Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Remember and Turn Back to Our Loving God

One of the problems of the 21st century West is that—with all of our technology and knowhow—we think we are in control of our environment. So, when a plague, a war, a natural disaster, or other threat strikes, we’re terrified. We overreact. We think nobody has suffered like this before. 


We’ve lost that sense of humility. The modern Western world scoffs at the attitudes of past Christians and calls them superstitious. Then celebrities announce that they’ve contracted COVID-19 and people insist that the government, the doctors, the military and others do something. The fact that this has happened is the fault of these groups because it is not supposed to happen! We think we shouldn’t have to practice “social isolation” (quarrantine) and te fact that a disease is going around that might kill us


But in the past, people knew that things were beyond their control. Some of that was due to limited science, yes. But another part of it was that the people of ancient and medieval times knew they were not God, and there were things they could not control. Because of that, they turned to God and trusted in Him. God’s help could be manifested in a physical deliverance from physical evil. But it also involved the fact that our present life on Earth was not all there was to our existence. In the end, the Christians of the past could earnestly appeal for help but ultimately respond like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).


Ultimately, we need to remember this attitude. Science could discover a vaccine. Science might be permanently stumped. But God remains in control. We can’t avoid trials in this life, but we can put our trust in Him, who seeks our ultimate good.



(†) The current reports are: Not as fatal as we first thought, but kills more than the flu—especially the elderly.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sed Libera a Malo: Reflections on Trusting God

For the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi, we had the Gospel reading of Jesus calming the storm. This morning the Gospel reading was of raising Lazarus. In both of them, we see the theme of Jesus facing our fears and grief, encouraging us in the face of things beyond our control. To his disciples, the storm at sea was beyond their control. To Mary and Martha, death was an unsurmountable barrier. To the disciples, the attitude was act before it is too late! To Mary and Martha, it was iIf You had been there, You could have done something. But now that he’s dead, it’s too late.


For both of these attitudes, Our Lord has the same kind of response—It’s not too late, I am in control. Believe in me. That’s hard for us to grasp. Whether it’s a natural disaster, a pandemic, or a personal tragedy, it’s hard for us to see beyond the here and now. We’re suffering or grieving now. We think it will never change.


What makes it hard is that sometimes we do suffer. There have been plagues, wars, persecutions and other trials where people have suffered and died. Sometimes the outcome we want is not the outcome God wills for us. But we need to remember Jesus’ words. Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” (Mark 4:40) and “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). 


Our problem is that while we do want to have faith, we’re afraid of what God wills for us. That’s not faith however. That’s being afraid that God won’t do what is right for us. But what He wills for us is good, not evil. As we are told in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the Lord—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”


That doesn’t mean a Prosperity Gospel kind of “everything will be fine, so don’t worry.” It means that—given Our Lord intends for us to have eternal life with Him—what He calls us to will go beyond the needs of this physical life and what is good for us will have that consideration in this life. Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof might sing, “Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan, If I were a wealthy man?” But it might spoil our eternal plan. Mark 10:23 tells us, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” We might find that we would handle wealth badly, misusing it and living selfishly, for example. It also doesn’t mean that to be a Christian is to mandate living in a hell on Earth. We’re not obligated to choose the worst options in life. Some might be called to practice the severe austerities of the Desert Fathers. But others cannot live that life. 


What we are called to is to live in a way that says “Not my will, but Your will be done.” In this life, we might be blessed with wealth and comfort. But we will have to give an accounting of what we did with it to serve God. We might be given poverty and suffering. But we will need to give an accounting for how we responded.


Those saints who responded to suffering with heroic virtue probably would have been happy enough to give the suffering a miss. But they also responded to what they experienced out of love for God.


None of us knows what will happen. We could die of old age in comfort. We could die young in poverty… or anywhere in between. I could catch COVID-19 tomorrow, die in a car wreck, or not. But God wills my good for me, regardless of what happens. So when we pray the Our Father, and get to the line “deliver us from evil,” we need to recognize that what is ultimately good for us is what will bring us to Heaven, and what is ultimately bad for us will hinder us from that ultimate good.


So, while none of us want to suffer. Let us pray that whatever comes our way, we may approach it in a way that focuses first of all on Christ and seek to do His will in all things.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Dealing With the “Roads They Have Made Crooked”

Their feet run to evil, 
and they hasten to shed innocent blood; 
Their thoughts are thoughts of wickedness, 
violence and destruction are on their highways. 
The way of peace they know not, 
and there is no justice on their paths; 
Their roads they have made crooked, 
no one who walks in them knows peace. 

— Isaiah 59:7–8 (NABRE)

Can you imagine carrying on with the struggles of partisan life in the midst of a crisis? Unfortunately it's not unusual for people to put self interest above the common good, even in the worst of times. This was actually the premise of a British crime series—Foyle’s War—where the lead needed to solve murders instead of working to defeat the Nazis because the criminals were acting despite—or sometimes taking advantage of—the time of national crisis. It certainly was necessary, but since it required diverting resources from the main goal, that led to an added sense of irritation in dealing with these cases.


This is about how I feel when I encounter certain people who take advantage of our current crisis to push their own agendas. We see pro-abortion supporters saying that even though there is a crisis going on, the “human right” of abortion needs to be “defended.” Or the atheist who takes advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic by saying that the Pope should be donating money instead of calling for prayer. And when the Pope purchases 30 respirators to donate to places most badly in need, they respond by saying “Why didn’t he do it sooner?”. That’s not to mention the usual antics of Anti-Francis Catholics who use this crisis to attack the orthodoxy of the Pope and bishops for responding to the pandemic by calling the Church closures as a “lack of faith,” or do the “business as usual” accusations that the Pope is a heretic or “confusing.” Or the usual antics of the “you’re only anti-abortion, not pro-life” crowd who confuse Catholic social teaching with whether the plan is sponsored by someone with a -D or an -R after their name.


Adding to that, we are often faced with the challenge of “why are you worrying about that at a time like this?” when we do respond… usually by the one who started the attack in the first place.


Yes, it’s necessary to refute their attacks. Error does not cease to be error in times of crisis. But the irritating thing is that we shouldn’t have to be dealing with it. There’s a battle going on and, in this time of self-isolation, those who blog or make podcasts or use other means of Catholic outreach, would rather work to help comfort those who are dealing with the fear of what might happen with COVID-19, and encouraging them to act faithfully and trust in God. 


Yes, People will continue to spread their “thoughts of wickedness.” We’ll have to address them. But, if we get a little annoyed at people who take advantage of this time to push their agendas, it’s understandable.



(†) As a matter of statistics, the Vatican (population ~1000) purchasing and donating 30 respirators would be the equivalent of the United States (population ~327 million) purchasing and donating 9,810,000 respirators (based on the fact that the Vatican purchased an amount equal to 3% of the population.)

Friday, March 27, 2020

What Are We Doing?

James Tissot, Jesus Tempted In the Wilderness
As we continue our national shutdown and become the country with the highest (recorded) number of cases, we become more reliant on social media to interact with each other. For some of us, this isn’t much of a change. For others, it’s a drastic disruption on how we live. But changed or not, life does go on.

Our life as Catholics goes on too. We may not have access to Mass or the Sacraments, but our call to live as faithful Christians continues. So we need to ask ourselves—what are we doing in this time of self-isolation? Are we using the time of isolation which we have to turn further to God and bear witness to Him? Or are we behaving in a way that hides from Him in our personal lives or defaces how He appears in the eyes of others?

Like it or not, many of us are having our Lenten time in the desert (cf. Matthew 4:1-11) in a more imposing sense than we would like, and we have to decide how to face it. Obviously the person who works in an essential job or a mother of young children will not have the same opportunities as a single person who works from home. So it would be foolish to write about one way of living the Catholic life as if it were something all should follow.

But all of us should be asking ourselves what we could be doing in this time in the desert that our abilities and capacity can handle. If we approach it that way, seeking God’s will and asking for His grace, we might find ourselves growing closer to God.

But if we just use this time to continue our vendettas and petty squabbles, we might be shocked to learn we have fallen away from Him and alienated ourselves from each other.


(†) To avoid any confusion here, I am not talking about when the Church binds us to do or avoid something. The Church can and does make legitimate universal requirements of us. I am talking about the “It’s so easy—all you have to do is…” attitude that is so easy for us to fall into in judging others.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Momento Mori: A Reminder of the Things We Forgot

With entire states and nations on lockdown and Mass closed to the public, I find this time to be a reminder of what we’ve lost sight of. As COVID-19 runs rampant, we learned that we human beings cannot solve all of our own problems. Through our own actions or the acts of another, we can cause harm to ourselves and each other. All of the factional fights we’ve had seems trivial when compared to the realization that we are finite beings who are need of salvation that is beyond our control. 

If we think of it that way with a physical ailment that might eventually have a medical cure, we ought to also consider our predicament in our spiritual life. If we are so concerned with what harms the body, we should also consider what harms the soul. 

I don’t say that in the sense of a gnostic who scorns the physical. Pandemics are serious if left unchecked after all. And, as we are all possessors of a physical body, whatever afflicts it can cause discomfort, pain, or even agony. Things we are not wrong in wanting to be safe from. The Church certainly recognizes the importance of prayer. Even the secular media isn’t sneering recently when the Pope announces Prayer and Fasting for the end of the affliction.

But after giving the proper care for our health, we have to remember that all of the physical suffering in this life will end at death. But life goes on after death. What happens to us after death will be an eternal state. The state of our souls is afflicted with the pandemic of sin. If it is left uncured, we can die of it, whether sins we choose to commit and sins of others that can lead us into sin.

Therefore the real threat of physical death should also lead us to consider the the real threat to the state of our souls. People need to consider the four last things—Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven—in how we live. There is a Latin adage: Tempus fugit. Momento Mori. “Time is fleeting. Remember Death.”

I could die of COVID-19. I could die of an accident. I could die of any number of things no matter how careful I am. So could you. So perhaps while we’re practicing social isolation, unable to avail ourselves of the sacraments, we should use this time to reflect on where we stand before the Lord. Regardless of what human physicians can do with the pandemic, we do have a Divine Physician for the sin pandemic.

So let us pray to Him for grace to repent and to make a perfect act of contrition in case we should die before we can receive the Sacrament of Penance. And, in case we should live, let us prepare ourselves for when we can receive the sacraments again. 

Let us remember these things, so however we approach life will prepare us for the life after death.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Reflecting on Critics of the Church Dispensations Over COVID-19 and the Mass

In various times, we have had different plagues and other crises. The Church has dealt with them in various ways based on the needs of the people and the knowledge of science at the times. As science progressed, the precautions that were not intrinsically evil were adopted. Those that were morally unacceptable were rejected.

Unfortunately, certain Catholics react in a hostile manner to the Church responding to the COVID-19 outbreak and laws establishing quarantine. These Catholics argue that, in past centuries, the Church did not close off Masses. Therefore, the Church today should not close them. Especially since “only” 8000 people have died (as of the time I write this).

These arguments overlook some crucial concerns. For example, in the influenza epidemic of 1918, fifty million people died and one-third of the world population was believed to have been infected. Like today, there was no vaccine, so the governments then did what they do now (isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings). The Church cooperated with these restrictions. We could also look at the Black Death of the 14th century where an estimated 75 to 200 million people died, where people did not know of germs and how they spread. The result was that people did not know about effective methods to prevent the spread of disease.

The problem is that the Catholics criticizing the Church today expect it should continue the Medieval practices  that led to keeping the churches open during past plagues. I believe that they’re mistaking the lack of knowledge in the past for trusting God, arguing that we don’t have faith today. The question they need to ask is whether the Popes and bishops of the Middle Ages would have carried out those policies if they had the understanding of germs that we do now.

I don’t say this to blame the Church. Understanding germs certainly would have been impossible before the discovery of the microscope (AD 1590~). Some try to bash the Church as being “anti-science” and therefore to blame for epidemics (blaming it on witchcraft). That’s bad history. The science§ of the time—regardless of the culture—didn’t know how diseases were spread. They could only reason that because of the unhealthiness of certain areas, certain phenomena associated with those areas (like “the air”). That could limit some bad effects (like “don’t live in a marsh”) but not all of them (like “don’t spread germs”) since they hadn’t been discovered yet.

But both the Church and State know more about germ theory now than they did in the 14th century. As a result, they implemented policies that were unknown then. Quarantine and suspending public Mass are part of this.

Yes, keeping the Commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day is important. But in a serious situation, a bishop can implement a policy that suits the needs of his diocese, dispensing the obligation to attend Mass. We’re still obliged to keep the Lord’s Day holy. But we must not endanger others in doing so. 

It’s true that COVID-19 hasn’t killed as many people (yet?) as the flu. But it would be a false analogy to argue that, because of this, we don’t need to do anything different. COVID-19 spreads more widely than the flu and can be spread by people before they even know they have it. So if you go to Mass and don’t know you have it. You can spread it to others before you know you have it. Then they go off to spread it to their homes before detecting the symptoms in themselves.

If others have it, they can spread it to you in the same way and you can spread it to your own household in the same way. Depending on how close together people live in your diocese, it can have a greater or lesser impact and the diocesan restrictions can be greater or lesser. So it doesn’t mean that the bishop of a diocese that needs fewer restrictions is “holier” or “has more faith” than the bishop that needs more restrictions.

The grumbling against the bishops reminds me of the criticism against the Church concerning previous contagions. 

Occasionally, critics have blamed the Church for past epidemics. For example, many say the Church is “to blame”for the AIDS crisis in Africa because of her condemnation of contraception. Such critics overlook the fact that, as with COVID-19, modification of behavior can help prevent the spread of disease more effectively than risky behavior. Those who are infected and still choose to have sexual intercourse effectively refuse to modify their behavior to prevent contagion. Perhaps they do not realize the selfishness of such behavior, and can’t conceive ofliving any other way. But this is another example where critics want the Church to accommodate them.

The Catholic who gets angry with his bishop or the Pope over the existence of restrictions is behaving in a similar way. He or she wants the Church to accommodate how they want to live in a condition where that way of living might do harm to themselves or others.

Ultimately we still have to keep Sunday holy, even if we cannot attend Mass. We have the Bible, the Missal, the Rosary, free downloads of the Liturgy of the Hours app, televised Mass, and other ways to worship until we are free of the epidemic and can go to Mass again. 

Yes, most of us are unable to physically receive the Eucharist under these circumstances. And that is a painful loss.But this is also an opportunity to remember that there are many in the Church who are also unable to attend Massdue to age, infirmity, or lack of priests. We must pray for the grace to go forward until we are delivered from this pandemic.


(§) And it was science in the sense of observation of cause and effect, drawing conclusions. But people forget that the technology we take for granted—or even now consider obsolete—did not even exist yet and so, the science of the time could not be as effective.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Why I Defend Him: A Reflection on the Seventh Anniversary of Pope Francis

During the pontificate of Pope Francis, I’ve been accused of turning a blind eye, being ignorant of, or otherwise being negligent in my support of the Pope. I thought I would offer this reflection.

It might surprise you, but prior to the 2013 conclave, I was hoping for Cardinal Burke§ to be named Pope. Other favorites included Cardinal Sarah or Cardinal Arinze. Prior to his becoming Pope, I had never heard of Cardinal Bergoglio. The blog post I wrote on the day of his election reflects that. But even back then, I trusted in God to protect His Church. Seven years later, I can confidently say that God has done so.

That doesn’t mean it was always easy to keep trusting in God in those first days. Like other Catholics, I had grown to think that the ways that the Church had always approached things would be the way the Church always would approach them. So, when this Pope did things differently from his predecessors, it was easy to wonder if the accusations from his critics had merit. It didn’t help that long time dissenters were seizing on shallow interpretations of his words to argue that they were “right” all the time. There were times when I wondered if I had misunderstood the promise Christ made about protecting His Church.

What I would eventually discover was: when one reads the actual transcripts of his writings and press conferences, they were very Catholic, mirroring his predecessors. We were now living in the age of the soundbite, where an ignorant or unethical reporter could take a specific quote isolated from all context and use it to promote an agenda, conservative or liberal.

When it became clear that the accusations against the Pope were false, the critics would argue that the Pope was “unclear” and “causing confusion.” Nobody stopped to ask whether their understanding itself was faulty. If there was a problem in the Church, the Pope was to blame.

Eventually, I reached the point of noticing that we were seeing the same critics making the same errors every time, and had to ask, “why are we continuing to give them our attention when they have gotten it wrong every time?” When I heard of accusations against him, I waited for the full document before judging what I heard.

In every controversy, this approach worked. The accusations of “being a socialist,” fell apart when his words were compared to his predecessors (notably Pius XI) on social justice. The accusations of being supportive of “same sex marriage” and “ordaining women,” contradicted his actual words. It was clear that there was neither a defect with his own teachings nor with his predecessors’ teachings.

That’s not to say there were no problems in his pontificate. There are, just like there were with his predecessors and will be with his successors. That’s something that will happen when the Church is filled with human beings and not angels. But it would be wrong to say that the Pope willed, or even directly caused the problems simply because they turned up during his pontificate. That’s the post hoc fallacy.

So, why do I defend him? It’s not because I support error. It’s because I am convinced that he teaches the Catholic Faith and, when he changes a discipline, it is to emphasize a teaching that people have lost sight of and downplayed when it was taught by his predecessors.


(§) Because of this, I find his frequent criticisms of the Pope—which I believe to be unwarranted—to be particularly saddening. In 2013, I certainly didn’t expect him to take the positions he did. I can’t agree with his assessment of the Pope, and could not support him now.

Monday, March 9, 2020

On Those Who Sneer At the Lenten Practices of Others

Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, 
a day to afflict oneself? 
To bow one’s head like a reed, 
and lie upon sackcloth and ashes? 
Is this what you call a fast, 
a day acceptable to the Lord? 

Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: 
releasing those bound unjustly, 
untying the thongs of the yoke; 
Setting free the oppressed, 
breaking off every yoke? 

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, 
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; 
Clothing the naked when you see them, 
and not turning your back on your own flesh? 

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, 
and your wound shall quickly be healed; 
Your vindication shall go before you, 
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:5–8)
Among anti-Catholic and anti-Francis Catholic critics, I see a similar kind of sneering going on, even though the mindsets of these groups are diametrically opposed. The similarities come through how they deride the penitential practices of Catholics. Either they mock the individual sacrifice as “shallow” or they mock something serious on the grounds that people shouldn’t treat sins as something you “give up for Lent.” And if a person should resolve to do something for Lent, the response is a mocking “well, why didn’t you do that earlier?”

It is true that some people can be shallow about a Lenten sacrifice, either making it so light or with so many exceptions as to be virtually meaningless. People can focus on giving up something and become unbearable to live with. People can wrongly approach “giving up sins for Lent” by thinking that they will take them up again after Easter. Some people take up practices for the wrong reason (“I’ll cut back on food to lose weight.”) Such people do need to be gently corrected.

But too often, the people who sneer seem to miss the point. When we give something up, or perform a practice, we do so to turn away from our past way of living and back to God. So, if giving up a certain pleasure helps us to say no to ourself when it leads us away from God, it is a good thing. If doing a good thing helps us to form practices that serve God the rest of the year, that is a good thing. And if we remember that “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2 NABRE), then Lent is a good time to repent of the sins we should have previously turned away from but have not managed to escape, with the intention of staying away (with God’s grace) to stay away after Lent ends.

We should keep in mind that not everyone is able to do the same things. A diabetic is not able to fast in the same way as one who is healthy. A person who loves meat will be harder hit by the rules of abstinence than the person who is vegan. The mother of young children might find it harder to say a decade of the Rosary than the unmarried do to say the whole thing. And a person who tries to use Lent as a time to try again to reject the sin he commits over and over out of love for God is trying to do more than the person who spends his time denouncing others for sins he has never been tempted by.

So, when we see a person approaching Lent differently than we think it should be done, let us not sneer or judge. The person might be shallow, or mistaken. But the person might be struggling with a trial greater than we can imagine.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Unholy Politics

The other day I saw a Catholic blogger pushing the slogan Vote Blue, No Matter Who§. A week before, I wrote about another Catholic advocating voting according to conviction, not conscience to condemn Catholics who felt morally obligated to reject both major parties. Both slogans are reminders that Catholics are just as susceptible to putting unholy views of politics above higher values as any other person. They both advocate setting aside moral obligations to benefit the political party that certain ideological Catholics favor. Meanwhile, they don’t show the slightest bit of shame for condemning Catholics from the other major party doing the same. 

I call it unholy because both of our major political parties are at odds with Catholic teaching in serious matters, but Catholics who fall into the ideological trap do downplay those matters when their own party is at risk of losing votes over that evil.

Let’s face it: promoting abortion, coercing contraception, redefining marriage and gender are evils that must be condemned. So is the inhumane treatment of migrants. But an alarming number of American Catholics are willing to make excuses for the evils of their own party and attack the bishops—even the Pope—for standing up and saying, “this is evil.” Effectively, we are giving our souls, not for the whole world, but for our political party being in control for a few years more.  

In these times of increased polarization, ideological Catholics decide that this election is too important to risk losing, so we “must” focus on stopping the greater evil… which is always defined in a way to condemn the other side. These Catholics, curiously, never seem to work on opposing the evils in their own party after this election is over, but they are quite happy to point out the fact that the other party is guilty of this. They forget that Our Lord warned:
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3–5)
If we want to live in a holy manner, we need to stop acting like the Pharisee who looks contemptuously at another sinner who sins differently (cf. Luke 18:9-14). Yes, it’s wrong when Catholics in the other party ignore, or even support an evil in their platform. But by recognizing that it is wrong for them to do it, we show that we are not ignorant about the moral obligation in general and we are without an excuse if we commit that same act ourselves.

Yes, finding a moral choice in the past few elections is difficult. Every Catholic faces a choice that should be difficult. Each party supports one or more evils that are incompatible with the Catholic Faith. Each American Catholic will need to form their conscience in a way that recognizes these evils exist and strives to respond in a Christian way. 

In doing so, we need to remember that Jesus did not let Himself in dualistic thinking. He showed that the different factions of his time (Pharisee v. Sadducee, Pharisee v. Herodian, Hillel v. Shammai) were wrong in some aspects and the right approach sometimes meant rejecting both sides of dualistic thought.

We have to remember that Christ comes first, and that the Catholic Church teaches with His authority and protection. So, however we vote or act, it must take this into account. We can never “set aside” a teaching because this election is “too important.” If we think we have to vote for a certain party, despite their particular evil, we had better be prepared to also work to reform that party and not give that evil a free pass.

Otherwise, we will not be working for Christ. We will be working for unholy politics, regardless of what others may or may not be guilty of.


(§) For my non-American readers, “Blue” is the color currently associated with the Democrats. “Red” is associated with the Republicans. Yes, there are other political parties. But barring some sort of act that outrages the electorate in a way that catapults a minor party into a major one while a major party collapses (it happened once when the issue of slavery destroyed the Whig party and launched the Republicans). Unfortunately, dualistic thinking is the norm here.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Replacing the Quest For Truth With the Rejections of What We Dislike

In this age of the smartphone, we get reports of events quickly. That might be a good thing except for one problem: Many things reported are not reported accurately but people tend to believe the first accounts that they hear… especially if it goes along with what they want to hear. An inaccurate news source that fits a preferred narrative is believed and a truthful challenge to it is considered false.

I see this happening in reports about the Pope. The false narrative is that “the Pope is a liberal.” Both Catholics that want him to be a liberal because they erroneously think that the Church should change, and Catholics that want him to be a liberal because they are hostile to his changes in discipline and want an excuse to deny his authority. Both factions accept false reports about what the Pope says if it fits their needs but not true reports that don’t fit.

We tend to approach politics in a similar manner. We’re willing to believe the worst possible reports about a politicians and parties we dislike and consider the negative stories about a politician we like as lies. If a news source from “the other side” criticizes one of their own, we treat it as “proof” that our platform is 100% right.

This is not a call to uncritically accept everything from all sources. We need to be aware of biases and harmful ideologies in what we read. The problem is, we tend to only apply scrutiny to sources that say something we dislike. We only give a source credibility when it suits us and reject what that source says when it doesn’t. We seldom apply it to the sources that always say what we want to hear. 

Since Christianity involves loving God and doing what is right in His sight while rejecting evil, thinking in that way is extremely dangerous. Why? Because we become like the Pharisees who were convinced of their own righteousness, blind to the fact that they too needed to change. 

As Catholics, we recognize that Christ is God, and He gave the Church the authority to teach in His name. But once we do recognize it, we are without excuse if we refuse to obey, or look for excuses to argue that the Church lacks authority in areas we dislike. The Church is quite clear on this. As the Code of Canon Law tells us:
can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.

can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.
This is not merely on the say-so of the Church. We believe it on the say-so of Christ. He established His Church (Matthew 16:18), gave it binding authority (Matthew 16:19, 18:18, 28:18-20, John 20:23) and made clear that there were consequences for rejecting His Church (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). Treating an act of teaching by the magisterium as if it were opinion or error is a dangerous action. Because we are rejecting Christ in our disobedience.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Reflecting on “Silence”

I watched the Martin Scorsese film Silence last night. It was a well made film that makes one think about the ends and means of one’s actions. 

Saying that it’s well made is not an endorsement of its moral quality here. It’s not a film for casual viewing: the USCCB has given it an “L” rating (limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling). It’s a justified rating because the actions of the protagonist are incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The review rightly warns:

Those lacking such a foundation [of being well grounded in their faith] could be led astray, drawing the conclusion that mercy toward the suffering of others can sometimes justify sin. While Catholics who are blessed with the freedom to practice their faith in peace are hardly in a position to judge those facing martyrdom, the principle that circumstances can mitigate guilt but not transform wrong into right remains universally valid.

This article is not a review of the movie. Rather, it is a reflection on the attitude of the protagonist Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues. The thing that struck me as I watched it was a theme that came up again and again: The temptation to ask, How could God be “silent” in the face of suffering the Japanese Christians endured?

In this movie, Fr. Rodrigues couldn’t answer it and fell into doubt, witnessing the tortures the faithful endured, combined with the duress given by the chief persecutor and the spurious rationalizations made by another apostatizing priest. He ends up apostatizing himself, spending the rest of his life rooting out smuggled religious goods and writing “refutations” of the Catholic Faith. The movie implies that he might have repented in the end by showing, at his cremation, a small crucifix in his hands as his casket is consumed by fire. The book, by 

Shūsaku Endō, reportedly treated the apostasy by Fr. Rodrigues as a morally “good” act§ to save others from torment. Japanese Catholics almost unanimously condemned the book when it was published in 1966.

The thing that struck me, watching the film, was the slow motion train wreck of a trap that Fr. Rodrigues fell into. He couldn’t grasp how God could allow His people to suffer and began to see it as “silence” on the part of God. This weakened him under the torture the inquisitor (the movie’s chosen term) inflicted on Japanese Christians to get him to apostatize, telling him it was his fault and the spurious argument (posited by the apostate Ferreira) that Christianity wasn’t suited for Japan. The final result was “hearing” Jesus telling him to step on the fumi-e (a religious image suspected Christians were forced to step on as an act of apostasy) to be “like” him and save His people would certainly be an insult to the martyrs who died rather than perform a “meaningless” gesture like burn a pinch of incense in Roman times, step on the fumi-e in Japan, or in whatever form we might face the attack.

Persecution, the rise of heresy and schism, corruption in the Church, and other evils are not a sign of God’s “silence.” Nor are they signs of His “weakness” or “nonexistence.” We may not do evil so that good may come of them, and a good intention does not change the fact that an act is evil. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. (1789)

We in the West may never face overt persecution (I pray we are never put to that test). Most of what we face comes from unjust lawsuits, and other harassment where we are tempted daily to compromise.

But we should beware of thinking that the flaws of the characters Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Ferreira were simply that they were “weak” men who failed, but we wouldn’t. Whenever we entertain doubts that something we don’t like is a failure on the part of God, we are falling into the trap that they did. Whenever we’re tempted to think that a good intent “justifies” our evil act, or that the consequences we oppose are an exemption to our moral obligations, we are behaving like these characters. We will always encounter hardships in life. Some will encounter hardships that are worse than ours. But those hardships never exempt us from doing good and opposing evil.

We should keep this in mind when we face our constant mild trials, and if we should face an insurmountable trial, we need to pray to God that we be given the grace to do what we’re called to do, and not try to rely on our own preferences and strength.


(§) As a disclaimer, I have not read the novel. This assessment comes from other sources. But they’re unanimous that the scene with the crucifix did not happen and seemed contrary to the novel.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

False Conception and Fatal Consequences

I think that one of the beginnings of error—potentially leading to heresy and/or schism—is forgetting we can err. By this, I mean that when we think that things should operate in a certain way but do not consider the possibility that we have misunderstood either the teaching we use as a yardstick or the statement that we measure against it, we have a false conception.

This can happen in different ways. Aristotle—in the quote to the left— uses the example of geometry. It can happen by drawing false analogies from a misunderstanding of history. It can happen by classifying philosophical or theological topics as scientific and claiming that science “refutes” the existence of God. Or by using political views to interpret science.

What is dangerous is when our false conception is used to refuse the authority of one who does know the truth. The greater the damage caused by the false conception, the more dangerous it is. Thinking that a soda has the same effect on the body as water—despite warnings to the contrary—is (usually) a minor harm. Rejecting warnings that H2SO4 does not have the same properties as H2O is much more serious, and very likely fatal. Once we get into the realm of what happens to our immortal soul, the consequences for rejecting one who knows can reach the level of eternal salvation and eternal damnation… consequences that are much more serious than a matter of life and death.

Every heresy and schism starts with a false conception. The nature of God, the nature of Christ, the nature of Scripture and Tradition, the nature of Faith and Works, the nature of male and female, etc. When a person goes wrong on these things, they will wind up saying what is false. But if they speak falsely on a matter of salvation—regardless of whether or not they think it’s true—they can do something that is deadly (mortal) to their soul or the souls of others. 

Men like Arius and Nestorius, Luther and Calvin, the modern anti-Francis Catholics and those who opposed his predecessors have reached a false conception on some essential truth. But it isn’t just an individual false conception. These individuals also rejected those who do teach the truth when the teachers said their ideas were false. Worse, they misrepresented the words and actions of the teachers to undermine people’s trust in them, leading the people astray.

Catholics should know that the teacher I am referring to is the Catholic Church, giving binding teaching with Christ’s authority and protection (Matthew 16:18-19, 18:18, 28:18-20). Our Lord made obedience to this Church necessary (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16, John 20:23, 1 Timothy 3:15), and to reject her is to reject Him. Since it is the magisterium—the Pope and the bishops who teach in communion with him—that binds and looses, refusal to obey is schism and the obstinate rejection of what the Church teaches is heresy.

The person who knows that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ, but refuses to listen, or remain within the Church is doing something much more foolish than the person who ignores the warning about H2SO4. He is not merely risking his life. He is risking his immortal soul. It is true that a person who has invincible ignorance—not knowing and having no way of knowing something—has reduced culpability for the wrong done. But as Gaudium et Spes #16 puts it:

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.

We must be careful to remember that the Catholic who doesn’t look to the Church for the proper understanding of the teaching they use as a yardstick is not taking the proper care for truth and goodness. If they persist in rejecting the Church, they might grow blind to their errors and not realize it.

It is not for me to judge the individual here. Whether you, or somebody you know, might be in that situation is beyond my capacity to judge. I am a member of the laity with no authority to bind or loose. I am not God that I can look into your soul.

All I can do is to ask everyone this: when one is scandalized by something in the Church, please remember that the authority of the Church to teach and Our Lord’s protection is not negated by the sins of the men who are Popes and bishops (cf. Matthew 23:2-3). If a person is tempted to think that the Church must be wrong because what she teaches doesn’t square up with an individual interpretation, such a person should remember: in the history of the Church, there were many Catholics who believed the same thing… and wound up in heresy or schism.