Showing posts with label "Catholic tribalism". Show all posts
Showing posts with label "Catholic tribalism". Show all posts

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Refusing Obedience is Disobedience

Introduction

In my morning Bible reading, I’m at the point of 2 Chronicles where Asa and Ahab, in two separate incidents, consider the prophets’ speaking a warning from God as treason on the part of the prophet. While Ahab was an evil king, Asa, up to that point was considered a good king who walked with God. It’s a reminder that such behavior is not just from the godless. Despite how we have lived up to this point, we can still fall away from right relation with God if we put our own preferences first. It’s not just this one instance. The New Testament tells us of the Pharisees—Men who desired to live holy lives in the way they thought best—found themselves in opposition to God. Not because they chose to spurn God. Rather, they thought that Jesus had to be wrong because what He taught was in conflict to what they thought it meant to be faithful.

I think these examples should stand as a warning for us. The Old Testament Kings responded to prophets warning them about their wrongdoing by imprisoning the prophets. The Pharisees responded to Jesus warning them about their wrongdoing by plotting to have Him executed. In losing sight of the fact that we can go wrong, we risk being opposed to God while believing we are in the right.

The Danger for Catholics

This is not something limited to Biblical times. Nor is it limited to one faction within the Church. The danger exists when one of us decides that he doesn’t like how the Church handles something. It might be a dissent associated with “liberalism” like sexual moral teachings. It might be a dissent associated with “conservatism” like social justice teachings. In both cases, the person believes the Church has gone wrong, and will remain wrong until she agrees with them.

Blessed John Henry Newman saw the danger, and described it this way [†]:

I will take one more instance. A man is converted to the Catholic Church from his admiration of its religious system, and his disgust with Protestantism. That admiration remains; but, after a time, he leaves his new faith, perhaps returns to his old. The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church’s infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines “which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught,” whereas it really meant “whatever the Church then or at any future time should teach.” Thus, he never had the indispensable and elementary faith of a Catholic, and was simply no subject for reception into the fold of the Church. This being the case, when the Immaculate Conception is defined, he feels that it is something more than he bargained for when he became a Catholic, and accordingly he gives up his religious profession. The world will say that he has lost his certitude of the divinity of the Catholic Faith, but he never had it.

John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates, & Co., 1870), 240.

We believe the Church is infallible because we believe she was established by Our Lord, given authority by Our Lord, and protected from error by Our Lord. The individual Churchman or layman can be sinful and be led into error. So, when the Pope teaches, we must decide. Do we believe that God protects him from teaching error? Or do we merely happen to agree with the Church up to a certain point and then reject whatever seems different?
 
Unfortunately, the lack of certitude seems to be growing. People who assumed that their personal view of the Church was all the Church could be, grew angry when the Church affirmed something they viewed as a political view or error. But, when the Church teaches, we are obliged to recognize her authority as from God. Dr. Peter Kreeft points out:
 

A “cafeteria Catholic” or a half Catholic or a 95 percent Catholic is a contradiction in terms. If the Catholic Church does not have the divine authority and infallibility she claims, then she is not half right or 95 percent right, but the most arrogant and blasphemous of all churches, a false prophet claiming “thus says the Lord” for mere human opinions. It must be either / or, as with Christ himself: if Christ is not God, as he claims, then he is not 95 percent right or half right or merely one of many good human prophets or teachers, but the most arrogant and blasphemous false prophet who ever lived. Just as a mere man who claims to be God is not a fairly good man but a very bad man, a merely human church that claims divine authority and infallibility is not a fairly good church but a very bad church.

 

The only honest reason to be a Christian is because you believe Christ’s claim to be God incarnate. The only honest reason to be a Catholic is because you believe the Church’s claim to be the divinely authorized Body of this Christ.

 

Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 105.


If the Church was created by Our Lord and given the authority to teach with His authority, then we must obey the Church teaching if we would obey Him (John 14:15, Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17). If one rejects Humanae Vitae while accepting Laudato Si, or if one rejects Laudato Si while accepting Humanae Vitae, one is a cafeteria Catholic.
 
Refusing Obedience is Disobedience
 
But, instead of accepting the authority of the Church to teach, people prefer to attack. They might attack the entire Church as “being against God,” invoking “mercy” and saying the Church is “judgmental.” Or, they might accuse the Pope and bishops of being in error. In both examples, the assumption is whatever they dislike is error to be rejected. Such a view makes the individual the judge of the Church—changing the Church from Mother and Teacher to Child and Student who must be taught by us.
 
But under such a view, it makes no sense to be a Catholic because it rejects (overtly, or through failing to think things through) what the Church professes to be. As Dr. Kreeft pointed out, if the Church claims to be what she is not, then the anti-Catholics are right and the Church is a monstrosity. But if the Church is what she claims to be, then we must give assent when she teaches, not offer explanations as to why we can ignore a teaching we dislike.
 
Be aware that this is not the fault of one faction. During the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it was easier to see this disobedience among “liberal Catholics.” Under the pontificate of Pope Francis, the dissent of “conservative Catholics” is more obvious. But both kinds of dissent were present in both cases—it was just harder to notice the dissent of conservatives against Popes before 2013, while after 2013 liberal dissent against the Pope does not get reported.
 
The thing to remember is, while some sins are more deadly than others, the deadliest sin is the one which sends an individual to hell. For the person who has no intention to use the “right” to abortion available in our country, the sin of abortion is not likely to damn him. But another sin could very well condemn him to hell. This is especially true if we try to hide our dissent by pretending the Church must be wrong.
 
Conclusion
 
If we do this, we are doing the same thing to the Church that the Old Testament kings did with the prophets and the Pharisees did with Our Lord. Instead of considering and obeying the source of authority, we get angry and attack the Church for not saying what we want to hear, or saying what we don’t want to hear. We can pretend that our disobedience is really obedience to a higher source, but Our Lord does not permit this. He said that the one who rejects the Church rejects Him, and the One who sent Him (Luke 10:16). 
 
People can try to muddy the waters and try to argue that they can ignore the Pope when He doesn’t teach infallibly (ex cathedra), but that ignores the fact that the binding ex cathedra definition grows out of the binding teaching of the ordinary magisterium. Our Lord has commanded us to obey His Church. This means we trust Him to protect His Church from error. If we refuse to trust the Church and her visible head, the Pope, it means we refuse to trust the Head of the Church—Our Lord. No matter how we twist history to make a private error or band behavior of a medieval Pope justify disobedience of a Pope who does none of that, Our Lord’s command cannot be evaded. If we think otherwise, we will answer for it.
 
____________________
 
[†] The problem seems to fit “cradle Catholics” as well, and should not be seen as a “convert only” problem. Blessed John Henry Newman’s observation should not be seen as indicting all converts, or only converts.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Hudge and Gudge Report

G.K. Chesterton, in his book What’s Wrong With the World (Chapter IX), offers an account of two men—Hudge and Gudge—who desire to help the poverty stricken. Hudge sets out to build massive housing blocks that meet the physical shelter needs but are deeply oppressive. Gudge objects to the oppressive nature of these apartments and says they lack the character of the former homes. As time progresses, Hudge begins to defend the worst parts of the apartments as good, while Gudge begins to proclaim that people were better off living in the slums. Finally they reach the extremes where Hudge thinks all people should be living in these apartments and Gudge believes that poverty is good for people.

I find the account to be useful in examining the growing divisions and rigidity of factions. But, there is always the danger of thinking that “the other guy” behaves like Hudge and Gudge while we are defenders of truth and right. The problem is, Hudge and Gudge also think the problem is with “the other guy,” while they have the real solution. If we’re blind to our own rigidity, refusing to consider where we go wrong, we are in danger of corrupting our ideals.

This is especially true when Christianity intersects with determining moral state policies. Because the major political factions tend to be right on some issues and wrong on others, we tend to gravitate towards those factions that agree with what we think are the most important issues. But as factions get more extreme, it is easier to downplay the issues where the other party is right.

For example, I know some Catholics who are appalled with life issues besides abortion and euthanasia. They insist that all Catholics recognize these issues as important. But growing more rigid, they begin to downplay the actual issues of abortion and euthanasia. Some have gotten to the point of being more outraged at Catholics who are “anti-abortion but not pro-life” than by Catholics who are literally pro-abortion. But, on the other side of that fight, Catholics who recognize the evil of abortion and euthanasia fall into the trap of going from recognizing that those two issues are the worst evils to thinking other life issues are “not important.” Both of them are wrong when they go from promoting some issues they feel are neglected to neglecting the issues they think are less important. It becomes dangerous for the soul if it leads these people to think that others who oppose a moral evil are partisan.

It doesn’t have to be about morality vs. politics either. It can also be, for example, the cause of liturgical wars. The Ordinary vs. Extraordinary form of Mass is a common battleground where some Catholics have become so involved in defending their own position that they refuse to consider the good from the other position. The defender of the Extraordinary Form is tempted to treat the Ordinary Form of the Mass as “clown masses” and other liturgical abuses. The defender of the Ordinary Form is tempted to view the Extraordinary Form as the haven for schismatics.

We need to realize that both of our major political factions are a mixture of some good and some evil. We need to realize that both forms of the Mass have good to offer the Church, and some weaknesses that need to be overcome. If we solidify to the point where we think that good is only found in our faction, but not the other, we risk embracing the evil of our own faction and rejecting the good in the other:  once we reach that stage, we’re giving assent to—or at least tolerating—evil in our faction, and rejecting good when it comes from another faction. That is incompatible with God’s teaching, but we will have blinded ourselves to our disobedience. It saddens me, for example, when I see some Catholics say, “We’ll never eliminate abortion so we should focus on other issues,” or that “pro-abortion politicians support policies that reduce the need for abortion.” This is Hudge and Gudge thinking. But so is thinking that says that “so long as abortion is legal, we can’t worry about other issues.”

The only way to escape this is to get rid of our Hudge and Gudge thinking. We need to recognize that our factions must be judged by Church teaching, and not that Church teaching is judged by our factions. If we believe that the Church stance on abortion and “same sex marriage” is proof the bishops are “Republican,” we’ve fallen into the Hudge and Gudge trap. If we think the Church opposition to the government position on immigrants is “liberal,” we have fallen into the Hudge and Gudge trap. 

If we profess to be faithful Catholics, the Church must be our guide into right and wrong, because we believe that God gave the Church His authority and protects her from error. If we consider the Church teaching as the way to form our political judgments, we might be able to support the good in our preferred political factions while opposing the evil. We might also seek to reform the system rather than to just tolerate the least possible evil as the best we can hope for.

This means we must reject our partisan rigidity and be always open to the Church calling us to a firm standard of good and evil, while also being open to different ideas of carrying them out. We never compromise on doing what is right or being faithful to the Church. But we can consider whether our factional preferences are in the wrong. If they are, we must choose the Church over our preferences or factional beliefs. And if our factional opponents are not wrong, we must stop treating them as if they were.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

It is Easy to Be Faithful When You Happen to Agree With the Church

One of the comments I often see in social media is the claim that confusion in the Church is unprecedented, and the fault of the Pope. I don’t believe either statement is true. I think the chaos is caused by the fact that Catholics under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, thinking it was easy to be faithful to Church teaching they never had any intention of violating, suddenly found Pope Francis reminding them that it was not enough to say they opposed wrongdoing. Pope Francis reminded them that the true interpretation of his predecessors required going out and bringing those wrongdoers back. What this reaction did was show us that some Catholics were not so much faithful to the Church, as they were in agreement over some issues—but once that agreement ended, so did the obedience. 

The Church exists as the means Our Lord established to bring the Good News to the world, teaching them to live according to His teaching (Matthew 28:19-20). That teaching will always obligate us to choose between God and our own desires. If we reject Church teaching because we think it too liberal or too conservative, we are placing our political beliefs above the Church. If we reject Church teaching because it prohibits us from doing something we want to do, we are placing our desires above the Church. But since God made obedience to the Church necessary (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17), rejecting the Church is necessarily rejecting Him.

The pontificate of Pope Francis seems to bring out what was less visible under his predecessors. With St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it was easy to focus on their teachings on sexual morality. Catholics who were enthusiastic about the sanctity of marriage and either intended to live according to Church teaching once they did marry, or intended to continue living according to Church teaching if they were already married. But when they spoke about other issues—social justice, the environment, etc., things were different.  Often these views went against the preferred political platforms. In such cases, Catholics tended to downplay what they taught as “opinion” or worried that perhaps these Popes were softening. 

Of course things cut both ways, and the Catholic who is enthusiastic about social justice and the environment while downplaying the Right to Life and sexual morality is behaving in the same way. While the conservative Catholic might misapply “prudential judgment” to downplay a teaching as optional, the liberal might misapply “who am I to judge?” to claim Church teaching was being changed. Indeed, when the Pope affirmed traditional teaching on morality, these Catholics complained he was “moving to the right.”

In both cases, the obedience or disobedience to a Pope exists only as long as the Pope appears in relationship to what they like. Once he steps outside of their view of what the Pope and the Church should be, the obedience vanishes, and undermining begins. People previously supporting a Pope begin to complain that he’s moving to the left/right, while those who were disobedient before think he is finally moving in the right direction.

It is not my intent to say all Catholics behave this way, and do so out of bad will. Rather I hope to warn people that this is a temptation all Catholics will face. We all have preferences on the way things should be. But being a Catholic requires that we listen to the Church and amend out behavior when we run afoul of her teachings. If we think that the Pope’s reminder is moving from/towards error, that’s a sign that we let our preferences interfere with hearing the Church.

If we accept that, when the Church teaches, we must give our assent, and if we trust God will protect His Church from falling into error, then we can trust that a Pope who reminds us that our moral obligation goes beyond our preferred topics of morality is not pushing from error.

This means giving up the left/right political spectrum of judging the Church, and turning to a right/wrong system of judging the world. We tend to view the Life issues as conservative and the social justice and environmental issues as liberal. Viewed that way, the Church appears to veer off in random directions. But when we think of it as having obligations in both issues, we can see that the Church does not change. Her positions are consistent. Rather it is our political theories which are not consistent with our Christian calling.

Usually, at this point, someone wonders if this is a call for a “seamless garment” where all issues are given equal weight. No, I don’t hold to that. What I hold is we cannot sacrifice one Church teaching, as if it were of no consequence, in the hopes that another might be promoted. If we say the Church should stop “obsessing” over immigrants while abortion is legal, that is sacrificing our moral obligation on how to treat the sojourner in our midst. If we are the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16), we are supposed to influence the people of the world to turn to Christ, and change society so it points in the way we must go.

If we would do this, we must be pointing in that direction ourselves. Otherwise we are blind guides (Matthew 15:14), leading others into a pit. So, we must accept the authority of the Church to bind and loose, and stop judging the Church by what we think best, being faithful when we agree and unfaithful when we disagree. Otherwise, we fail in our task and calling as Christians.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

What We've REALLY Lost

Introduction

I encounter some Catholics who tell me we’ve lost a lot since we stopped using Latin, stopped using ad orientem, stopped using Communion on the tongue, stopped using the 1962 Missal. Other Catholics tell me we’ve lost a lot since Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI “betrayed” the Second Vatican Council. Both groups tell me that, to get back on track, the Church needs to recover what they think is important—that the Church fell into error when it went against what they think best.

The problem I have with this is: the arguments seem to be based on the post hoc fallacy. X happened, then Y happened. Therefore X caused Y. But before we can accept that, we have to prove that X caused Y, not accept it as true. If there are other factors that explain Y better than X, It is wrong to blame X. For example, Lateran Council V (1512-1517) preceded the Protestant Revolt. Does that mean Lateran V caused the Reformation? Of course not. The roots of the problem preceded the Council, and would have happened regardless of whether Lateran V happened or not.

What the Problem Isn't

I’m inclined to think that the current crises in the Church have a much broader set of causes that can be traced back at least 70 years, perhaps longer. For example, the horrors caused by totalitarian governments; the numbers of people killed in WWII who might have served the Church in clerical, religious or lay roles; the unusually high numbers of men entering the seminaries after WWII—perhaps some of them not really suited for ordination; the increased efforts among American Catholics to become socially accepted, which sometimes meant downplaying their faith; the development of The Pill, which changed the view of sex to look at fertility as a burden; the growing mistrust of authority in the 1950s (especially after what’s commonly known as “The Red Scare”) and 1960s (Vietnam); the heavy handed attitude some members in the Curia used to deal with new ideas; and so on. While any of these factors alone would not explain the widespread revolt in the Church, combined they do show a problem that was in place long before the Missal of 1970 or even the Second Vatican Council.

I think what really happened was the disruptive factors influenced all sections of life in the West, including the Church. There was a rebellion against all that had been respected and revered, and I think society simply couldn’t adapt to this rejection (I think the movie, Paul VI: The Pope in the Tempest did a good job in capturing this sense of chaos). No doubt, changes in Church discipline were jarring to some people and, combined with the general rebellion going on at the same time, it would have been easy to make that post hoc fallacy. However, I suspect this widespread rejection would have happened whether Vatican II happened or not.

As for the Catholics who claim that Popes after St. John XXIII “betrayed” the Council, it looks more like Catholics who were swept up in the spirit of rebellion sweeping the world were seizing upon selective portions of Church teaching to justify what they wanted to do anyway. The “Spirit of Vatican II” has nothing to do with what the actual documents of Vatican II actually said, after all. Among these Catholics, there was a false belief that the Church could change teachings they didn’t like, wrongly thinking the Church could go from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” When the Church refused to go along, it was labeled “a betrayal,” based on the false assumption that everything was up for grabs.

What the Problem Is

That being said, I think we have lost some things to the detriment of the Church. However, these things are not what critics of the Church think. Rather what we have lost are attitudes found in the saints, but absent among many Catholics today.  When I look at the writings of saints who faced down crises over the centuries, I see men and women who loved Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and loved the Bride of Christ, His Church, living their lives in love and obedience. In doing so, they accomplished many things that spread the faith.

I think we have lost that sense of obedience. The Church has always insisted that when the Pope and bishops in communion with him taught, we were bound to give assent. But in modern times, liberal Catholics reject Humanae Vitae and conservative Catholics reject Laudato Si. False theologies have been developed justifying this rejection, mainly by denying that it is authoritative, but the root is Church teaching goes in a direction Catholics do not want it to go, and think the Church must be making a non-binding (and therefore, error-prone) statement, instead of a binding teaching. It is easier for them to believe that then to believe the possibility that they are living in opposition to God. Of course, both sides are happy to point to the disobedience of the other side, while thinking their own behavior justified.

We’ve also seen a loss of respect for the office of the successors of the Apostles. The Pope is treated disrespectfully, as if respect is only due him when he acts in the way the Church approves. The problem is, obedience and respect to the Church is part of the teaching of Christ, passed on to the Apostles. We can start with John 14:15, where Our Lord tells the disciples that to love Him is to keep His commandments. We can look also at Matthew 7, where Our Lord says:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’  (Matthew 7:21–23).

Obedience to His teachings is mandatory. So, when we look at Matthew 16:18-19 and 18:18, we see Our Lord giving authority to His Church, with the promise to protect her, and if we look at Luke 10:16 and Matthew 18:17, we see that Our Lord sees rejecting the teaching of the Church as a rejection of Him. When we consider rejecting a disliked Church teaching, we should consider the consequences.

Conclusion: Turning Back Before It Is Too late

When I look at what shows up on the internet, I see contempt and anger. I see Catholics seem willing to tear down the Church if the Church does not act as they think best. These Catholics claim to be acting to defend the Church, but I don’t see the unconditional love and obedience the saints had.

I think of this every time I see a Catholic calling for a return to the way things were in the past. If we can just go back to the Latin Mass, if we can just return to ad orientem. I think of this every time I see a Catholic calling for the Church to abandon her teachings to bring in more people. I don’t see unconditional love here. I see a case of, “I will only love you if you do as I want.” I don’t doubt they think they are serving the Church like the saints did, but I believe they are misguided. When people tell me that all we need to do is to “go back” to the practices of an earlier era of the Church, or that we need to “move forward” to get with the times, I find myself wondering—perhaps these, and not the current crop of shepherds, that harm the Church.

If we really want to save the Church, perhaps it is time we start by looking into our own hearts and asking how we measure up to what God wants us to be. Do we love God, and entrust His Church to Him? Or are we constantly watching for another Catholic to do something we disagree with, so we can denounce him? The former is the attitude of the saints, and it is the attitude we need to pray for. The latter may result in our damnation if we do not repent.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Do We Understand? Or Do We Assume?

Introduction

Pope Francis recently issued some words of wisdom about the division of ideology and the loss of respect. These divisions are causing some Catholics to savage others they disagree with. The general assumption is that a disagreement on how one must act is proof that the “other side” is either ignorant or malicious in not choosing the accuser’s view. The buzzwords line up with the person’s ideology, and the accusations assume that the other side embraces the worst positions for the worst reasons.

Assuming the Worst, Without Cause

Human beings, because of their flawed nature, are prone to sin. So it is quite understandable to see people willfully choosing evil, or making morally bad choices with lesser levels of intention. We can’t ignore that. We’re called to reach out to sinners and bring them back to the truth. The problem is, accusers are assuming the fact that there is a disagreement as proof being an enemy of al that is good and decent. But, when one looks at both sides, they are actually making the same arguments, and merely plugging in different buzzwords. A supporter of Trump might assume most or all of those who oppose him must support abortion, Islamic terrorism, and so-called same sex marriage, even if the person accused supports none of them. Likewise, the opponent of Trump might assume most or all who voted for him support racism, fascism, and letting the rich prosper at the expense of the poor.

The problem is, many of these accused Catholics who thought differently on how to vote, or on what the worst evils were, used the same reasoning to reach different conclusions. For example, I’ve seen them agonize over whether they should vote for what they saw as the least offensive choice among the two major candidates, knowing both were bad, or vote for someone else, risking the possibility of the worst choice getting in. In doing so, some of them might have been ignorant of Church teaching, and made bad decisions. Others may have known of and rejected Church teaching. But not all of them did so. The result is, many are rashly judged as holding a position they actually reject.

It doesn’t have to be about Trump either (He’s just, currently, the most controversial issue). Consider the liturgical wars. Some who prefer the way of the 1962 Missal believe all who disagree are heretics. Some who prefer the current Form of the Mass are schismatics. Some are—but not all. Again, those who do not are being rashly judged, accused of directly willing whatever bad effects come.

The Root of the Problem

I think there are two things people don’t ask: What the actual Church teaching permits, and what the person we disagree with actually thinks. If we don’t know both, we risk falsely accusing a person of supporting something he actually rejects. Even if it turns out he does support a wrong position, our accusation is merely a coincidence with no basis behind it.

Knowing what the Church actually teaches on a subject is important, because we have both the actual stated teaching, and the application based on conditions. For example, the Church speaks on the obligation to care for those in need. She does not define how we must vote, or what political platform we must endorse in order to meet that obligation. Provided we don’t try to “play the Pharisee” and evade our obligations under a disguise of piety, we can choose different ways to carry it out. In this case, it would be rash judgment to assume the person who chose a different way, while trying to be faithful, is ignoring Church teaching.

Likewise, when it comes to addressing the issue of sinners in the Church and reconciliation, we need to remember that the clergy need to not only assess the fact that something is intrinsically evil, but assess the intentions and circumstances that leads to our committing these sins. Why does the Church tolerate what we think is horrible? It’s a good question—and maybe we need to investigate, not assuming that our not finding an answer means there is none to be found.

The point is, if we don’t understand the fullness of the Church teaching, or lack of understanding may lead us to see sin where there is none, or vice versa. We may think the Church is too harsh or too lenient, when she is exactly right. We may think others are guilty when they innocent, or think they are innocent when they are guilty.

Our task is not done when we do understand the fullness of Church teaching. We have to also understand what the person holds before we accuse him of acting against it. Take, for example, the case of Pope Francis. If someone studies what he has to say—not the media accounts—you can see how close he is to the teaching of his predecessors. Personally, I found his harshest denunciations of evils in the practice of Capitalism in Evangelii Gaudium sound remarkably similar to the words of Pope Pius XI, or St. John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. I find he is no less firm in opposing the sexual sins than his predecessors. But his critics take snippets of quotes, given without context, and assume he intends to overthrow the Church teaching. But when one reads what he says in context, it is clear that the fault lies with his accusers.

On the other hand, some do get things wrong. They either reject Church teaching, or they wrongly think they are following. We still need to understand their position. Otherwise, how will we correct them? Nobody likes to be accused of holding a position they actually reject. If we falsely accuse them of rejecting Church teaching, or misrepresent their position, we will not show them the right path. Instead we’ll be fighting the wrong battle.

Conclusion

We need to realize that making false accusations against others will not bring about peace and conversion. As Christians, we have an obligation to seek out the truth and act on it. But in these days of instant communication of misinformation, we’ve stopped seeking and started assuming. We assume we can’t go wrong, but others can. And so we calumniate many of them by accusing them of actions and motives they do not hold to. That has to stop. By acting that way, we become self-righteous and we drive others away.

Our Lord had strong words to the Scribes and Pharisees for behaving this way. How much stronger will they be when directed towards us for knowing His teaching, but not living it?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Prudential Judgment? Misunderstanding? Partisanship? Willful Rejection? A Reflection

20 You sit and speak against your brother, 

slandering your mother’s son. 

21 When you do these things should I be silent? 

Do you think that I am like you? 

I accuse you, I lay out the matter before your eyes. (Psalm 50:20–21).

Four Forms of Disagreement

When people disagree on Facebook or other social media, they seem to do so in one of four ways: 

  1. Prudential Judgment recognizes that two Catholics, who both strive follow Catholic teaching, might reach different conclusions on how to best carry out that teaching while living in the world. Provided that neither of these Catholics are seeking to evade Church teaching to justify what they want to do anyway, we have no right accusing one of error. There are different ways of engaging the world, including political approaches, after all. 
  2. A person can be mistaken but in good faith about what Church teaching involves. Such people need to be corrected of course, but they need to be corrected gently (Proverbs 15:1). People recognize when they are being treated unjustly, and resent it. In resenting it, they might turn away from the truth, thinking our bad behavior is a sign of our being in the wrong. That would be false, but many in the world do reason this way. 
  3. There is also the attitude of partisanship, where we treat a disagreement with our political views as if we were rejecting Church teaching on a subject. Under this attitude, a person who votes for X, or disagrees with voting for Y, is considered to be openly rejecting the Catholic faith. But in reality, this person is simply disagreeing with our political views, but not the Church teaching, and we are in the wrong for judging them. 
  4. Finally, we have a case a person rejects the Church teaching in favor of a political teaching, saying if the Church disagrees with them the Church is wrong. In this case, the person is doing wrong, for whatever reason. The Church does have the authority to speak out on matters of faith and morals, and this includes when a nation or a political movement goes wrong. For a person to reject Church teaching as “intruding into politics” would be to give to Caesar what is God’s (cf. Matthew 22:21). 
Or, in short, we can describe these situations as: Neither is wrong, the other is wrong but in good faith, we are wrong, our opponent is wrong.

Discerning Between These Forms to do the Right Thing

Unfortunately, combox warriors have a bad habit of assuming the first three things are actually the fourth. Disagreement must be rejection of Church teaching, because we can’t possibly be wrong. The problem is, this is the kind of judgment our Lord condemned in Matthew 7:1. We’re assuming that any disagreement with how we see the world is rejecting truth itself, and assuming that rejection is done willfully. But in only one of these four cases is this true. That means in three of these cases, we are judging rashly, and committing calumny if we accuse them.

To avoid these sins, we have an obligation to discern what they intend to say, and what the Church herself teaches on the subject. Discernment, in this case, does not mean our personal reading of these things, and judging others in light of our interpretation. It means we make sure we understand what troubles us, and make certain it ought to trouble us before taking action. Then we have to make certain our reaction is just and chartable. As St. Francis de Sales as says:

Although S. Paul calls the Galatians “foolish,” and withstood S. Peter “to the face,” is that any reason why we should sit in judgment on nations, censure and abuse our superiors? We are not so many S. Pauls! But bitter, sharp, hasty men not unfrequently give way to their own tempers and dislikes under the cloak of zeal, and are consumed of their own fire, falsely calling it from heaven. On one side an ambitious man would fain have us believe that he only seeks the mitre out of zeal for souls; on the other a harsh censor bids us accept his slanders and backbiting as the utterance of a zealous mind.

 

Francis de Sales, Of the Love of God, trans. H. L. Sidney Lear (London: Rivingtons, 1888), 351.

This is a reasonable warning. The fact that St. Paul could rebuke the Galatians or offer correction to St. Peter is not permission for us to behave rudely to those we think are doing wrong. More often than not there is a risk of responding in sinful anger, confusing it with virtue. So, we have three obligations:

  1. To make sure we understand the person who offends us
  2. To make sure we understand the teaching we think he/she goes against
  3. To make sure any response we make is compatible with Our Lord’s commandments to show love and mercy

If we fail in any of these obligations, we behave unjustly, quite possibly causing harm. If we’re wrong about what a person holds, or wrong about what the Church holds, or wrong about confusing our ideology with the Catholic obligations, we condemn the other unjustly. If we are right, but react without love or mercy, we have done wrong, and quite possibly driven a person away from accepting grace.

Conclusion

As always, it is not my intent to point fingers at any individual, nor to insinuate their guilt. Rather I hope to point out a dangerous attitude showing up in disputes between Catholics on how we should behave. Yes, we need to correct the sinner. But it seems that lately we are assuming guilt, rather than asking whether our assumptions are correct. Even when we are correct, there is a growing habit to behave in a vicious way. We need to stop falsely judging those who have not done wrong, and when we correct those who do wrong, we must correct in charity. Otherwise, people might be driven away from the Catholic faith because of our own behavior, not that of the person we disagree with.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

When Catholics Judge Each Other With Anti-Catholic Mindsets

A good analysis of what leads anti-Catholics to believe and repeat bizarre and false rumors about the Catholic Church described it as a combination of ignorance about what the Catholic Church actually teaches and did throughout history, and a willingness to believe the Catholic Church was capable and willing to do these terrible things. So long as they have these two traits, they are willing to spread the most vile falsehoods about us.

Unfortunately, that mindset seems present among many Catholics infighting today. It’s not limited to one faction, but it seems to affect Catholics across the spectrum. The mindset leads them to view other Catholics who seek to follow the faith as openly supporting evil because they are ignorant about what Catholics they dislike hold, and believe them capable of supporting terrible things.

So we see radical traditionalists willing to believe the Pope supports heresy when he calls for mercy. We see “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics willing to believe that Catholics who insist on the moral teachings of the Church are merciless. We see anti-Trump Catholics willing to believe that Catholics who voted for him supports his actions that are at odds with the Catholic faith. We see Catholics who voted for Trump assume those who couldn’t vote for him in good conscience must support evils contrary to the teaching of the Church. I could go on with these dualistic examples, but that would get boring—and long.

The point is, in each of these cases, the Catholic infighting involves ignorance of what those they disagree with actually hold, and a belief those they disagree with are willing to support these things. Meanwhile the accused resents the accusation. In many cases they do not support the evils, but instead are either following a Church teaching but have a different view of how to apply it, or are mistaken about what the Church holds and do wrong while thinking it is right.

Yes, people can be in error about what the Church teaches, and need to be corrected. Yes, some Catholics might unfortunately support things contrary to the Catholic faith, and need to be corrected. But if the person who decides to correct does so with the assumption that those who disagree with our prudential judgment or are in error do so out of malice will not bring them out of error. It won’t evangelize them, but we’ll probably lead them to think we’re the one in error

And if they’re not supporting an evil, our accusing them of doing so is rash judgment, or maybe even calumny.

So we have an obligation. We have to understand what they actually hold, to make sure they need correction before we act. If they do, we have to do so in charity and mercy, not harshness. But if they don’t, then we’re just being factional and judgmental, and we will have to answer for that and the harm it caused in the final judgment.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Lest Factionalism Blind: Reflections on Divisions

Catholics are called to be the light of the world and the city on a hill—in other words a visible beacon that shows others the way. Yet, increasingly, Catholics seem willing to adopt the tactics of the world to promote their position and savage their enemies. If something makes their enemy look bad, it gets repeated, even if they have not made certain it is true, or worse, they know it is false. The problem is, we are forbidden to do this. We are called to speak truthfully and with charity. This means we must investigate the claims alleged before we repeat them online. If we find them to be false, or doubtful, we must not spread them as if they were true.

It doesn’t even have to be malicious calumny. All too often, people nowadays are willing to believe the worst about those who hold a different view about how to best be faithful to God and His Church, or about someone with a different political ideology. From that point of departure, they are willing to spread the accusations they hear without checking if they are true.

A growing number of Catholics are willing to believe that the Pope is teaching error because of the false accusations that have been formed by people misrepresenting his teaching. Never mind the fact that transcripts and interviews show he did not say what the headline quotes scream. These Catholics still believe the Pope intends to change Church teaching, despite the numerous times he has said exactly the opposite of what they accuse him of. What I find notable is the fact that people have been constantly been playing this game with politicians, making all sorts of accusations without basis—and that’s the problem. 

When the Pope teaches, or when the bishops teach in communion with the Pope, we are required to give assent. This isn’t a political opinion or a party plank. It is a matter of the successors to the apostles binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). But if we treat the Pope like a politician, especially if we treat him like a politician we despise, we are rejecting God when we reject the Church (Luke 10:16). This is something the Church has taught long before the current system of nation-states, and it will be taught long after they fade away. Since the Catholic faith requires us to accept that God protects His Church from teaching error in matters of faith and morals, we can either accept it as true, or we can deny that the Catholic Church teaches truly. But if we deny it, our relationship with God and His Church is damaged (Matthew 18:17).

If we want to escape the trap of being alienated from God and His Church, we need to investigate whether things are as we think they are—both in the matter of whether a Pope or bishop actually said what foes accuse them of saying, and in the matter of whether we have properly understood Church teaching. I’m not talking about comparing what we think the Pope said with what we think a past writing of the Church said to determine whether he is “orthodox” or not. I’m talking about investigating what the Pope said, and how it was intended on one hand, and whether we actually understand the Church teaching we think he is at odds with. Once more, if we accept God’s promise on protecting the Church from teaching error, then we must accept that He protects the Church just as much today as in any other era of the Church.

So, we cannot treat the Church teaching and Church teachers like politics and politicians. But if we just stop there, we’re still doing wrong. Why? Because the obligation to speak the truth in charity does not stop at the level of the Church. You might think one party or politician is wonderful, while another is a wrong. But you cannot treat the despised politician or party as if God’s commandments on truth were set aside. Even when they do wrong, our obligation to do right continues. That means we cannot commit rash judgment or calumny against them, even if the false story generates enough outrage that we can replace a hated politician with a preferred one. We may not do evil so good may come from it.

I would say that our problem is threefold. First, that we treat those we oppose as enemies, rather than children of God, who also need salvation. Second, that we have sinned against charity and truth by spreading hurtful stories against those we see as enemies without determining if they are true or, worse, spreading them knowing they are false. Third, that we treat the magisterium of the Church as enemies. 

Lest factionalism blind us to our sins, we need to undo this threefold problem. We must stop thinking of those we oppose as enemies. Yes, some people may have bad ideas, even harmful ideas. But God does not desire the death of the sinner (Ezekiel 18:23), but that they turn from their wickedness. That means correcting them with charity, lest our bad behavior leads them to think we are the evil ones. It means we cannot adopt the tactic that the ends justify the means in the hope we can drive those we oppose from power. Finally it means that when the Pope and bishops in communion teach, we cannot treat this teaching—even in the ordinary magisterium (Canon 752-754)—as if it were a party platform held by an enemy.

If we can keep these things in our heart, and practice them, we can be God’s instruments in reaching out to those who are in error. If we refuse to change our behavior, we are part of the problem, and at the final judgment, we will have to answer for it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Thoughts on Going Beyond Self-Imposed Limits

The Pope has inspired many to rethink mercy. Where once they might have spoke in terms of sharp denunciations, they now try to show compassion and understanding. However, this behavior often seems limited to people who do wrong they can deal with, but not a wrong which so grossly offends that particular Christian. What I mean by this is each of us seems to have a limit where we think, “There’s no valid reason anybody could reach this position in good faith, so that person must be acting as an enemy to the faith.” 

For example, I’m tempted with this way of thinking when I encounter the radical traditionalist. I believe that God’s promises and Church teaching reject the view that a Pope or approved Council can teach error, and the accusations against the Church in the name of “faithfulness” are nothing more than dissent. As a result, I find it more challenging to respond in patience to the Catholic who attacks the Church in the name of being a “faithful Catholic.” But since God does not desire the death of the sinner, but his salvation (Ezekiel 18:23), so I recognize that my own desires that they be punished are not compatible with God’s desires. Such people may face God's judgment if they do not repent, but I am not permitted to write them off.

Others may have different limits. I have seen some deal with patience and compassion when it comes to people who have trouble with or reject Church teaching on sexual morality, but show none to people who have trouble with or reject Church teaching on social justice. I’ve seen others show patience with people who have trouble with social justice, but none with people who have trouble with the teachings of sexual morality. In both cases, people are willing to accuse each other of hypocrisy.

But look at what passes for dialogue: Snowflake. Anti-abortion but not pro-life. Ultramontane. Schismatic. Trumpkin. Hillary Supporter. These are not the words of reaching out with compassion to those in need of salvation. These are words condemning those who go beyond the sins we are willing to tolerate. Our Lord issued stinging rebukes at times. St. Paul strongly rebuked St. Peter. The Pope issues strong critiques at times. But these were done out of love, not hatred. In comparison, for most of us, our “strong critiques” are little more than a verbal raised middle finger directed at our foes.

The temptation is to think of ourselves as emulating the prophets or St. Paul in rebuking the sinner but, if we look deeper into our own hearts, we might find this is a case of being angry at a person who does wrong in an area we are unwilling to forgive. When that happens, perhaps it is time to look at what makes us angry, and whether our offense at sin has reached the level of sinful anger (Ephesians 4:26).

It is true there are obstinate, abusive people. Sometimes we do have to walk away from insulting attacks, block people on social media who only insult, and so on. But remember this. St. Paul did shake out the dust from his garments on some occasions (Acts 18:6), but he also expressed a desire that his people be saved, almost to the point of being cut off himself for them (Romans 9:3). That shows great love for those who have gone wrong. Yet, how many of us feel that way for those who oppose us? How many are all too quick to respond in hostility, giving no witness to the words we profess to believe?

I believe the Holy Father is showing us Our Lord’s way when we have forgotten it. We’ve misapplied the teachings of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI as a laundry list of who we can shun. But Pope Francis reminds us that these teachings on what we must not do shows us who we must reach out to, bringing them back to Our Lord. So long as we have self-imposed limits on where our outreach stops, we’ve failed in our evangelizing.

Obviously, we can’t turn off our animosities like a switch. I suspect many of us got to where we are because of years of conflicts, dealing with abusive attacks against us. But we need to reach out to all with compassion. We can’t respond in kind to those we think deserve it.

So, maybe as a first step, we need to pray for the grace to love those we think are our worst enemies.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Are We Going to be Widowers in the Next Age?

There’s an old adage out there that, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” I remember it being cited back in my Steubenville days when professors used it to demonstrate how Christians who compromised and tried to match the values of today would be left bereft when the values of the world changed. That’s quite true, but I find myself wondering whether it could be applied to more than the values of the world.

As I was praying this morning, I thought of the conflicts out there within the Church. People who grew so accustomed to how the Church operated in one time became alienated when the Church decided changes were necessary. Catholics “married” to the disciplines and policies of the Church before Vatican II were alienated by the disciplines and policies of the Church after Vatican II. Some of those who “married” the approach of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI felt “widowed” under the pontificate of Pope Francis. And then I thought of the future of the Church. I watched the usual suspects battle on Facebook and Twitter. There were the usual knee jerk comments of “#answerthedubia” and “Cardinal Burke is a traitor.” And I wondered—how wedded to a certain mindset might we be without realizing it? 

For example, let us imagine a time when Pope Francis’ pontificate ends (whether by death or by renouncing his office). Let’s imagine the conclave selects Cardinal Burke or a likeminded cardinal to be the next Pope. Some of my readers will no doubt think, “Please God, let this happen!” Others will think, “God Forbid!” The problem is, both reactions are wedded to preferring a certain age. The Church can change disciplines and practices for the good of the Church as a Pope sees fit. So it is possible that the successor of Pope Francis will make some changes to the way Pope Francis does things now. The question each Catholic needs to ask is, Will I respond to these changes with obedience?

To give a personal example, I prefer the Ordinary Form of the Mass properly celebrated, and I don’t think the Extraordinary Form is as wonderful as its proponents claim. But, if the next Pope were to decide, “The Latin Rite will go back to the 1962 Order of the Mass,” I would do my best to accept it. I might grumble over getting used to the changes, but I recognize the Pope has the right to make such a decision. This would not be a mindless acceptance of whatever the Pope said. This would be a recognition of what the Church teaches about the authority of the Pope, trusting God to protect the Church from error. I certainly pray I would accept the authority of such a Pope without attacking him or trying to undermine him.

I think this is what we all need to consider. Will we be faithful to the Church, no matter who leads it? Will we be obedient to the Pope, even if he deems that a discipline or practice we are comfortable with needs to change? If we will not, we’re not faithful to Christ and His Church, but wedded to a preferred age in the Church. In that case we will be widowed when that preference changes.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Thoughts on Sinful Anger

Then the Lord said to Cain: Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it. (Genesis: 4:6–7)


 

21 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:21–22)


___________________________

When I stopped and gazed intently,

I saw muddy people in that mire,

all naked and with indignant looks.

They struck one another not just with hands,

but with heads and with chests and with feet,

tearing each other with their teeth, bit by bit.

My good master said: “Son, now see

the souls of those who are defeated by anger…

 

 The Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Florentine by Birth, but Not by Character: Canticle One, Inferno, trans. Tom Simone (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2007), 70.

If one looks at recent disputes on Facebook or Twitter, it’s clear that they are filled with anger. Disagreements are now seen as affronts that must be avenged. Insults and attempts to destroy reputations are common. If it were just the worldly who did this it would be bad enough, and show us we have a lot of work to do evangelizing. But it seems all too often the ones who are savaging each other are those who profess a belief in Christianity. Where Tertullian could once write that pagans marveled and said to look and see how Christians loved one another, the modern worldly people can marvel and say how we behave no differently than them despite our claims.

This is not just a byproduct of refuting error a little too passionately. This is an example of Christians bearing witness to how we preach but do not practice, or as Pope Francis put it, "So many Catholics are like this and they scandalize. How many times have we heard—all of us, in our neighborhood and in other places—'But to be a Catholic like that one, it would be better to be an atheist.’ That is the scandal. It destroys you, it throws you down.”

Our Lord warned us of sinful anger, but we prefer to think of our own anger as “justified” and only the anger of others as being sinful. This is the danger of this generation. WE are crusaders for a righteous cause. THEY are vicious people. We believe God is angry at others, not us personally. But the problem is, our anger leads us to view those we are at odds with as enemies to be crushed, not as fellow sinners just as much in need of mercy as we are. Their sins may be different from ours, but we should not think that difference makes us superior. The deadliest sin is the mortal sin that sends us to hell. If we do not commit adultery, but instead we commit calumny, we endanger our souls just as much as the divorced and remarried we rage against.

We need to remember that we need salvation and we have a warning—that God will forgive us to the extent that we forgive those who wrong us. If we are determined to savage each other, how will we forgive each other. And if we won’t forgive each other, how will God forgive us?

Pope Francis has made it the mission of his pontificate to spread Mercy throughout the world. This means both making God’s mercy known to the world—urging them to accept it—and it means giving it to others if it we would receive it. But too often we think we will give mercy when they are as good as us, not before. Thus we become a scandal that prevents others from entering the Kingdom of Heaven while refusing to enter ourselves.

Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves how we got here. How did we go from loving others to treating them as scum to be destroyed? I think each person will find the path to be different. But I suspect the path will show we allowed ourselves to forget the other person is a person first, no matter how abhorrent their views might be to us. I think we allow our revulsion with wrong views to become revulsion towards a person

But once we do reach that stage, we tend to think the obligation to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) can be set aside. We accuse (or imply) they knowingly holding evil positions out of malice. We don’t consider the possibility of the other being sincerely in error and needing gentle correction, or of being faithful but simply disagreeing with us (not the Church) on how to best be faithful Catholics. Unfortunately that leads to the hurling of mutual anathemas against each other on Facebook, and people divide into irreconcilable factions, each convinced the other is going to hell, and never considering our own possibility of winding up there.

Just as each of us forged our own path to get to this point, each of us will have to overcome individual obstacles (with God’s grace of course) to get back. We’ll have to consider what sets us off, what weaknesses we have, and keep them in mind when we deal with things that offend us. We should consider the fact that, if we cannot even forgive someone who slights us, how will we be able to emulate the martyrs who forgave their killers? And if we cannot forgive those who trespass against us, how can we expect God to forgive us?

Friday, February 10, 2017

Non Serviam, 2017 Style?

A troubling trend that shows political ideology leading to dissent from Church teaching is not limited to one faction is the contempt directed against the Pope and bishops over their reaffirmation of the Catholic moral obligation to help the immigrant and the refugee. Instead of listening to those entrusted with binding and loosing, we’re seeing some Catholics respond as if they were patronizingly speaking to a grossly uneducated person giving an unwelcome opinion. The bishops get lectures on what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote and what the Catechism says about the right of governments to make decisions on these matters. But the bishops are not offering their personal opinions here. They are citing Church teaching to say that the disputed policy does not fulfill our obligation to help those in need. Since they are teaching, then we are bound to listen…

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.

 

Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247.

What we are seeing is a continuation of the old American Catholic antics where factions within the Church treat Church teaching as a biased and uninformed opinion “proving” the bishops must be “liberal.” Ironically, this faction spent the last 8 years denouncing another faction within the Church which accused the bishops as being “the Republican Party at Prayer” because they reaffirmed the Catholic teaching on life and sexual morality.

It leads me to ponder this point—what kind of witness to we leave when we condemn others for not following Church teaching while refusing to follow it ourselves when it goes against our political beliefs? It is one thing to (charitably) disagree among ourselves on the best way to follow Church teaching when the Church teaches, “We must do X; we must not do Y.” But when the bishops reaffirm that a political policy goes against the prohibition on doing Y, supporting Y is not a difference of opinion but a rejection of the authority of the Church—and Our Lord is quite clear that this rejection is a rejection of Him (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17-18).

If we follow Church teaching only when it matches what we want to do anyway, rejecting it when it doesn’t, we are not obeying the Church and following God. Instead, we’re proclaiming to the world that Church teaching is a matter of convenience—obey when it was what you were going to do anyway, and ignore it without consequences when it is not. When we do this, we’re behaving like any other “personally oppose but…” Catholic out there, forgetting that John 14:15 and Matthew 7:21-23 are directed at us, not just “other people.”

This is not a call for us to be mindless sheep, doing whatever we are told regardless of whether it is right or wrong. This is about recognizing who has the final say in determining how Church teaching applies to the situations of our times. It’s about recognizing that we’re not just called to be Christians when it is convenient and leaving it behind when it is not. The magisterium has the authority to determine when a behavior or a belief is compatible with what God calls us to be. The Church doesn’t demand we support a certain political party, or agree with a certain program. But she does tell us that when a state, a party, a program, or a person does evil or supports it, we cannot give our consent to it while claiming it is compatible with our faith.

When we say, “The Church is wrong on X,” we are refusing to obey the One who gave the Church her authority. If we happen to agree with the Church 99% of the time but still insist on choosing when we will or will not obey, we are giving the same non serviam (“I will not serve”) the devil gave to God. This is true regardless of whether our dissent is based on politics or on religious preference.

We need to remember that when we profess to be Christians, but refuse to follow the Church Our Lord established, we are in danger of hearing at the Final Judgment: ”I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:23b)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Thoughts on Controversy and the Church

One trend I come across in social media is the claim that, before Pope Francis or before Vatican II, the Church and the Popes taught clearly, but now everything is ambiguous and needs clarification. This is an error, but it’s an easy one to make. The error revolves around the fact that the further away we are from a controversy, the less we hear about the things which led up to a formal definition by the Church. We remember that Nicaea I condemned Arianism. We don’t remember the disputes about the interpretations of Scripture and the meaning of equivocal words. We think of the old maxim, Rome has spoken, the cause is finished, and wonder why people should still fighting except that the Pope isn’t clear. But we forget that when St. Augustine said this, he was actually speaking about the repeated disobedience despite the teaching of the Holy See:

For already have two councils on this question been sent to the Apostolic see; and rescripts also have come from thence. The question has been brought to an issue; would that their error may sometime be brought to an issue too! Therefore do we advise that they may take heed, we teach that they may be instructed, we pray that they may be changed.

 

Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 504.

When we dig into the history of the Church we see that, when the Pope or a Council teaches on a subject, error doesn’t vanish. The decree just establishes the dividing line where one has to choose—either to accept the authority of the Church or to reject it. Error, however, doesn’t say, “Yep, I’m wrong but I don’t care.” Error rarely says, “I’m going to leave and start my own church!” What normally happens is Error denies that it is in opposition to Church teaching. Rather it either pretends to be faithful anyway or else it claims that the magisterium is wrong, and would have taught differently if they were really following Our Lord, or The Bible, or other Church teachings.

For example, when St. Pius X condemned modernism, many real modernists denied they held the positions condemned in Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Lamentibili Sane. They would simply modify their positions slightly, claiming obedience to the letter of the law while violating the spirit of the teachings. If we were to apply the logic of the critics of Pope Francis or Vatican II, we would have to say St. Pius X was to blame for the continued disobedience. But in fact the disobedience came from those who chose to misrepresent what the Pope said. We can also point to the fact that Catholics and Protestants alike have pointed to St. Augustine to justify their contradicting positions on grace and actions. Did St. Augustine teach confusion? Or did one side cite him wrongly? I think we can recognize that St. Augustine did not teach contradiction or error.

What these examples show is that confusion and dissent existed before Vatican II. We forget about it because, if we read about these things at all, we only read about the final results, and not the path that led to that point. We don’t see the discussion that evaluated each claim and argued over the merits and problems. We wonder why the Pope hasn’t issued a decree, excommunicated a politician or answered a dubia. We forget how Blessed John Henry Newman explained, over 150 years ago, why dispute and confusion existed in the process:

And then again all through Church history from the first, how slow is authority in interfering! Perhaps a local teacher, or a doctor in some local school, hazards a proposition, and a controversy ensues. It smoulders or burns in one place, no one interposing; Rome simply lets it alone. Then it comes before a Bishop; or some priest, or some professor in some other seat of learning takes it up; and then there is a second stage of it. Then it comes before a University, and it may be condemned by the theological faculty. So the controversy proceeds year after year, and Rome is still silent. An appeal, perhaps, is next made to a seat of authority inferior to Rome; and then at last after a long while it comes before the supreme power. Meanwhile, the question has been ventilated and turned over and over again, and viewed on every side of it, and authority is called upon to pronounce a decision, which has already been arrived at by reason. But even then, perhaps the supreme authority hesitates to do so, and nothing is determined on the point for years; or so generally and vaguely, that the whole controversy has to be gone through again, before it is ultimately determined. It is manifest how a mode of proceeding, such as this, tends not only to the liberty, but to the courage, of the individual theologian or contraversialist. Many a man has ideas, which he hopes are true, and useful for his day, but he wishes to have them discussed. He is willing or rather would be thankful to give them up, if they can be proved to be erroneous or dangerous, and by means of controversy he obtains his end. He is answered, and he yields; or he finds that he is considered safe. He would not dare to do this, if he knew an authority, which was supreme and final, was watching every word he said, and made signs of assent or dissent to each sentence, as he uttered it. Then, indeed, he would be fighting, as the Persian soldiers, under the lash, and the freedom of his intellect might truly be said to be beaten out of him. But this has not been so:—I do not mean to say that, when controversies run high, in schools or even in small portions of the Church, an interposition may not rightly take place; and again, questions may be of that urgent nature, that an appeal must, as a matter of duty, be made at once to the highest authority in the Church; but, if we look into the history of controversy, we shall find, I think, the general run of things to be such as I have represented it. Zosimus treated Pelagius and C┼ôlestius with extreme forbearance; St. Gregory VII. was equally indulgent with Berengarius; by reason of the very power of the Popes they have commonly been slow and moderate in their use of it.

 

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), 289–290.

One can also read the CDF documents where a theologian’s works were ultimately condemned. In them, there is a process of dialogue in which the Church determines whether the person understood his ideas went against the Church, and if so, entered a discussion on how to make things right. It took years from the time the case was taken up until an obstinate theologian’s work was condemned. It takes years because the Church wants to make sure they do not wrongly judge someone who has merely stated the truth in a new way.

The modern critics however do not take years—whether in studying the Catholic faith or studying the person alleged to be a heretic. They match what they think they know about the faith and compare it with what they think they know about the person they dislike. The problem is often these Catholics treat their reading of Church documents in the same way that the Biblical literalist interprets the Bible—without regard to context or nuances in translation, and without regard for one’s limitations.

That’s not to say that only people with a PhD have anything to say about Scripture or Sacred Tradition or Church documents. What it means is we ought to realize we can go wrong, and we can avoid error by making sure our reading does not contradict the magisterium. Just because one person thinks the Pope contradicts a document does not, in fact, mean the Pope contradicts that document. The critic forgets to consider the possibility of his own error. 

This seems to fit in with the Pope recently expressing his concern about “restorationist” (a belief we need to “go back” to an earlier time) attitudes, saying, “they seem to offer security but instead give only rigidity.” Expecting that the only response to a problem in the Church is strict response is to reject any response of compassion. Rigidity (wrongly) views the Pope’s words on mercy as moral laxity and condemn him with a growing demonic hatred. But many of those Catholics I have tangled with cannot get beyond a binary thinking of “either rigid or heretical.” But if there is a third option, a none of the above, then the binary thinking is right.

Now the epithet of “Pharisee” gets overused (and, yeah, I know I’m guilty of using it at times, too) but rigidity was one of the problems with the pharisees. They wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), they were scandalized that He dined with tax collectors (Matthew 9:10-13), and that he allowed the sinful woman to wash His feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50). Our Lord was not lax in these cases, but he was merciful, and this is what the Pope is calling us to emulate—don’t treat the sinner with harshness, but with love.

I think the ultimate problem with controversy in the Church is that Catholics (whether ordained, religious, or laity) presume they know all the facts about Church teaching and about the situation of the sinner and reject the approach the Church takes if it does not match the individual’s flawed understanding. And that’s where we have to change. We have to stop thinking we are the ones who pass judgment on the Church when the Church does not match our preferences, and let the teaching of the Church pass judgment on our preferences.