Wednesday, June 16, 2021

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us: A Reflection on Factionalism

can. 750 §1.† A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

§2. Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firmly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

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.

There is a famous phrase that some attribute to cartoonist Walt Kelly of Pogo fame and others attribute to a 1970 ecology poster that goes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It has become more popular than the original saying and is generally used to say that we are the cause of our own problem.

I bring this up as a general conclusion to the It’s Iimi! comics (HEREHERE) because I think the current fight over the USCCB meeting running from the 16th to the 18th is a symptom rather than a problem in itself. Regardless of what the bishops decide to do regarding their “coherence” section on the proposed document on the Eucharist, The lay Catholics have decided for themselves who are the “heroes” and “villains” of the Church. Based on this assumption, they have already concluded that the “other side” of the “battle” is acting against what the Church teaches.

I say that the reaction to the USCCB meeting is a symptom because we have been before. We are constantly seeing a factional group in the Church who argue that there is only one way to handle a situation. Whoever disagrees with that proposed solution is accused of being in the wrong… even if the accused are the Pope and bishops in communion with him issuing a formal teaching. 

Sometimes it is a case of dissident Catholics claiming that the Pope and bishops are failing to show love, as it happened with St. Paul VI issuing Humanae Vitae and the CDF under Pope Francis reaffirming that same-sex relationships cannot be blessed. At other times, it is a case of Catholics disagreeing on the best way to carry out a teaching. For example, the infamous “anti-abortion but not pro-life” comment was rooted in the assumption that one had to vote for certain social policies and rejected the possibility of other legitimate solutions.

I could go on—and these factions doubtless will—but these examples show what I think the problem is in all our disputes: We will only obey the Church when she teaches what we want. If the bishops speak out on an issue we do not want to hear about, we will cease to give the “religious submission of the intellect and will” (canon 752). We think we are justified in doing this and invent all sorts of complex theologies to proclaim our righteousness. At the same time, we refuse to consider whether those on what we consider the “other side” could legitimately reach their conclusions through a faithful study of the same documents we read. We refuse to consider the possibility that we can be in the wrong about those documents.

As I watch the different feuds, I am struck by how many determine orthodoxy by saying, “I can see no other way to interpret X than…” while ignoring the fact that their opponents say the same thing. But logically, both factions are making an argument from ignorance fallacy. Just because one “can see no other way” to interpret something does not mean there is “no other way to interpret” something.

Yes, if a group of bishops does issue statements in opposition to the Pope, they are devoid of authority. We saw that with the unfortunate statements by the dubia cardinals or Archbishop Vigano for example. An opinion is an opinion that must yield to the teaching of the Church. But sometimes what we see as a “conflict” is nothing more than a proposal that runs counter to our own.

The other side of that coin is the attempt to turn a binding teaching into an “opinion.” For example, the attempts to undermine the CDF statement on blessing same-sex relationships by implying they were issued as a topic of discussion instead of being promulgated by the Pope. This is also factionalism.

If we want to claim to be faithful Catholics and fight to defend the Pope, or the moral teaching of the Church, then let us remember that we must obey the Pope and the bishops in communion with him when they intend to teach, whether ex cathedra or the ordinary magisterium.

It is not wrong, of course, to have a preference on how the Church teaches or disciplines… provided that the preference is in keeping with the teaching of the Church. But if the Pope and the bishops in communion with him should decide on a way to handle things that is different than we would like, then we cannot sacrifice submission to our preferences.

We should not hide behind excuses. Political factionalism is not the only kind of factionalism. The other side’s actions are not automatically worse than our own. If we choose to condemn others for what we are guilty of, we will be judged as well (cf.Matthew 7:2). 

So, we need to constantly be on guard. We all have faults we are blind to, even though we clearly see that fault in others. We all are tempted to excuse our own wrongdoing, even though it is what we condemn in others. But we need to be willing to change when the Church says, “we will do it this way,” and this way is not ours.

If we will not do this, then let us be aware that the enemy in the Church is us. 





(†) It is a satire of the 1812 statement by Oliver Hazard Perry to William Henry Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” 

(‡) Contrary to some claims, what the bishops will be discussing is whether to write a document on restoring the lost belief in the Real Presence. It is will not be about excommunicating President Biden.

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