pro-abortion politician in the name of other issues cannot be reconciled with the teaching of St. John Paul II.

He said (contra those who argue that other issues are important too) in Christifideles Laici #38:

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds 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.

And against the argument that it’s useless to try to end legalized abortion so we should make less need for them^, we need to remember Evangelium Vitae points out that we cannot tolerate evil laws, even if we think it is futile to oppose them. #70 tells us

While public authority can sometimes choose not to put a stop to something which—were it prohibited would cause more serious harm, it can never presume to legitimize as a right of individuals—even if they are the majority of the members of society—an offence against other persons caused by the disregard of so fundamental a right as the right to life. The legal toleration of abortion or of euthanasia can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience of others, precisely because society has the right and the duty to protect itself against the abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom.

Elsewhere we are told (#72),

Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.

And in #73,

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.

Letting abortion remain legal while hoping to reduce it through increased social programs does not fulfill our obligation to oppose that evil. If some Catholics support candidates who openly champion abortion because of their positions on certain economic issues, they are effectively refusing to carry out their obligation to defend life.

Effectively Negating the Obligation to Treat Human Beings with the Dignity Due a Child of God

While I believe that the canard of opponents of abortion only caring about life from conception to birth is a calumny, some Catholics do effectively deny the importance of defending life in the social justice teaching by acting as if voting for anti-abortion candidates exempted them from speaking out against the other evils those candidates support.

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).

While Leo XIII formulated the approach of modern social justice, the obligation to care for those who are in desperate need of help so they don’t die is also part of the right to life.

No Matter how we Vote or who gets Elected, we have a Battle to Fight

Both the Catholic who denies the importance of opposing abortion and the Catholic who denies the importance of protecting the weak and oppressed are doing wrong in the sight of God. Not because they are focusing on one side, but because they are ignoring or downplaying the evil inconvenient to their party.

But, in our dualistic political system, no matter who wins, one party§ will gain the presidency and that party will be at odds with Church teaching on grave matter. So what are we to do?

We have to be prepared to fight. That’s obvious if our party loses. But we have to fight if our own party if it should win. The Catholic Democrats must fight their party on evils like abortion. Catholic Republicans must fight their party on evils like the mistreatment of migrants. Catholics who voted for a minor party, down voted, or did not vote (for a valid reason, obviously) must fight the victorious party on these evils.

This is the difference between improving the world and working for God’s kingdom. As the Vatican II document Apostolicam Actuositatem #5 points out:

Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders. These orders, although distinct, are so connected in the singular plan of God that He Himself intends to raise up the whole world again in Christ and to make it a new creation, initially on earth and completely on the last day. In both orders the layman, being simultaneously a believer and a citizen, should be continuously led by the same Christian conscience.

If we work (and vote) to renew the temporal order as part of the mission of the salvation of men, we do right. But if we turn a blind eye to the evils our party does, we are complicit through silence. In the final judgment, we will be asked, “what did you do in response to those in need?” (cf. Ezekiel 33:1-9, Matthew 25:31-46). Did we seek to be faithful, speak out (charitably, not abusively), and help to the best of our ability? 

God will know. God will judge.

I’m Writing to You, Not the Other Person 

I’m as guilty as anyone else when, reading an article about moral obligation, to think “I know somebody who should be reading this!” But the issues I describe can affect all of us. It’s easy to think of our own problems as minor and those of the “other side” as unforgivable. But I hope I demonstrated that this way of thinking can lead us to excusing our own wrongdoing when we might be as guilty as those we denounce.

Yes, we have to work to bring others to Christ. But if we do not also cooperate with God’s Grace to grow closer to Him, we might find we have excluded ourselves while others enter.


(*) Properly speaking, Double Effect occurs when an unavoidable and unintended lesser evil occurs in carrying out a legitimate action intended to cause good. If the evil is avoidable, intended, or greater than the intended good, one cannot plead double effect

(§) Sure, a minor party might win. You might win the lottery tomorrow too. I wouldn’t recommend making plans around either though. But (as I hope to discuss in my next article) the fact that they cannot win doesn’t make the vote for such a party evil.