Monday, February 24, 2020

Since When Has Conscience Become A Dirty Word

So, this morning, I saw a well known§ opponent of abortion post on Facebook, saying we shouldn’t vote according to conscience, but according to “conviction.” This post was aimed at encouraging people to vote for her preferred candidate instead of a minor party. In fact she implied it would be morally wrong not to vote for her candidate. I’ve addressed that sort of nonsense before, so I won’t repeat my objection to those arguments. But the fact that this personality—who is Catholic—could have such a malformed idea of conscience, makes me think I should discuss it, and why it is vital to follow it.

I understand why some people are suspicious of invoking conscience. Many do abuse the term, treating it as a mere feeling. But Conscience is not a feeling. It’s not a case of “I like X,” or “I don’t like Y.” Conscience is something that compels us to act or not act. “I must do X.” I must not do Y.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:

1777 Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking. (1766; 2071)

1778 Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law: (1749)

For a person to say they will act on conviction, not conscience, especially if they urge others to act against conscience, shows that they are either grossly ignorant of what conscience is, or they are saying that they are choosing or advocating to others disobedience on what they feel morally obliged to do. That’s deadly serious, especially when trying to pressure others. Our Lord had some words about that, involving a millstone. 

Conscience must be formed by following the teaching of the Catholic Church of course. That means if the teaching of the Church seems to go against our conscience, we need to see if we have properly understood the teaching. If we have not, we need to learn the true teaching. But if we have not misunderstood, we should see if we are being honest about what we’re labeling “conscience.” We might find it’s not conscience at all, but simply our feelings or preferences that we don’t want to surrender.

Can conscience err? Yes. But if we don’t know the truth, and have no way of knowing (invincible ignorance). then we are not condemned for having a faulty conscience (see Gaudium et Spes #16). Not knowing the truth is not an automatic free pass, however. If we are Catholics, we should know that the Church is established by Christ (cf. Matthew 16:18) and that we are bound to listen to her (Luke 10:16) as the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). So rejecting Church teaching is not a result of a properly formed conscience. As Donum Veritatis tells us:

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.

So, if the Church teaches “X is morally evil,” then anybody who is Catholic and knows that teaching, yet freely chooses to do X cannot claim that they are following a properly formed conscience. But note this: I said if the Church teaches. I did not say, “if some guy on the internet says…” The sad thing is, there are a lot of Catholics out there who confuse their preferences and political beliefs with Church teaching. If they think caring for the poor means voting for higher taxes, they will often argue that opposing taxes is “rejecting the Church.” If they think that opposing abortion means voting for party X, they will treat any Catholic who has moral issues with voting for party X is “rejecting the Church.” We should always remember that it is the Pope and bishops in communion with him who represent Church teaching, not some social media personality or blogger—and, yes, I include myself in that*.

The Catholic whose conscience forbids an action that others have no problem with should not let themselves be bullied by a theological “Karen on Facebook” who thinks their preference is doctrine. If we seek to do what is right, according to Church teaching#, then the fact that others draw a different conclusion from us is not automatically proof of their error. 

If we try to pressure such a Catholic to violate his conscience because we fear the political consequences of his actions^, we had better start preparing our fitting for the millstone, because we will be pressuring that person to do what he or she thinks is evil in God’s eyes.


(§) As always, I omit the names involved to prevent people from thinking that my opposing an idea is an ad hominem attack. My blog is about defending Church teaching, not political infighting.

(*) I will always do my best to present Church teaching accurately. But if the Pope or bishop decides on an interpretation different from mine, follow them, not me!

(#) Scrupulosity is something to be aware of. If one is in doubt about their position, consulting with the pastor could be a wise move.

(^) As a personal example, my conscience forbids me from voting for a candidate that supports abortion. But that doesn’t mean I feel I am automatically obliged to vote for the other major party. If my conscience forbids it, I must not do it.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Catholic Teaching Must Come First

The primaries continue, and Catholics remain divided on who to support. As they argue on social media, many of them argue either that their candidate is morally superior or at least not as morally bad as the opposing party.

But because both major political parties in America promote things that the Catholic Church must condemn, we’re left with the tragedy of Catholics justifying themselves as paragons of virtue and condemning the other side as diabolical—when they are actually both guilty of what they denounce in others.

And God help the bishops when they teach Catholic moral obligations that a Catholic’s political party runs afoul of. They suddenly get labeled partisans for the other side. If somebody relied solely on the combined opinions of critics, the USCCB would be the first example of “right wing leftists” or vice versa.

The problem with this mindset is Catholics are putting their party first and the Church teaching second. That doesn’t mean that the individual Catholic openly rejects the Church teaching of course. Often it means that they think the issues their party is wrong about matters less than the matters they care about. Thus Catholic Democrats§ come up with excuses why we must set aside our concerns about abortion because of the evils Republicans support while Catholic Republicans argue that issues like social justice must be ignored because of the evils Democrats support.

Settling aside judging whether those Catholics maliciously support those evils they say are “less important” (that would involve violating Matthew 7:1), Catholics of both sides are overlooking the fact that we’re supposed to be opposing evils and striving to overcome them. They overlook this by dualistic thinking: as long as the other party supports Evil X, I have to endure the Evil Y supported by my party.

But our opposition to evil is not limited to those whose name is followed by a -D or an -R, and it’s not limited to the election cycle. Why don’t we see Catholic Democrats opposing their party stance on abortion in off years? Why don’t we see Catholic Republicans opposing their party on unjust immigration policies? Unfortunately, one of the answers is, Catholics don’t vote as a bloc. There’s very little difference between the Catholic vote and the national vote. So people who look at the “Catholic vote” to predict how the election goes is only a view of the country in miniature.

It shouldn’t be that way. I believe that, even if we—as Catholics—think we must vote for party X over party Y to oppose a greater evil, we have an obligation to oppose the evils within our party and try to change it. Maybe we’ll succeed. Maybe we’ll end up moving on to a minor party. But we can’t be silent because we’re afraid we’ll “hurt our party’s chances.”

Our task is to bring the world to Christ, and that includes converting our own political associations. If we want to do this, we must put the Church teaching first.


(§) To avoid accusations of partisanship, I will post the dichotomies of Democrat:Republican, left:right, and conservative:liberal in alphabetical order.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Truth and Charity: Brief Reflections on Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”

People who follow my blog’s Facebook page may have seen my occasional sharing of quotes from Calvin’s Institutes of the Catholic Religion# along with my commentary. Having finally finished the thing yesterday, I have been asked to offer my thoughts on it. This will not be an in depth analysis. Rather I intend to comment on something lacking within it that Christians need to have when interacting with each other: Truth and Charity. 

In that respect, I would have to say that I found this work informative—though not in the way that the author might wish—because whatever Calvin’s sincerity might have been, the book lacked both truth and charity.

The book lacks truth to the extent that I would have to use the word calumny to describe it. That is John Calvin constantly presents a caricature of what the Catholic Church actually believes, treating individual corruption as official policy, claiming that we believe things that we explicitly reject, creating straw man arguments, taking Scripture, Patristics, and Church documents out of context*. He contrasts this mess with his own interpretation of Scripture which he declares to be the original intent of the Early Church. Anybody can make their own claims seem true if they do this. But if the accusations are false and the evidence is misrepresented, any guilty verdict that comes from it is an injustice.

I would have to say it lacks charity because Calvin assumes any personal sin on the part of Pope, Cardinal, bishop, or priest must be done maliciously and approved by the Church, while any difference between him and Catholic teaching is a willful perversion of what the Bible teaches.

Obviously, when it comes to truth, if two views are in contradiction, they can’t both be true, and we have to discern which is the truth. Part of that search for truth is removing false understanding of the other side and discovering what they really believe. Without that first step, any attempts at “dialogue” on our part will fail. That is where charity comes in. We don’t assume bad will without evidence. We don’t assume heresy without a thorough investigation.

With this in mind, I think the Catholic reader and the non-Catholic reader should consider some things: 

I should remind the Catholic reader that the Church does not declare any person to be in hell. We simply do not know the levels of culpability in a person’s knowledge, intent or will to say something like “Calvin knowingly and maliciously lied.” After all, he could have been grossly misinformed about what we believe and sincerely thought we held what he accused us of. It’s still false witness of course, but if we assume the worst, we’re doing the same wrong he did.

I should also remind the Catholic reader that, regardless of the culpability Calvin might have, we are not to assume the same guilt exists in the person who was taught Calvin’s claims from youth and assumes that they have to be true. It is truth taught in Lumen Gentium #14 that “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” So, of course we must defend what is true. But Unitatis redintegratio #3 tells us that “The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection.” So, when sharing what we profess, we must not take a “@#$& you, heretic!” approach in doing so. We must interact with love, even when we disagree with others. Hurling polemics will not convince anybody to listen.

As for the non-Catholic Christian reader—especially from Protestant denominations—I would ask you to remember that we do naturally resent falsehoods being spoken against us. Setting aside the issue of who teaches correctly for the moment§, you need to realize that what men like Luther and Calvin accused us of are misrepresentations, no matter how sincere they were when they wrote against us. Since we are all forbidden to bear false witness, you have an obligation to make certain what you say against us is true before repeating it to others.

 Both Catholics and non-Catholics need to remember that—regardless of what polemics were hurled in the past—we need to remember those obligations of truth and charity today.


(#) Catholics should remember the Church warnings about reading material hostile to the Catholic faith without good reason and without proper care to avoid damaging their faith. I have taken those precautions. But, since there is a lot of false witness in this book, I strongly urge the Catholic who thinks that all denominations have a mix of truth and error, do not have a solid grasp of the truth, or might be inclined to take accusations at face value to avoid it. It is not for casual reading.

(†) 1960 Translation, Westminster Press, unabridged, if you’re curious.

(*) The nice thing about Verbum software is that one can easily read the passage cited in context—if you have the linked books. Unfortunately, that can get expensive. If you want to try it, I’d recommend starting with Verbum Basic (which is free) and only getting what you need when you need it. 

(€) When two positions are contradictory, they can’t both be true. One must be true and the other must be false. For example, Either Jesus is God or He is not. When two positions are contrary, they can’t both be true but both might be false. For example, saying the sun is either water or sand.

(§) Of course, I do hold the Catholic position to be true.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Deceptive Claims

As the official teachings on the authority of the Pope become more widespread, showing that his badgers are in the wrong, and as it becomes obvious that the claims about what the Pope is supposed to change are false, the anti-Francis Catholics have been forced to shift tactics. Now they’ve come up with new justifications about why they’re not in the wrong.

The first tactic they use is to argue that the authority of the magisterium doesn’t apply because the Pope isn’t teaching but expressing an opinion. Therefore—they claim—what he says isn’t binding, isn’t protected from error and they aren’t being disobedient by rejecting what he says.

The problem is, what they are calling his “opinion,” are things that are recognized as teaching when it comes from any other Pope. Eliminating misconceptions about the Death Penalty by making a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is an act of teaching. Teaching about our moral obligations regarding the environment through an encyclical letter is an act of teaching. Writing about the needs to strengthen marriage and helping those at odds with the Church through an apostolic exhortation* is Church teaching. But, because the critics do recognize the authority of these teachings from previous Popes and denounce Catholics who reject them, they are without excuse when they reject Pope Francis and call his teachings “opinions.”

The second tactic, used to accuse the Pope of error is to say that he never mentioned something. Therefore, that lack of a mention is considered “proof” that he supports whatever bad thing the anti-Francis Catholics want to accuse him of.

For example, after the recent synod, the Final Document suggested that the Church consider ordaining “proven men” who were married. The Pope, however, said that he was not in favor of removing the celibacy requirement in the West. But the anti-Francis Catholics argue that, since he didn’t explicitly reject married priests in Querida Amazonia, he must favor it and plans to implement it. 

But what the Pope actually said about the priesthood in the Amazon shows a belief that the the Church has other options, writing:

90. This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region. At the same time, it is appropriate that the structure and content of both initial and ongoing priestly formation be thoroughly revised, so that priests can acquire the attitudes and abilities demanded by dialogue with Amazonian cultures. This formation must be preeminently pastoral and favour the development of priestly mercy.

In the footnotes for this section, he notes that many Brazilian priests go overseas for missions instead of to the Amazon, and he notes there needs to be more effort to find vocations among the indigenous people. These are evidence against these accusations.

Both arguments share a logical fallacy: argument from silence. It is an error because it assumes Either A or B. Then the person draws a conclusion by way of claiming a lack of evidence for A is proof that B is true. But no evidence for A is not proof of anything at all.

The anti-Francis Catholic who argues that the Pope is only offering opinions or is secretly planning to implement a married priesthood—these two contradict, by the way—is basing it on the argument that since he didn’t explicitly see the Pope reject their interpretation, his claim must be true.

Such claims are deceptive and should be rejected, lest they lead us into error.


(*) Ironically, the critics of Amoris Laetitia argue that it can’t take precedence over Familiaris Consortio because it is “only” an apostolic exhortation. But Familiaris Consortio is also an apostolic exhortation. If Amoris Laetitia isn’t teaching, neither is Familiaris Consortio.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Final Thoughts on the Shared Errors of Anti-Francis Catholics and the First Protestants

Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things
—(Romans 2:1)

Over the past few months, during my studies of Martin Luther and John Calvin, I’ve demonstrated similarities in attitudes and assumptions between them and the modern anti-Francis Catholics who accuse the Pope of corrupting the Catholic faith, ironically accusing him of being “Protestant*.”

I say it is ironic because these self-appointed defenders of the Church use the term “Protestant” as an accusation against any change of discipline they dislike in the Church, but they actually behave like Luther and Calvin did in rejecting the lawful authority of the Church to bind and loose justifying their rejection in the name of defending true Christianity—as defined by them—from “error.”

When I look at Luther and Calvin on one side, and the anti-Francis Catholics on the other, I see in both sides a conviction that believes their understanding of how the Church should be is right and any opposition to that understanding by the Church is “proof” of their accusation that the Church has fallen into “error.” The problem with that conviction is that the critic never asks himself—or quickly discards—whether he or she is the one who got it wrong. It’s not a sin to be mistaken as long as one constantly seeks out the truth and looks to the Church as the way to properly form right understanding and right conduct. But, once the critic stops looking to the Church as the guide and instead insists on the Church looking to him or her, such a critic has fallen into error.

Why? Because Catholics profess to believe in a Church that teaches with Christ’s own authority, and to reject that authority is to reject Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16).

At this point, I should make one thing clear: While the Church cannot accept the non-Catholic beliefs that contradict# what she teaches, she does not impute guilt to those non-Catholics who were brought up in communities that reject Catholic teaching. If there is guilt (and that is for God to judge, not I), it would be on the part of those who—knowing that the Church is necessary—made the conscious decision to reject the Church when she teaches in a way they disagree with, not those who grew up sincerely believing that falsehoods they were told about the Catholic Church were true.

God will be the one to judge the culpability of those, like Luther and Calvin, who rejected the Catholic Church. But, those who use the term “Protestant” in a contemptuous sense show by that usage that they think the founders of Protestantism did wrong in rejecting the authority of the Church. But if they recognize that Luther and Calvin were wrong to do it under Leo X and his successors, these modern critics are without excuse when they reject the teaching of the Church under Pope Francis.

This is where the anti-Francis Catholic objects. They claim that the difference is that the Protestants were wrong to reject the Church but they are defending the Church from error—oblivious to the fact that Luther and Calvin used the same argument to justify their own disobedience.

What the anti-Francis Catholic fails to grasp in giving a litany of “errors” against the Pope is that the first response to an accusation is not to ask “why does he do this?” but to ask whether the accusation is true in the first place. For example, let’s look at Calvin, condemning the sacrament of Confirmation:

But if they prove that in the laying on of hands they follow the apostles (in which they have no similarity to the apostles except some sort of perverted zeal), yet whence that oil, which they call “the oil of salvation”? Who taught them to seek salvation in oil? Who taught them to attribute to it the power to confirm?

— Institutes of the Christian Religion IV, xix, 7

The response is not to defend oil as giving salvation. It is to say “No matter how much he might believe it, Calvin spoke falsely about us.” Because we do not believe that oil saves. We believe that God’s grace saves, and by His choice, the grace is bestowed through a sacrament that uses oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #436, 695, 1291, 1297). Calvin§ grossly misinterpreted Peter Lombard’s Sentences and condemned the Church for teaching something it never taught in the first place.

This is what the anti-Francis Catholic does when he accuses the Pope of supporting same sex “marriage,” contraception, divorce and remarriage, socialism, and other things the Church condemns. Because the anti-Francis Catholic never questions whether he is wrong in his accusations or wrong in his interpretation of past documents, he assumes he is correct and that the Pope errs. But, since the Pope does not support what his critic accuse him of, the critic has done what men like Luther and Calvin have done—falsely accuse the Pope or the Church of holding error when the error is on the part of the accuser.


(*) I find it interesting that actual Protestants see no similarities between what the Pope teaches (or what Vatican II teaches) and what they profess.

(#) Ecumenism involves dialogue to correct misunderstanding about what the other believes. Even when differences are irreconcilable, we act with charity in explaining why we must hold to our views.

(§) Calvin left off studying Catholic theology as a teenager when his father left the Church, and began studying Law instead. The result is—to put it charitably—that the accusations against the Catholic Church in the Institutes of the Christian Religion read like it was written by a lawyer with a juvenile understanding of the Catholic Church.

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Misrepresentation of Binding Authority

891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.… The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.” This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us two important paragraphs on the binding authority of the Pope, but only one of those two get cited. The result of this selective citation is a misrepresentation: that unless the Pope teaches ex cathedra he might err and we can “withhold obedience” if he does. Of course, for those who do disagree with a Church teaching, it’s easy for them to find what they think is a “contradiction” and claim that their infidelity is “being faithful.”

We witnessed this during the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI when those who wanted a change to Church teaching claimed that the Papal teachings on contraception, abortion, divorce and remarriage, etc., were never made ex cathedra. Therefore, one could reject them “for a good reason.” That “good reason” was never submitted to the Church, of course. In fact, if the Church rejected their interpretation, it was seen as “proof” that the Pope was in error.

We witness it now with the opponents of Pope Francis. Because the individual interpretation of what he teaches does not line up with their interpretation of past teachings, the critics argue that his teaching is not binding because it is not ex cathedra and, can therefore “err.”

Both examples are variants of the No True Scotsman fallacy. It attempts to deny the authenticity of any authoritative act that refutes their claim by saying it is not “truly” authoritative. Since the individual who sets himself/herself at odds with the magisterium is the one who judges, the Church will never be in the right in their mind. But the No True Scotsman is a fallacy. It assumes that one’s own conception of a thing is what a thing actually is, refusing to accept anything that disproves their own view as valid. 

We do not interpret for ourselves what a definition is. Rather, the validity of our interpretation depends on whether it squares with what a thing is (the truth). If it does not, we speak falsely if we insist on our definition against the truth.

In this case, the critics of both above examples speak falsely when they limit the authority of what a Pope says to his ex cathedra statements because the Church does not limit her authority to the ex cathedra statements. Divine assistance is still given in the ordinary teaching of the Church and obedience is still required. The difference is not whether an ordinary teaching can err. It’s whether the teaching can be modified for different conditions.

The ex cathedra statements are statements that can never be modified based on new conditions of a time. For example, when we say that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, that teaching will never be retracted based on new discoveries of science or how society changes. The Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady will never be retracted.

The ordinary magisterium, on the other hand, involves true teachings that cannot be changed, but the understanding on how to best apply them can change based on the changes in society without denying the unchanging teachings. For example, the condemnation of contraception will never change. But science will invariably discover new methods of regulating births. The Church must therefore evaluate the new methods and either accept them (like Natural Family Planning replacing the older calendar or rhythm method) or reject them (the Pill worked differently than the previous methods of contraception, but in the end turned out to be a contraceptive). 

To confuse the discipline rooted in time with the timeless teaching is to wind up accusing the Church of error when there is none. A change of discipline in the ordinary magisterium is not the same as denying the unchanging truth. Sometimes society changes so drastically that older disciplines cannot be applied: for example, the past teachings on just government in an absolute monarchy do not fit the conditions of a world where such governments do not exist. Teachings on social justice in a feudal society do not fit a society where modern capitalism has replaced it. The teachings on religious freedom in a time when other religions when people and governments recognized that Christianity was true do not fit into a time where people and governments are apathetic—if not hostile—to religion in general. 

Unfortunately, Catholics on both side of the factional divide make this error. The Catholic who believes that a teaching is wrong often points to a change in discipline as if it were a change in doctrine and uses it as “proof” to argue that unchanging truths can and should be changed. The Catholic who prefers an older discipline argues that the change is a change in doctrine and uses this as “proof” that the Church today is in error. But both are wrong.

Adding to the confusion are things like acts of governance. How the Pope administers the See of Rome as bishop, or how he governs the Vatican City (or, before that, the Papal States) are not acts of teaching at all, and not considered as having Divine Assistance. We don’t have to defend the Concordat with Nazi Germany (or Communist China, for that matter) or the case of  Edgardo Mortara*. Meeting with heads of state is not a teaching. But even in cases where we feel dubious about such an act, we have the obligation to fully understand the actions and respond in charity rather than assume the worst. Calumny and Rash Judgment remain sins.

But, when the Pope does teach—ex cathedra or ordinary magisterium—he is given Divine Assistance, and we are bound to obey, and we are trust that God will not permit him to teach error.

(*) In all of these cases, I believe that the Popes involved tried to make the best decision they could in a bad situation, but since these decisions did not involve teaching, they were not protected from being wrong. Any wrong that might have occurred is not “proof” of heresy or evil will on the part of the Popes involved.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Thoughts on the Misuse of the “Ultramontanist” Label

One tactic used by Catholics who oppose Pope Francis is to label any attempts at defending him as ultramontanism, defining it as attempting to claim everything a Pope says or does is infallible, and then claiming that ultramontanism is a heresy. Therefore, they argue, the defenders of the Pope are guilty of heresy. 

The problem with these claims give us a plethora of misrepresentation. They use the label with a false definition of what it means, and portray those who defend the Pope as guilty of supporting the behavior found in that false definition. As a result, they portray the defenders of Pope Francis as heretical while those who oppose him as faithful—both portrayals would be considered risible by faithful Catholics during the pontificates of his predecessors.

The abuse of term ultramontanism goes so far as to misrepresent the etymology of the word. Properly understood, it is derived from “beyond the mountains,” referring to the fact that the Pope was on the other side of the Alps from the rulers of those nations that tried to deny or reduce his authority over their Catholic subjects. Ultramontanism is not in opposition to orthodox Catholicism. It is in opposition to heresies like Gallicanism or movements like Febronianism, or the kulturkampf that demanded the submission of the Church to the state. Properly understood, Ultramontanism is recognizing that the final decision in the interpretation, teaching,  and governing of the Church lies with the Pope. Where there is a dispute, we obey the Pope over those who reject him. That’s Catholic teaching, defined in Vatican I and reaffirmed in Vatican II.

Unfortunately, the misuse of the term wrongly tries to tie it into the heresy of Montanism, claiming that those they accuse of Ultramontanism elevate the Pope’s teaching and governance to new “revelation.” Thus, we see certain Catholics accuse the defenders of Pope Francis of thinking Church teaching can be “changed,” which is something no informed defender of the Pope is claiming*.

So, to accuse the defenders of Pope Francis of “the heresy of Ultramontanism” certain anti-Francis Catholics commit a hat trick of errors: they falsely misdefine the term, wrongly apply that concept to his defenders, and wrongly claim that his defenders are “heretics” because of their false definition. 

The term Ultramontanism is effectively a combination of the strawman and the ad hominem fallacies. A strawman because it misrepresents the actual defense# of the Pope, and an ad hominem because the label tries to attack the defender, not refute the defense made. When someone uses the term to attack defenders of the Pope, look carefully at what they claim. Under close scrutiny, the Ultramontanism label is rotten to the core.


(*) I don’t doubt you could find grossly misinformed Catholics somewhere who might think that way—just as you might find grossly misinformed Catholics who literally worship Mary—but in both cases, the Catholics thinking that way are in error.

(#) For example, my principal defense of the Pope starts with the fact that the accusations against the Pope are false, not that I agree with the false accusations.