Sunday, July 4, 2021

Ersatz Fidelity

Ersatz: adjective. Made or used as a (usually inferior) substitute for something else. German = compensation, replacement.

During the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI it was easier to confuse conservatism with Catholicism because the greatest evils of the era condemned by the Catholic Church also happened to go against the conservative ideology. Under the pontificate of Pope Francis, it has become easier to confuse liberalism with Catholicism because the greatest evils condemned by the Catholic Church also happened to go against the liberal ideology. It would be false to say that the Catholic Church moved “left” or “right” during these pontificates. The Church still is teaching what she has always taught. But certain groups of Catholics have fallen into error either by assuming that their ideology is correct, or that an ideology they oppose is wrong.

I have seen some Catholics protest in response that they are not at all political. But that is to miss the point. Our fidelity to the Church, as established by Christ with His teaching authority, must come above our defense of party X or condemnation of party Y. If we make excuses for one group that we would not make for another or if we condemn one group more harshly for the sins we shrug off when the other party does it, then we are partisan despite our protests. If we argue that “the stakes are too high” to speak out against the party we think of as less of a threat, then we are partisan despite our protests.

Think about it. When the Church speaks out on an evil, do we get angry if the bishops did not speak out at the same time on another issue? We should be aware that the bishops have condemned all the evils present in our country. It is our own ignorance and bias that leads us to only notice it when the side we think is less evil is condemned while ignoring it when our opponents are condemned.

We also display this fault when we say that the Church “neglected” issues we favor under certain Popes and got “back on track” under certain Popes. That sort of behavior guarantees that whoever succeeds Pope Francis will be viewed on a Left-Right axis. If the successor tends to be more like St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it will be seen as a “rejection” of Pope Francis. But if his successor is more like himself, it will be seen as a “rejection” of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. That’s entirely the wrong approach to take.

All three Popes—like their predecessors—have taught on all the moral issues of the era. If you read Pope Francis on abortion and same sex “marriage,” you will see his views are like his predecessors. If you read St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI on economic justice§, immigration and the environment, you will see they sound like Pope Francis. The narrative that we have “fallen away” or “finally gotten on track” does not show problems with the Popes or the Church. It shows problems with us.

In a similar way, when we place our bishops in political categories because of how they view the loss of the sense of Sacred over the Eucharist, it does not show a problem with the bishops. It shows a problem with us. Yes, our bishops can make errors in judgment and even choose to sin through commission or omission. But we cannot use that fact to reject them when they teach us.

We need to realize that our problem is ersatz fidelity. When we consistently get angry at one side and consistently get angry with the Church when she does not target that side, that once again shows that the problem in the Church is us. We justify why we cannot act against what the side we think of as less evil while refusing to consider the same arguments used against us by those who think the other side is less evil.

The result is we believe that the Catholic Church rests with us and we cannot be in the wrong when we interpret Church documents, or the words of Popes. If the Pope and the bishops in communion with him should ever speak out on an issue we think is “less important,” we immediately think that the Church is in danger of—or already is—error. That is not faithfulness to the Church. That is imposing our template on whether we will obey and calling those conditions “fidelity.”

This also applies to how we approach those bodies that the Pope gives authority. Canon law points out:

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.

So, if we try to argue that a document of the CDF lacks legitimacy because it was not signed by the Pope, we are also guilty of ersatz fidelity. The documents and decrees cannot be promulgated without the approval of the Pope.

Yes, some conservative Catholics claim to be “truly faithful” while picking and choosing which teachings to follow. But so do the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” or “Pope Francis Catholics” (a term I loathe) who interpret Pope Francis in a way that justifies what they were going to do anyway. Members of both groups believe that Pope Francis supports sexually active same sex relationships—despite all his rejections of it—and only disagree over whether that “support” is good. When these factions fight over this to claim that they alone are the faithful ones, I can only shake my head, because both are wrong¥.

I believe that if we want to be truly faithful, we will need to change our thinking. If we encounter a Pope or bishop acting in a way that we cannot square with what we think the Church should be, we should first ask if we were the ones who have somehow gone wrong. Otherwise, our supposed fidelity is exposed as a sham: We are not faithful in learning from the Church that teaches with Christ’s authority. We are creating a cheap substitute that merely bears a similar appearance.



[†] Falling into the ideology trap is not merely endorsing one party. We can also do this by bearing a special hostility for one party to the point that we ignore the other evils from the side we think of as less at fault.

[‡] We should note that these Catholics do testify against any defense through ignorance when they bring out a Church condemnation of their opponents’ position to condemn their party.

[§] For example, look at St. John Paul II in his Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

[¥] Some of the readers might wonder if I am overlooking the possibility that I might be guilty of this myself, I can only say, “Of course I am… but I try not to be.” I will admit that even when writing this piece, I have found my thoughts flitting over to the behavior of others I wish would listen. But, when I catch myself doing that, I try to go back and see if I have been guilty of the same. Of course, I have preferences on what should be done. But I believe we should be willing to consider why it is if the Church decides on a different path.

1 comment:

  1. For me it's another reminder or Spirit prompting - Back to first love. Prayer, Sacraments, Sacred Scripture, acts of love and mercy and work at on that huge tree trunk in my own eye. Faith, Hope and Charity and abiding repentance. Thank you for this reminder.