Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Obligation to Understand is a Two-Way Street

When the seven days were nearly completed, the Jews from the province of Asia noticed him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd, and laid hands on him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us. This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place, and what is more, he has even brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this sacred place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him and supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. The whole city was in turmoil with people rushing together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the gates were closed. (Acts 21:27–30)

In our factionalized nation, the question of “how do we change something?” too often overlooks the question of are the demands unjust? If the demand is unjust, then it is wrong to make the demand and wrong to give into it. However, just because a demand is unjust does not mean the underlying need behind it is unjust. For example, the demand for abortion as a “right” is unjust, and we cannot compromise over opposition. But there is a legitimate need behind the demand—proper health care and support for pregnant women and families—that must be met.

We can approach it the other way too. In these times, there is a legitimate need to correct racial injustices have existed for far too long. But not every demand that comes from this need is just. For example, the demands to remove or destroy religious imagery on the grounds that they symbolize some sort of injustice in the eyes of the mob is an unjust demand. Unlike many Confederate monuments and symbols, Catholics don’t have religious monuments erected as a way of saying “@#$% you!” to certain groups of people. Statues to St. Junipero Serra and St. Louis IX (both targeted by mobs) exist to honor saints for their examples of holiness.

Similar to the passage from Acts, cited above, people react to what they think they know and the result is often injustice.

Of course, we as Catholics, can’t say “I neither understand nor care to understand your concern.” But in this crisis, I don’t think that our Catholic leaders are doing this. I believe our bishops have issued a strong witness against racial injustice not only after the George Floyd case, but actually before. Do individual Catholics sometimes say shocking things? Yes, tragically. But when they do so, they are not acting with the approval of the Church.

I think this is an important distinction to make. We are (rightly) reminded that the extremists in a group does not automatically mean the group as a whole is extremist. To assume otherwise is the fallacy of composition. But that’s a two-way street. The Catholic Church has sometimes been slow to get the news of injustice, especially in the days before modern technology, but she has never sided with those who defend what is morally wrong. For example, we recognize St. Bartolom√© de las Casas as a saint for his work defending the moral treatment of slaves and Native Americans, but we don’t praise those who defended the wrongdoing. We recognize that the Church condemned racial slavery from the first appearance—before Europeans first encountered the Americas to be precise—when Eugene IV condemned the Portuguese enslaving the natives of the Canary Islands in 1435, saying:

And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free, and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of money. If this is not done when the fifteen days have passed, they incur the sentence of excommunication by the act itself, from which they cannot be absolved, except at the point of death, even by the Holy See, or by any Spanish bishop, or by the aforementioned Ferdinand, unless they have first given freedom to these captive persons and restored their goods. We will that like sentence of excommunication be incurred by one and all who attempt to capture, sell, or subject to slavery, baptized residents of the Canary Islands, or those who are freely seeking Baptism, from which excommunication cannot be absolved except as was stated above.

This is not the language of supporting slavery. It is language showing that since the onset of the racial slave trade, the Church has condemned it… but lacked the ability to make godless men care about their evils§. They could only try to convert those men.

I suspect the demagogues and their mobs know nothing about the true history of the Church in facing certain evils. If that ignorance was invincible (having no way of being corrected), they could be without blame for wrongly thinking that what they did was right. But if they could have known if they took the trouble to look (cf. Gaudium et Spes #16), then acting out of ignorance is not excused.

For our part, we as Catholics in the pews do need to help in spreading the truth about what we believe to correct those who have a false belief about us. So, yes, we do need to look at ourselves and see if we have failed. That can be individually or as a whole—including ourselves. But let’s not use “we” in the sense of “everybody else” when we say “We Catholics have failed to do X.” It may turn out that we are allowing our own preferences about what we would prefer the Church to do to become an indictment of the Church for something she is not guilty of.

But often, we have been denied the chance to demonstrate what we do believe. Falsehoods dating back to the Protestant Reformation are still believed. Our moral beliefs are treated as bigotry, and our attempts to engage the world are sometimes treated as “explaining away” what they think is fact. In that case, we no longer have the two-way street of dialogue. We have “shut up and listen,” where we are given an ultimatum to concede whatever is demanded or be labeled “bigoted” or “anti-woman” or any other false accusation they care to throw at us.

As human beings, every person who is a member of the Church is a sinner who continually has a need to repent and turn back to God. So of course, anybody looking for dirt on a member of the Church will find it (I’m certainly glad my “young and stupid” days preceded the internet, for example). But we can’t assume that the behavior of some is the behavior of all; we can’t assume that a past attitude is carried on today; we can’t assume that what we think words mean is what is actually intended.

And if we in the Church can’t, neither can those who attack us. That’s the two-way street that’s being ignored.



(†) I make this qualification because, if I understand it correctly, at least one statue exists (or perhaps existed) that honored a former Confederate officer for his charitable work done after the Civil War. This is different from the defiant erection of certain statues because of their actions supporting succession.

(‡) The arguments used by Catholic slave owners in the Pre-Civil War United States used arguments that are remarkably similar to those used by pro-abortion Catholics today… a dishonest legalism that attempted to twist the meaning of words.

(§) This wasn’t a one-time thing either. Saints like Bartolom√© de las Casas and others would refuse absolution to the inhumane slave owners. But like the abortion issue today, when people don’t care about the consequences of automatic excommunication, The Church can’t really do anything to physically impose their will.

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