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.

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