Monday, July 27, 2020

Identifying With a Thing Doesn’t Make It Good per se. Opposing it Doesn’t Make it Bad

One thing I encounter among Catholics on social media is the assumption that: because I identify with a thing, it must be good or because I oppose it, it must be bad. The problem with this view is it confuses what makes an act good or evil objectively with one’s feelings about an act. Since people don’t like to think of themselves as being wrong, this assumption frequently results in accusing the Church of error for affirming a teaching in the face of popular sentiment.

These attacks—like so many others—are not limited to one region or faction. Conservative or liberal; Democrat or Republican; these and many other factions across the public square find fault with the Church where the Church cannot do anything else but teach this way.

To understand why the Church holds that a thing must be a certain way, we need to grasp that there are three things needed to make an act morally good. The action itself must be good (e.g. you can never say an act of rape or genocide is good), the results must be good (a do-gooder who sparks a riot through lack of prudence doesn’t perform a good act even if the action itself is good), and the intention must be good (If I donate money to charity in order to impress and seduce my neighbor’s wife, that is an evil intention). If even one of these three conditions are absent, you don’t have a good act. Let’s look at some illustrations.

Things like abortion are examples of an intrinsically bad act. It arbitrarily chooses to end an innocent human life for the perceived benefit of another human life. Even if the person who commits it thinks that the good outweighed the evil, or meant well in doing so, you can’t call it a good act. How one feels about it doesn’t change that fact. This is why the Church cannot do anything other than condemn it. Reducing the amount of abortion cannot be an end in itself. It can only be a step on the way to abolition.

Other acts can be neutral or good in themselves, but the consequence is bad. For example, the Church does teach that a nation can regulate immigration if doing so is necessary. This is something critics of the Pope and bishops love to point out. But there is a difference between “our country is in the midst of a disaster and we are having trouble dealing with it right now” and “Criminals among THOSE people are dangerous and we don’t want them here, so let’s keep everyone out!” The US bishops are pointing out that America is not in that first situation, and the second situation is a morally bad consequence—refusing to help those in need out of a fear of who might get in.

And, of course, a good or neutral act can be made bad if done for a bad intention. Being thrifty is a good thing. But, if one is frugal for a bad reason (like Judas dipping into the common purse [John 12:5-6]), it’s not a morally good act. If a government cuts expenses with the intent of targeting certain groups or raising taxes in the name of social services, but defines the term to fund immoral policies, then the bad intention corrupts the good or neutral base act.

In these cases, no matter how much one identifies with the cause, if it’s defective in one of these three parts, you can’t call it a good act.

On the other side, the fact that the Church as a whole, the Pope, or an individual bishop acts in a way we disagree with does notmake it a morally bad act. The Church needs to act with an eye towards saving souls. That might be a soft merciful approach, as when Our Lord dined with sinners. It might be a strong rebuke, as when Our Lord rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees. But the point of their action is supposed to be bringing the sinner back to reconciliation. Since the Church is made up of sinners with finite knowledge, we will invariably encounter situations handled badly. But we will also encounter situations we think are handled badly due to our own lack of knowledge… either about the situation or about the teaching behind the Church’s action. 

Every election year, for example, we hear from certain Catholics on how the bishops are failing by not excommunicating politicians for supporting abortion. This is based on a misunderstanding of canon law. Canon law points out that those directly taking part in a specific act of abortion (abortionist, their staff, woman having an abortion, etc.) are automatically excommunicated. But those working to protect abortion as a “right” are doing something gravely sinful and, under canon 916, should refrain from Communion. Canon 915 involves those publicly involved in grave sin. Some bishops have invoked it in refusing communion to politicians in their dioceses. Others don’t seem to have acted in this way. 

But what we don’t know is why they have not acted publicly. It could be laxity or sympathy… the two common charges from those who demand public action. Are there situations we don’t know about? Are the bishops in personal dialogue with these Catholic politicians? Have they privately told these politicians not to receive? Do they want to avoid conflict? I don’t know… but neither do the critics. We should certainly pray for our bishops to shepherd rightly. But we should also keep in mind that—in connecting the dots—we may not have seen all the dots that we need to connect.

This should not be interpreted as a “be passive in the face of injustice.” What it means is, we should not be so confident in our interpretation of events that we think only the conclusion we draw is true. Church history is full of people who thought they knew better and caused all sorts of chaos, endangering their own souls and the souls of others. Because conditions change, the Church will have to decide how to best apply timeless truths to the current times. Sometimes, the attitudes of a society can lead Catholics to tolerate—or even commit—injustice. Sometimes those Catholics are higher up in the Church. But we must not assume that this is the case when the Church must teach in a way we do not like.



(†) Of course, we must do more to help people than just end abortion. We need to help people in situations where they think it is the only choice. But only focusing on those parts while leaving it legal is not a Catholic position.

(‡) Provided, of course, the Bishop is acting in communion with the Pope and fellow bishops. The actions of a Lefebvre or a Milingo (for example) cannot be defended on these grounds.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Dangerous Double Standards and Tu Quoque Fallacies

While it’s easy to lose sight of it in the midst of the coronavirus and BLM protest news, we do have an election coming up. This brings up the usual problems with American Catholics acting goofy. Following the news—frequently little more than editorials—I notice a bipartisan problem. That problem is the rush to condemn something only when it shows up in an administration run by the opposing political party, but staying silent on the issue when it’s prevalent in an administration one supports.

That doesn’t mean we need to be silent on both of course. Quite the opposite in fact. If something is an injustice, it needs to be solved regardless of who is in power. But if we only speak out on it when our enemies are in power, and make excuses for when our favored faction ruled, we are hypocrites who are looking for a stick to bash our opponents over, not effect lasting reform.

One of the problems seems to be that we treat politics as a zero-sum game and don’t want to endanger our party’s prospects when an election is on the line by criticism. I say zero-sum because everybody tends to think that if someone does anything to challenge their preferred party, that person is accused of acting to benefit the other side… and all the evils that the other side is associated with. 

So, we tend to kick our own scandals under the table and blame the problem on the other party. But, in pointing out the failures of the other side, we show we are aware that the problem is an evil, and that we were silent when our own party was in power. For example, I’ve seen Catholic Democrats take pleasure in pointing out the fact that—under Republican administrations—abortion hasn’t gone away, while Catholic Republicans point to the fact that we had incompetent handling of epidemics and unjust handling of illegal immigration under the Democrat administrations. Both are right in saying that the other side has a history of injustice and failure.

The problem is, because they overlook their own party’s fault, the hypocrisy is staggering. As Catholics, we have an obligation to do what is right in accordance with the teachings of the Church. Downplaying the evils or making it seem less important than the evils of the other side is an evasion at best. If we know X is morally wrong when our political opponents do it, we have an obligation not to tolerate it in our own party. Reform isn’t simply a matter of voting for the party you see as less of a disaster. It also means reforming your own party when it goes wrong… regardless of whether the other side does the same.

If we will not do that, we are hypocrites and will have to answer for the scandal we cause. I say scandal because, if we give a witness of setting aside those Church teachings that our own party is guilty of, we set an example of letting others do the same for their own party. Whether a Catholic is a Democrat, an independent, a Republican, or a supporter of a Third Party, we cannot turn our backs on evil or injustice while pointing out the problems of the other side. We cannot argue that another Catholic must violate his conscience in order to vote the way we like, just because we fear the consequences of our party losing.

We have to ask ourselves about how we will answer for our evasions and brush-offs at the final judgment. It will do no good to say, “I chose to violate teaching A to promote teaching B.” It will do no good to say “they did it too.” When we knowingly ignore what the Church teaches, we will have to give an account. When we choose not to learn the truth about why the Church speaks against the policy of a politician we support when we easily could have done the research, our ignorance will not be a defense. Invincible ignorance exists when we have no way of knowing we are in the wrong. But when we have a Church speaking against that wrong, we do not have that excuse.



(†) As always, I choose to contrast Democrat-Republican, Left-Right, Conservative-Liberal in alphabetical order to avoid appearance of bias.

(‡) I am using “independent” in the sense of “not affiliated with a party,” not in the sense of the American Independent Party (a third party).