Friday, July 17, 2020

Are We Blind or Do We See? Thoughts on Dissent and Culpability

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. (Gaudium et Spes #16)


They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged. (Lumen Gentium #14)


The bishops issued a condemnation regarding the resumption of the death penalty in the United States. Given that the Pope made use of his legitimate authority to teach in the ordinary magisterium (canon 752) when he made amendments to how the death penalty is applied (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2267), and the bishops are teaching in communion with him (canon 753), rejection of this teaching cannot be considered a “prudential judgment” or the act of a faithful Catholic.

But, when confronted with that fact, certain# Catholics among those who still support the death penalty instead say that the bishops should speak on other issues instead. They then usually cite the usual falsehoods spread against the Pope. But this argument is not only a tu quoque, but actually a sign of ignorance: The Pope and bishops do speak on these topics and have been vilified by the same political factions that the bishops are now accused of supporting.

During the pontificates of St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, these Catholics would have labeled those arguing for the right to dissent “heretics.” But now, under Pope Francis, they call the Pope “heretic” and use the same arguments they once condemned. That isn’t rhetoric. In the 1980 to 2013, defenders of the Church recognized that this was dissent. Now, they call it “being faithful.” †

So, here’s the question we need to consider. Given that the Church has consistently taught from the beginning that the Church teaches with Christ’s authority and is protected from error, can we call the Catholic who refuses to obey when the Pope or the bishops in communion with him teach—in the ordinary or extraordinary manner—faithful?

I believe the answer is no, though they think they are and the level of culpability might be different. One might only be materiallyin error, thinking he or she is doing the right thing while in reality is fuzzy on Church teaching. One might be formally in error, knowing the teaching and that he or she is in defiance, but thinking that as long as the Church “errs,” that dissent is justified. Assessing their guilt is for God to judge, not me. But they are in wrong nonetheless and we cannot let error have free rein*

And that is the problem. Since those of us who claim§ to be properly taught and faithful Catholics must look to the Church to discern whether we have properly formed our consciences or not, we cannot plead invincible ignorance in rejecting what we aretaught. 

Yes, a Pope can be willfully sinful like John XII. No, I don’t think that Pope Francis comes anywhere near that. But even if he did, that would not change his binding authority to teach or God’s protection from him teaching error.

Once one understands this truth, there can be no justification for disobedience. Whatever a religiously illiterate media reports, that does not change our responsibility to investigate whether these claims are true and whether we are committing the fallacies of equivocation or accent in our reading of what the Pope (or the documents we cite against him) actually said. Regardless of whether one thinks the Pope speaks clearly, the obligation to determine whether we understand him correctly remains. If we cannot find an answer, the Church teaching against rash judgment forbids us to assume that what we don’t understand is “error.” According to the Catechism that’s rash judgment:

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

Of course, for those of us who encounter—especially if we try to correct—this attitude on the internet, we also have to keep the risk of rash judgment in mind. We can’t assume a deliberately schismatic attitude without proof, any more than they can assume heresy. Yes, I’ve encountered some who were diehard SSPXers. But I’ve also encountered those who were simply deceived by malicious sites, or did not realize that the news sites they used were inaccurate (there’s the whole religious illiteracy in the media thing again). We should try to be charitable in our exchanges. Even if those we debate behave badly, we still need to bear Christian witness to the people of good will who don’t understand… but want to and can’t see how to reconcile the difference between their understanding and the Church teaching. 

However, we view the state of the Church, we must remember that not only must we consider the blindness of others, we must also consider our own blindness and pray to be delivered from it.


(#) I say “certain” because we always need to beware the fallacy of composition. The fact that some Catholics in a faction behave badly does not mean all Catholics in that faction do.

(†) Both then and now, these factions try to contrast obedience to Christ against obedience to His Church. Both cite documents—using their own interpretation—against how the Pope and bishops interpret it against the conditions of the times.

(*) That doesn’t mean—contra those who say “error has no rights” as an excuse—that we can mistreat those in error. God desires compassion and conversion, after all.

(§) As our Lord points out in John 9:41, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” If we claim to be faithful Catholics, we have less excuse than the unchurched for acting in a way the Church condemns.

(‡) Unfortunately, I don’t always succeed either. There’s always the temptation to “teach that jerk a lesson.” I’ve always regretted it when I respond that way. 

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