Showing posts with label "I'm With Stupid" Catholics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label "I'm With Stupid" Catholics. Show all posts

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Reflections on how Papal Critics can go Wrong


I had a profitable discussion with one of my followers last week. The concern—probably shared by many Catholics—is, what is one to do when a Catholic one respects is at odds with the Pope. Are we to write them all off as schismatic, ignorant, or acting out of bad will? My answer is, No we can’t make a blanket assumption that a respected Catholic who disagrees with the Pope is to be automatically pigeonholed into the category of dissenter or gross ignorance. 

However, that doesn’t make them right either. Regardless of intention, they have gone wrong in their interpretation. They are (knowingly or not) claiming the Pope is supporting or even teaching error in such a way that their accusations contradict previous Church teaching on the authority of the Pope and his protection from error. The problem is, these categories are based in an either-or fallacy. They assume that Pope Francis is contradicting previous Church teaching (unproven) and that therefore either he or his predecessors must be wrong.

I deny that accusation is true. However, it is helpful to look at some of the mindsets of his foes and see how they fall into error. This is by no means a comprehensive list. But it does describe the attitudes I encounter most often on the internet.

In writing this article, I’d like to make clear that I am not accusing any specific member of the clergy or any specific Catholic writer of belonging to these groups. If you look at these groups and think, “Oh, he’s accusing X of this,” then you miss the point. I hope to point out problematic views and leave the judgment of people to their confessors.

Confusing an Agenda with Church Teaching

One category which usually seems to get it wrong are the agenda driven people who believe that the Church needs to follow an agenda or else she is in the wrong. This group views a Pope or bishop favorably only if he happens to agree with how this person thinks it should be done. Often they assume that refusal to do it this way is either a sign of moral laxity (if they want it more rigid) or of moral rigidity (if they want more laxity). So St. John Paul II was accused of rigidity by those who wanted a change to Church teaching on sexual morality. Pope Francis is accused of laxity by those who think the Pope should “crack down” on sin. In other words, this category of people is not limited to one ideology. Conservative Catholics in this group let “conservative” influence their Catholic faith. Liberal Catholics let “liberal” influence “Catholic.” Both are wrong because their Catholic faith should influence their ideology. It’s not just political agendas. It can also involve being either a modernist (willing to compromise the faith to get along with the world) or a radical traditionalist (assuming a change in discipline is a change in teaching).

Many of these people are sincere and can’t imagine how one can be faithfully Catholic without holding to their views. From this they believe that anyone who doesn’t support their perspective is acting against God and what the Church is supposed to be. The problem is, their views are often colored by a certain political or cultural bent, while the Church recognizes that one can favor different ways to carry out Church teaching without being “unfaithful.” 

Focussing on One Part, Missing Another

A second category involves Catholics who focus on one aspect of Church teaching, but miss another. Perhaps they are truly unaware of the other aspects. Perhaps they think they don’t apply. Or (if any of them do act from bad will) perhaps even suppressing mention of something that weakens their argument.

One example of this is the argument that Our Lord condemned adultery. Therefore any consideration of the Eucharist for the divorced/remarried is considered a contradiction of Church teaching. They have all sorts of arguments as to why the Church teaching about intrinsic evil cannot be violated. The problem is, nobody (except, perhaps, certain Agenda Driven Catholics) argues that it can be. Those who think the Church might be able to find cases where one can legitimately distribute the Eucharist to a divorced/remarried person is not denying Our Lord’s words. They’re asking questions about impediments that might limit culpability, such as knowledge and consent.

Church teaching can be very nuanced. It starts with the basic concept, X is intrinsically evil, and then focusses on the circumstances of the person that does X. In some cases, the person is guilty of freely choosing the evil with full knowledge. In other cases, the person who does X may have started in ignorance of Church teaching and has formed a compulsive habit that is very hard for them to break away from. Obviously, the confessor would need to treat the first case differently from the second case.

The person in this category goes wrong by assuming that a merciful approach to the second case is a denial of the intrinsic evil in general. That doesn’t make him ignorant of Church teaching. Such a person might simply be so accustomed to defending the Church teaching from those who reject it, that they begin to lose sight of the conditions that change culpability.

Pointing to Consequences, Without Considering What Really Causes Them

Some Catholics are (rightly) concerned by those who wrongly think the Church can change her doctrinal or moral teachings from saying, “X is true,” to “X is false.” They see how some seize onto whatever statement is made by the Church and use it to claim that they’re not dissenting against the Church. They are correct in believing this has to be opposed. But they are scandalized when Church does not issue a stinging public rebuke or excommunicate these people. Some even go so far as to say that the Pope or bishops must secretly support such behavior or they would have acted publicly and the behavior would have stopped.

The problem with this category is it assumes things as true that need to be proven. For example, it assumes that any action must be public, and must be in the form of a rebuke. It ignores the possibility of quietly contacting the person. It ignores the possibility of ongoing dialogue where the Church has not written the person off. In other words, the individual assumes he knows the whole story, but does not.

The Scandalized

Church history is ugly because the members are sinners, like everyone else. Of course we’re all called to cooperate with God’s grace and strive to do good and reject evil. But every one of us does fall. The category of people I call the scandalized are those who are shocked and horrified by the sins of the members of the magisterium, believing this to be a sign of error, some going so far as to label it heresy or apostasy.

Such people need to remember our belief that God protects His Church from error does not mean that those who lead the Church will never sin, nor make errors of judgment in non-teaching actions. For example, St. John Paul II appointed some bishops that had many of us wondering “Why?” There’s a difference between teaching (which is protected) and administering (which is not).

John paul ii kisses koranRegrettable, but not heretical (The Obstinate Denial of Truth)

So, when the Pope teaches, we’re bound to give assent to his teachings, trusting God to protect him from leading the Church astray. But when he governs the Vatican City, gives a homily or a press conference, or other actions, he’s not protected. What this means is, just because a Pope may do something regrettable when acting as a man or as a ruler, it does not follow that he teaches error.

The Mythic View of the Church

People in this category tend to have a myth about a time when the faith was practiced perfectly. They believe that the Church needs to go back to that time, rejecting what they see as a deviation. So some Catholics think Vatican II destroyed the Church, and we need to turn back the clock to before if the Church is to be saved. Other Catholics view Our Lord as a “nice guy” teacher who taught love, and rules of sexual morality “contradict” Jesus’ teachings. Both are a denial of the belief that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Church.

What the first group has to realize is that there was never a time when the Church was perfect. There were always problems. The problems after Vatican II had origins before Vatican II. The second group has to realize that Our Lord did teach on keeping the commandments and warned us about Hell.  Both need to remember He did give the Church authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and promised to protect His Church (Matthew 16:18, 28:20). The Church has never changed teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin,” but she has changed how to approach sinners and has taken a deeper look into what makes an action a sin. These are not betrayals of past teaching.

The Wrathful Catholics 

Some Catholics have just bought into the idea that the Pope intends to change or destroy the Church. With this assumption, everything that sounds different to them is assumed to be “proof” of the accusation. So they read the Pope’s words with this viewpoint and find malice. At best, this is Rash Judgment. At worst, it is Calumny. The difference is whether they make a false assumption about his intentions or intend to discredit him.

I find these Catholics to be perpetually angry. It may be because they lament the wrongdoing in the Church and are frustrated with the lack of progress in eliminating it. It may be they belong to one of the groups above, and it leads them to think the Pope must support what they oppose. Or they may be influenced by other wrathful Catholics who repeat their accusations over and over. But to assume that the Pope intends evil for the Church is something that corrupts one’s faith in God and the authority He gave the Catholic Church.

Conclusion: The First Two Steps to a Remedy

All of these categories have something in common—a belief that the Pope is in the wrong.  That belief is dangerous because it assumes that while the Pope can err, the individual judging him is not mistaken in his interpretation of the Pope. But each of these categories shows they do make an error in interpreting the Pope, past Church teaching, or both.

The first step is recognizing one can misinterpret Scripture, the current Pope, and past Church teaching—seeing conflict where there is none. Once one realizes they can make a mistake, he or she can begin considering whether they have made a mistake. The next step is realizing that God protects His Church. History shows there have been morally bad popes. There have been Popes who personally held to an error. But no Pope has ever taught error. 

Once we recognize these things, we have to realize that if we think the current Pope is teaching error, we have to consider it more probable that we have misinterpreted him—not because of our being “ultramontane” (a common slur against the Pope’s defenders), or putting too much trust in his personal talents, but because God established the Church on the rock of Peter and promised the gates of hell would not prevail against it. So, if there is a difference between what we think the Pope says and what we think the Church teaches, we need to consider the possibility that we have gone wrong, whether by misreading, or focussing on the wrong issue, or assuming Church teaching limits more than it does.

If we can start by asking “Have I gotten the issue wrong?” then perhaps we can learn. But if we refuse to ask that question, we will not learn, and we will needlessly be in opposition to Our Lord and His Church while thinking of ourselves as defenders.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Let's Talk About Dangerous Thinking Leading to Sin

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.


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


A sign that our discernment is in real contact with the Holy Spirit is and will always be adherence to revealed truth as it is proposed by the Church’s Magisterium. The interior teacher does not inspire dissent, disobedience or even merely an unjustified resistance to the pastors and teachers established by him in the Church (cf. Acts 20:29). It belongs to the Church’s authority, as the Council said in the Constitution Lumen Gentium (n. 12), to “not quench the Spirit, but to test everything and retain what is good” (cf. 1 Thess 5:12, 19–21). This is the direction of ecclesial and pastoral wisdom which also comes from the Holy Spirit.



John Paul II, April 24, 1991. Audiences of Pope John Paul II (English) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014).

Since too many people seem to assume that defense of Pope Francis is a condemnation of Cardinal Burke et. al., I should make this preliminary note: It’s not my intention to judge the souls or motives of the four cardinals. My concern is with the attitude of “Combox warrior” Catholics on social media who accuse the Pope of heresy and ignorance. Comments accusing me of judging these cardinals will be deleted.

Two Scenarios of Schism

When I talk about schism coming in the Church, there are two possibilities on how it may come about. One I think is unlikely, the other I think probable.

One scenario—which is what most people think when they hear the term—is that certain Catholics get so fed up with the Pope, that they set up one of his critics as an antipope and form a separate Church. This was a scenario popular in religious fiction during the Pontificate of St. John Paul II when he faced open dissent from those who wanted to change Church teaching. This sometimes happens in Church history, but in this case, I think this scenario is unlikely.

The other scenario—the one I think is more probable today—is that critics ramp up their opposition to the Pope, alleging he is teaching error. A growing number of Catholics believe this and refuse assent to his teachings because they believe, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and are led to think they know the Catholic faith better than the Holy Father. So they refuse to listen to him when what he says doesn’t square up with what they think the Church teaching is. In this situation, those refusing submission to the Pope  deceive themselves into thinking the shepherds of the Church are in error while they are a faithful remnant. They don’t think they’re schismatics because they’re not leaving the Church or creating an antipope.

Danger Lies in Assuming One’s Personal Interpretations are Doctrine

Let’s be clear, however. Simply wanting the Pope to answer the dubia is not in itself a sin. In doing so, we should be aware that there may be things going on behind the scenes that lead to him deciding to handle things differently than we want. The danger comes when one says, “I can’t see any reason for not doing this, so the Pope must be wrong.” Even if it should turn out there was no good reason, the worst one can accuse the Pope of is being a poor administrator, NOT that he is teaching error.

It becomes more dangerous when we become so invested in a certain interpretation of Church teaching, especially when a document was written in a different era. A changing world can lead to the Church taking a different approach in a different approach while accepting the long held doctrine of the Church. But if one has embraced a certain Church policy from one time to the point of confusing it with doctrine, there is a danger of thinking a change of policy is a rejection of doctrine.

For example, in his work Fundamentals of Catholicism, then-Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about the shift of tactics in dealing with the world between the times of Pius IX and St. Pius X compared to Gaudium et spes. In a passage that outraged some Catholics (and was used as ammunition by some sede vacantists), he wrote:

Let us be content to say here that the text serves as a counter syllabus and, as such, represents, on the part of the Church, an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789. Only from this perspective can we understand, on the one hand, its ghetto-mentality, of which we have spoken above; only from this perspective can we understand, on the other hand, the meaning of this remarkable meeting of Church and world. Basically, the word “world” means the spirit of the modern era, in contrast to which the Church’s group-consciousness saw itself as a separate subject that now, after a war that had been in turn both hot and cold, was intent on dialogue and cooperation. From this perspective, too, we can understand the different emphases with which the individual parts of the Church entered into the discussion of the text.


 Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans. Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 382.

People who were invested in the Syllabi of the earlier Popes took the term “counter syllabus” and accused him of heresy, saying he rejected doctrine and accepted the French Revolution as good. He said nothing of the sort. He didn’t deny the earlier teaching of the Church. He merely believed that the world had changed and the (non-doctrinal) approach of the Church needed to address new situations that had arisen since 1789. Never mind the fact that Vatican II begins with the premise that the Church established by Our Lord is the Catholic Church. People who preferred previous practices believe this is a change of doctrine, even though it is a change of practice.

Misunderstandings Leading to False Accusations

And that’s where the problem with the Church today exists. The Pope and bishops in communion with him (and never apart from him) determine how Church teaching is applied in every generation. Sometimes misunderstandings happen. The question is, will people investigate whether they have misunderstood, or will they assume any fault lies with the magisterium when there is a conflict, refusing to consider any other possibility?

For example, one common accusation from combox warriors is the Pope intends to implement the ideas of Cardinal Kasper in approving remarriage and reception of the Eucharist after divorce. Such accusations show they don’t really know what the Cardinal (whom I believe to be wrong) said, nor how his words differed from the Pope. What Cardinal Kasper thought was a good idea [*], was to invoke the opinion offered by some Church Fathers and accepted by the Orthodox churches (but not the Catholic Church):

But if a divorced and remarried person is truly sorry that he or she failed in the first marriage, if the commitments from the first marriage are clarified and a return is definitively out of the question, if he or she cannot undo the commitments that were assumed in the second civil marriage without new guilt, if he or she strives to the best of his or her abilities to live out the second civil marriage on the basis of faith and to raise their children in the faith, if he or she longs for the sacraments as a source of strength in his or her situation, do we then have to refuse or can we refuse him or her the sacrament of penance and communion, after a period of reorientation?


 Walter Kasper, The Gospel of the Family, trans. William Madges (Mahwah, NJ; New York: Paulist Press, 2014), 32.

You won’t find this view in Amoris Lætitia, because the Pope doesn’t teach this view. What he discusses is getting people back to Church with the aim of reconciling them with God. He asks bishops and priests to remember the intents and circumstances and not just stop at the fact of intrinsic evil [†]. My reading of Amoris Lætitia and the Argentine bishops’ instruction is the ultimate goal is to get the divorced and remarried to live as brother and sister. If they should fall into temptation and sin, this is what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is for.

Some people read the same words and misinterpret the Pope as saying the Church should find ways around Our Lord’s teachings. But there’s no justification for it. In his February 18, 2016, press conference, he said in response to a question:

Thompson: Does that mean they can receive Communion?


Pope Francis: This is the last thing. Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration. And those two were happy. They used a very beautiful expression: we don’t receive Eucharistic communion, but we receive communion when we visit hospitals and in this and this and this. Their integration is that.

Things like this show that an interpretation claiming the Pope intends to permit the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried without repentance is a misunderstanding, and an accusation that he intends to change an unchangeable teaching turns out to be a false accusation.

Conclusion: The Dangerous Ways of Thinking

The dangerous ways of thinking come from not being able to consider the possibility of going wrong personally. If I hold that the Pope can go wrong but I can’t, I’ve created a blind spot that prevents me from properly examining myself for error and repenting if error is found. Under such a view, we create a church of a billion popes where the only the Pope and everybody else who thinks differently from me can go wrong. Yes, one can wish a Pope handled things differently, and (as I pointed out above) that includes how he handled the dubia. But there’s a difference between wishing the Pope had handled things differently and saying “Not my Pope,” or “I can’t follow him any more,” as two Catholics I encountered on Facebook today said.

The first attitude is acceptable so long as one recognizes his authority to act as he sees fit. The latter is literally schismatic as defined by Canon Law. It is possible that the person didn’t realize how serious a claim was. It is possible they would never uttered those words if they had known. But it is a refusal to submit to the Pope. So one should think long and hard if they dislike the Pope. 

Afterword: My Personal View

Above, I’ve tried to show how the attacks against the Pope are flawed. Now I’d like to offer my personal views.  

I believe the attacks against the Pope are unjust. The assumption that anyone who defends him is “a modernist” and “a Hillary supporter” [§], shows the ideological slant of his critics. There is no cause for this, and such accusations show a lack of knowledge of what Pope Francis said, what his predecessors said, or (alarmingly on the increase) ignorance of both. Our Lord established Peter as the Rock on which He would build His Church. The attacks against Pope Francis are, whether his foes realize it or not, undermining the Rock, and will come back to haunt whoever succeeds Pope Francis.

For centuries, the saints spoke about obedience to the Church as part of our obligation towards holiness. Now, a growing number seem to think one can be holy in opposition to those who lead the Church. I am not making any accusations against any Catholic here (even if I wanted to, I certainly have no authority to do so). But if someone who reads my blog is tempted to take that approach, I plead with you as a fellow Christian to reconsider your actions and mindset.

As for me, I will continue to defend the Pope both because I place my faith in God to protect His Church from teaching error [∞], and I reject the accusations made against his intentions, orthodoxy and competence. This view might make me unpopular, but for me, prayer and study leads so I can take no other stand without being unfaithful. 


[*] The problem I have with Cardinal Kasper’s view is Our Lord’s and subsequent Church teaching tells us that when a marriage exists, one cannot remarry. Unless I misinterpret him, he seems to think a couple is “truly sorry,” they can go on living as if they were man and wife and receive the sacraments. But being truly sorry means doing what one can to turn away from the sin. So it seems like he holds contradictory premises.

[†] The reason I’m puzzled with the dubia is they are focused on the concept of intrinsically evil acts as if the Pope were ignoring them, but (as I see it) the Pope seems to accept that as a given and asks the clergy to look more at the other two parts of assessing sin. 

[§] I’ve received both accusations from combox warriors. The latter is a non sequitur which shows the political motivations of some of the Pope’s critics.

[∞] If the Pope actually said the divorced and remarried they can receive the Eucharist without repentance (which I deny) that would seem to be a teaching on faith and morals.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fallacious Thinking and Attacks Against the Pope


Regardless of whether one thinks the cardinals who sent dubia to the Pope acted rightly or wrongly, one of the fruits of their action is a bad one: It’s become a rallying point for those Catholics who oppose the Pope and seek to undermine him by accusing him of error. That’s a dangerous position, one that encourages dissent and possibly de facto schism. It may even lead to the damnation of souls.

I want to make clear that I am not accusing the cardinals of bad will or seeking to promote schism. These are serious charges that must not be made without evidence. Their intentions and the state of their souls are for their confessors to assess, not a layman like myself. However, the Pope’s opponents on social media are making those serious charges against him, either directly or indirectly.

The Problem

The point of contention, as I understand it, is these cardinals do not see how Amoris Lætitia can be reconciled with the teachings of St. John Paul II. The dubia asked if those teachings still hold true. The Pope declined to answer and the cardinals went public. The result of this is a number of Catholics made assumptions (none of them good) about that silence and what it might mean. The problem is, logically, we cannot draw a conclusion from silence. We can only point to it as a lack of evidence one way or another

Let’s look at it this way. If silence from Pope Francis implies a rejection of St. John Paul II, as his social media critics imply, then we could ask whether if Cardinal Burke and his compatriots are in favor of schism because they do not speak against those combox warriors who misuse their statements. There could be any number of reasons, for example, “Not wanting to draw attention to it by publicizing it.” A person could argue that not speaking about these rebels is encouraging them, but they can’t use the silence to “prove” the cardinals want to encourage them.

Fallacies of Ignorance and Silence

But once we recognize this, we have to apply it to Pope Francis as well. People might want him to offer clarifications to the dubia, and might be disappointed when he doesn’t, but we can’t claim his silence is in support of error. That brings us to the two fallacies that critics of the Pope—and even some of the faithful—have been using: The Argument from Ignorance and the Argument from Silence.

The Argument from Ignorance is a fallacy which confuses what a person knows with what is reality. For example, if someone says, “I can’t think of any reason why Pope Francis would not answer,” that does not mean there is no good reason not to answer. Not knowing an answer is not the same as there being no answer. So to argue that he does intend to change Church teaching on the basis of his not answering is fallacious. 

The Argument from Silence fallacy happens where one assumes that silence is proof of a position. “He didn’t defend himself, he must be guilty,” or “He didn’t admit it, he must be innocent.” Silence is simply “no testimony.” In American law, no person can be compelled to give evidence against himself, and a prosecutor cannot use this refusal as “proof” of guilt. What the silent person intends and the motives for the silence are unknown. So to argue from the Pope’s declining to answer that he cannot defend his position without contradicting St. John Paul II is an argument from silence.

The point of this article is to encourage people to recognize there is a difference between wanting the Pope to respond and drawing a negative conclusion from his declining to do so. Because we Catholics are forbidden to make rash judgment, we certainly cannot rashly judge the Pope as being a heretic or incompetent on the grounds he did not answer.

The Real Problem That Fuels the So-Called “Scandals”

Let’s be frank. The most a papal critic can allege from this case is that the Pope used poor judgment (though I would probably challenge that). But that fact is not anything new in Church history. . .

John paul ii kisses koranEven St. John Paul the Great had his “not so great” days.

No matter how much one likes a Pope, there will always be something cringeworthy in their actions. That’s because we’re all humans in need of salvation. No matter how much one dislikes a Pope, cringeworthy actions do not detract from their office and our obligation to give assent when they teach as Pope. You can go all the way back to Pope Peter, and you’ll still have to deal with the “Denying three times” scandal and the “not eating with gentiles” scandal.

We have to realize that Pope Francis is not a Pope John XII or Alexander VI. Nor is he an Honorius or John XXII. The Church will not collapse because of Pope Francis any more than it collapsed under those members of the Papal “Hall of Shame.” God promised to protect His Church. If we don’t believe that, then our problem is much greater than a Pope.

We need to realize the Pope has been constantly attacked for almost four years by critics and every one of those attacks is based on a misinterpretation of what he said. There’s a third logical fallacy here—Begging the Question. People who assume the Pope is a heretic interpret everything he does under the suspicion of heresy. People who assume the Pope is incompetent interpret everything under the assumption he handled it incompetently. The problem is, these accusations have to be proven, but his accusers act as if they were true—and they have begun to instill doubt into weary Catholics who begin to think: “There must be something to these accusations, or people wouldn’t make them.”

There’s a real danger here. Certain Catholics hate the Pope and what they think is “corruption” of the Church since the Pontificate of St. John XXIII. They lead some members of the faithful astray, causing them to think they’re the only faithful Catholics left when, for almost 2000 years, the Church has been led by the successor of Peter without teaching heresy.


The point of this is, this latest attack on the Pope has its roots in an anti-Francis mindset and has no rational basis. A person is not wrong to wish a Pope might handle a situation differently at times. But we have to realize that what we wish and what the Pope determines as the best way to handle the situation can be two different things. To accuse him of bad will or incompetence because his decision is not what they want is not the obedience of the saints. It’s the same behavior that dissenters used to attack previous Popes.

We should reflect on this, and consider who benefits from this behavior: Not the Church, but the devil. We should think long and hard about divisive behavior before committing it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Seemingly Harmless Path to Schism


The Path to Schism

I watch the challenges to Pope Francis grow, and see the hypocrisy. Apparently it is all right to question his orthodoxy and his judgment. But if someone challenges his challengers, it is suddenly “abusive.” People believe they are fighting to defend the Church, but overlook the fact that they attack the foundation on which Our Lord built His Church. The end result of such a tactic would be destroying the faith of many, leaving them to think they were the authority of the Church who sit in judgment on the shepherds.

Please spare me the angry retorts in the combox, pointing out the handful of sinful Popes throughout Church history. The fact that such Popes existed does not prove Pope Francis is one of them. The issue in question is whether this Pope has done wrong. Also, spare me refutations against claims that Papal press conferences are infallible. I know of no serious Catholic who believes they are. I believe the attacks against the Holy Father are made up of two fallacies: a Begging the Question fallacy and a Guilt by Association fallacy. The attacks against him assume as true (that he intends a heterodox interpretation of Church teaching) what they actually need to prove, and they assume that people with heterodox views liking what they think the Pope means is proof that the Pope is guilty of heterodoxy or ignorance of doctrine.

I’m not talking about people who merely wish the Pope handled things differently. That happens in every pontificate (I wish St. John Paul didn’t kiss that Qur’an, or that Benedict XVI didn’t use the example of “a gay prostitute with AIDS” for example). I’m talking about people who spread accusations on social media claiming to be faithful Catholics out to defend the faith, but behaving like dissenting groups [*] throughout history—they insist their reading of Scripture and prior Church teaching must be correct, and any difference between them and the Pope and bishops in communion with him means the Pope must be wrong. I’m talking about people who focus on minutiae and miss the big point—like treating Footnote 351 as a Papal document and treating the entirety of Amoris Lætitia as a footnote.

The potential for schism starts small. People post comments of “I miss Pope Benedict,” in response to (often inaccurate) news reports of what the Pope says and does. The unspoken element of the statement is “Pope Benedict XVI never would have done this.” This grows to become “The next Pope will have to address X,” as if Pope Francis is doing things that need to be overturned. With this small seed sown, people have opened themselves up to thinking the Pope must be endured until a “real” Pope emerges. If people continue to focus on this, they can start thinking, “I wish Bishop/Cardinal X was Pope instead,” and even start viewing this person as more authoritative than the Pope.

The more one entertains these views, the more likely that person is to assume the Pope is in error and his critics are correct. Even if a bishop or cardinal has no intention of undermining the Pope [†], those critics who think of everything dualistically turn them into a counter-magisterium whose opinions they treat as teaching while treating the Pope’s teaching as opinion.

When one begins thinking the Pope is heretical, they are tempted into looking on how to remove him from office. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine’s preferred opinion on a heretical Pope is treated as doctrine, ignoring the fact that he considered the opinion that, “the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case” [§] as “probable” and “easily defended.” He looks into other opinions simply because that is the issue disputed by those who attacked the papacy in general.

At this point, the person is denying the authority of the Pope, based on a begging the question assumption that he is a heretic whenever the Pope says something different from their own view of what the Church should be, substituting the opinions of someone he happens to agree with over the teaching of the Pope, refusing to accept the judgments of the Pope when they disagree with personally held opinions. The problem is, we run into what Canon Law says about schism [751], “schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” Whether it’s formal schism like the time of the the Protestant Revolt, or by action rejecting the authority of the Pope without formally rejecting the papacy, one at this point has fallen into error.

I’m not going to accuse any specific individual, private or public, of being guilty. It’s not my task to assess conscience and judge souls. I merely wish to warn of the attitudes that deceptively lead one to damnation.

Angel leading a soul to hell11

The Path Back (Before It Is Too Late)

If the path to schism is placing one’s own views above that of the Church and assuming the Pope is in error, the path back starts with realizing the possibility that we might be the one in error. We have to realize the possibility that we have misinterpreted what the current Pope has said, or what previous Church documents have taught. We have to realize that we might be guilty of rash judgment, assuming that the Pope is either maliciously or foolishly “changing” Church teaching.

We have to realize that God protects His Church. We have indeed had a few bad Popes in the history of the Church. But they did not destroy the Church, and they did not teach any error as Pope. The accusations against Pope Francis are something unique. If his critics are right, then for the first time in Church history we have a Pope who used his office to teach error. If that is true, then God did not protect His Church. We have no way of knowing who was right in any conflict in the Church. If Pope Francis could teach error, why not St. Pius V? If Vatican II could teach error, why not Trent? It’s only by trusting in God to guide the Pope that we can reject these logical questions. 

We also have to realize that when the Pope teaches, even when he does not teach ex cathedra, we are obliged to give assent. That’s not an opinion, it's canon law.

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.

That doesn’t mean we have to all agree on how to best apply the teachings and instructions of the magisterium, but if we refuse to give assent, we’re no better than those critics of St. John Paul II or Benedict XVI who sought to weasel out of Church teaching. We’re behaving like the Pharisees who sought to evade obligations in the name of piety.

In short, the path back from schism is based on faith in God and offering submission to His Church. Submission is not an easy thing to embrace. We’re all afraid of being trapped into doing the wrong thing. But we need to remember that the saints had faith in God and in His Church, offering submission when there was a conflict. The Holy Spirit did not go on a coffee break beginning in 1958 (when St. John XXIII became Pope). We are still protected, despite what the critics say. 

That doesn’t mean we can be mindless drones going through the motions. Each of us will have to struggle with doubts and fears. There will always be those who misuse the teaching of the Church. What we have to remember is, even with these things, God is still in charge and still with the successor of Peter—even now.

I have no authority to teach of course. I can’t compel anyone to obey what I write here. All I can do is appeal to anyone reading who is tempted to reject the Pope to rethink their attitudes and consider whether they are being misled. 


[*] For example, the people who tried to make Pope John XXII out to be a heretic were the Spiritual Franciscans who resented the Pope’s lawful intervention on how the Rule of St. Francis was to be applied and sought to discredit his authority.

[†] My view of Cardinal Burke and company, and Bishop Schneider is to assume they do not intend to undermine the Pope until evidence is presented showing otherwise. That doesn’t mean I have to approve of their actions or opinions, however.

[§] [Bellarmine, Robert (2015-05-22). On the Roman Pontiff (De Controversiis Book 1) (p. 304). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition]. I found this book to be invaluable in putting the saint’s widely quoted words on a “heretical Pope” into context.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

I'm With Him Because I Believe He Faithfully Serves God

I m With Him

As the pontificate of Pope Francis goes on, opposition to him solidifies. Certain groups within the Church accept as proven the claim that the Holy Father is either ignorant of theology or heretical, even though these charges depend solely on how these groups interpret his words and the teachings of the Church. Now, it’s not for me to judge the intention or the state of the souls of those people who oppose him, but I do believe that at a minimum their opposition is a case of begging the question and reflects a misunderstanding of what the Pope taught in relation to what the Church has taught prior to Pope Francis.

To state it bluntly, I believe those who think the Pope is trying to “change” Church teaching on moral issues have grossly missed the point of what he said and taught. He is not looking for ways to turn “X is a sin” into “X is not a sin.” He is looking to remove obstacles that keep people from reconciling with God and His Church. Some of those obstacles involve sinners being intimidated and discouraged in getting to the confessional. Other obstacles involve others assuming that a sinner must be shunned and kept away from the Church until they become as holy as we are.

The latter is a real problem. When the Pope reaches out to the divorced and remarried, people assume that bringing them back to the Church must mean the Sacraments, even though the Pope has rejected that view. During his February 18, 2016 Press conference, the Pope said:

 Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration. And those two were happy. They used a very beautiful expression: we don’t receive Eucharistic communion, but we receive communion when we visit hospitals and in this and this and this. Their integration is that.

In other words, the Pope wants to integrate all Catholics back to the life of the Church and right relationship with God. Obviously people who are determined to sin and refuse to repent are not integrated into the Church, and cannot hope to be saved. If the Pope wanted to treat such people as if they did no wrong, that would indeed be troubling. But that is not what he refers to. Back when he was head of the archdiocese of Buenos Aries, he said:

Nevertheless, today Catholic Doctrine reminds its divorced members who have remarried that they are not excommunicated— even though they live in a situation on the margin of what indissolubility of marriage and the sacrament of marriage require of them— and they are asked to integrate into the parish life.

Bergoglio, Jorge Mario; Skorka, Abraham (2013-04-19). On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century (p. 110). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Notice the theme here. Integrating into the parish in order to encourage them to seek repentance. He opposes things that hinder this repentance. He has made this clear:

Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance. When a person begins to recognize the sickness in their soul, when the Holy Spirit— the Grace of God— acts within them and moves their heart toward an initial recognition of their own sins, he needs to find an open door, not a closed one. He needs to find acceptance, not judgment, prejudice, or condemnation. He needs to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes, when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner when he stands at the threshold, when he starts to feel nostalgia for God.

I would like to mention another conduct typical of the scholars of the law, and I will say that there is often a kind of hypocrisy in them, a formal adherence to the law that hides very deep wounds. Jesus uses tough words; he defines them as “whited sepulchers” who appear devout from the outside, but inside, on the inside… hypocrites. These are men who live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries. Chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew is very clear on this; we need to return there to understand what the Church is and what it should never be. He describes the attitudes of those who tie up heavy burdens and lay them on other men’s shoulders, but who are unwilling to move so much as a finger; they are those who love the place of honor and want to be called master. This conduct comes when a person loses the sense of awe for salvation that has been granted to him.

Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 605-617). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In other words, Catholics who think of their role as keeping sinners out of the Church in the name of purity have missed the point. We’re not supposed to think of 1 lost sheep out of 100 as “acceptable losses.” We’re supposed to save that last sheep. We were saved by God’s grace, and we should desire others be given that same grace. Such a person may refuse God’s grace and that is beyond our control. But we can’t stop trying to bring them Christ, and we can’t stop praying for them.

This is what the Pope wants us to do. He wants us to find the lost sheep and work on bringing them back to the full life of the Church. To assume that he wants to throw the consistent teaching of the Church out of the window is a rash judgment and a reading into his words something he never intended. It’s only when one approaches his words with the assumption he must reject Church teaching that one can make the accusation of error.

Perhaps it is time for his critics to ask themselves, “What if I misunderstood the Holy Father and the mission of the Church? What if he’s really telling us not to drive people away from seeking salvation?” I believe that if we ponder those questions, we’ll find these are his motives, not error or moral laxity.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Ship of Fools vs. The Barque of Peter

Regular readers of this blog know I hold the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error, even if individual members and even whole regions should fall. I also hold that Our Lord ties obedience to Him with obedience to His Church. Finally, I hold that the successor of Peter today has the same authority and protection that his predecessors had. From that, I reason that we can trust God to protect us from having a Pope who teaches error in matters of faith and morals. That doesn’t mean that a Pope will be a flawless ruler or teacher. it doesn’t mean that he will be impeccable as an individual. It certainly doesn’t mean that a Pope’s teaching will be followed without people misinterpreting or misrepresenting it.

The problem I’m seeing in the Church is people withholding obedience from the Pope because they think he is teaching error on the grounds that what he says doesn’t square with how they think he should govern the Church. Accusations from this sector run from claiming he is guilty of heresy to claiming he causes people to sin by being unclear. Tragically this number has grown. More Catholics assume that the Pope has erred because of the difference between what he says and what they think Church teaching is. But nobody asks whether they might be the ones who have things wrong, not him.

To borrow [†] from the analogy of the “Ship of Fools” in Plato [The Republic, Book VI. 488 B-E] the condition among the Catholic laity and some clergy is like a mutinous crew on a ship, where each sailor claims to be an expert in navigation, despite their lack of training (in fact, they deny this is something anyone can learn), favoring one who says what they want to hear, and are hostile to one who actually is trained in navigation who has actual knowledge of ship handling and tells them something different. 

Whether a dissenter thinks the Church is too lenient with sinners, or thinks that the Church is too harsh because she calls something a sin, they play the part of the mutinous sailors. Because the Pope and bishops do not steer the ship the way they want, these critics turn against them and call for a new navigator or a change in direction.

But if, as I profess, God protects the Church from falling into error under the successor of Peter (see Matthew 16:18, 28:20), then we have to trust that He will not let the Barque of Peter founder, despite whatever personal flaws they see the Pope as having. Yes, a Pope can have the wickedness of a John XII. He may have a problematic understanding of theology like John XXII. He may be a poor shepherd like St. Celestine V. But even in these cases (and I deny that Pope Francis is anything like them), God protected the Church under them from teaching error where people would be damned for following. St. Augustine, in his work Contra Petilian, invokes Matthew 23:2-3, pointing out:

Furthermore, when such men sit in the seat of Moses, for which the Lord preserved its due honor, why do you blaspheme the apostolic chair on account of men whom, justly or unjustly, you compare with these?


 Augustine of Hippo, “In Answer to the Letters of Petilian, the Donatist, Bishop of Cirta,” in St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. R. King, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 568.

In other words, if Our Lord told the Jews to obey the teachings (but not the practices) of the Pharisees because of the authority given them, then we have even less excuse if we disobey the successors to the Apostles when they teach. Yes, there will be priests and even bishops out there we can point to who teach error—either sincerely, or out of rebellion—but their rebellion always comes in opposition to the Church under the Pope.

When people claim there is a conflict between Pope Francis and his predecessors, I believe this is a sign that they need a remedial course in what both actually teach. The problem is, too many assume the Pope advocates evil that could come from an abuse of his teachings. The problem is, he explicitly rejects those abuses and asserts he is a son of the Church when it comes to the teachings most rejected today. He calls for mercy and outreach to sinners. So did his predecessors. The problem is, we assume mercy means moral laxity. If we have that assumption, everything he says will be interpreted in that light and we will (falsely) assume any initiative of mercy must be an attempt to undermine Church teaching. But we forget the possibility of our being in the wrong and the Pope being in the right.

So I think the conflict in the Church today is a conflict between the ship of fools and the barque of Peter. It’s between those who judge the Church according to their own will on one side, and those who trust God to protect His Church and give assent to the Pope’s teachings, striving to learn the truth about what they are called to be. The Catholic Church, under the headship of Pope Francis, is the Barque of Peter. This ship will reach the final destination. However, the ship of fools—guided by what we prefer—is doomed to founder.

Each of us must choose which ship we will embark on. Speaking for myself, I choose to board the barque of Peter because I trust God to protect the Pope from leading the Church in a wrong direction. I refuse to set foot on the ship of fools, because I do not trust those people who claim to know Church teaching while the Church does not. You can call me a fool, or accuse me of being blind to the problems in the Church. But this is the way I will follow because I want to be faithful to God and His Church.






[†] Borrow, not claim it is identical. Yes, I’m aware that Socrates was speaking of philosophers and statecraft, and that the governing of the Greek city-state is not the same thing as the governing of the Church, so the full analogy doesn’t 100% fit. But it makes a useful image for the concern at hand.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

"The Papacy But Not This Pope"

The title of this article comes from a passage written by Hans Urs von Balthasar about the growing hostility towards the Pope:

“The papacy but not this pope” is a further step. Beginning with Gerson, Gallicanism attempted this step (with the best of intentions, theologically) by trying to differentiate between the sedes, which is indefectible, and the sedens, who is not. This approach was mistaken and impracticable from the outset, as de Maistre pointed out. Gasser, in his final address at Vatican I, emphasized that infallibility is not a prerogative of an abstract papacy but of the pope actually reigning. Bossuet, despite his sincere identification with the Church, forever wavered in his position regarding the papacy, measuring with “two measures and two weights” and taking shelter under similarly useless distinctions that simultaneously pledge obedience and refuse it. Moreover, there is the whole Gallican issue of acceptation (“toujours des énigmes!” remarks de Maistre), which plays on the ambiguity of being “in one accord” with the spirit of the Church communio, on the one hand, and simply obeying the directives of superiors on the other. Y. Congar has written on what is justified and what is not in this approach. The reservations of Gallicanism do not at first touch the communio. Rather, they wish to qualify every papal decision, be it by an appeal to a council or by a stipulation that the directives must be accepted by the whole Church (bishops and flock) to be valid.

Another kind of stipulation is applied by the Jansenists, who support papal authority as long as it does not clash with a higher forum, e.g., the authority of St. Augustine, the authentic interpreter of the Pauline doctrine of justification. There were endless quarrels over the bull Unigenitus, about its range, its interpretation and about the earlier distinctions made by the Jansenists between the quaestio facti and juris. (The Pope condemned the statements of Baius or Jansenius, but did he condemn them in the sense in which the authors meant them? This, it was thought, would have gone beyond his competence.) All these were attempts to avoid an unappealable final decision by the existing papal authority. Surely conscience is the final authority of an individual’s moral behavior, but when a community within the Catholic Church refers to a dictate of its collective conscience against a final papal decision, it has already lost the sense of the Church communio.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church [†] (Kindle Locations 1039-1057). Kindle Edition.

The thing that bothers me the most about the Church today is seeing growing numbers of Catholics who once defended the Church from Vatican II through Benedict XVI, but now question the orthodoxy or wisdom of Pope Francis at some level and look to alternate leaders to follow instead. While some have taken this to the level of claiming the Pope is dangerous, most seem to treat the Pope as if he doesn’t understand the faith. Articles with titles like “What the Pope needs to learn about X” are not rare in these times. In essence, the people who refuted attacks on past Popes from theological liberals seem to be embracing these arguments against Pope Francis and using the same ad hominem attacks (papolatry, ultramontane) against those Catholics who defend him.

These Catholics don’t like what he says and they want to disagree—BUT (and I think this is important to stress) they don’t want to commit sin in doing so. This is why the opposition to Pope Francis revolves around the dividing lines of where his words stop binding and where they can label his words as “error.” The danger is, they run the risk of going too far and crossing the line they want to respect. In this article, I hope to identify some of these danger zones.

“When Do I Have to Obey?"

The attitude that asks when what the Pope says is no longer binding is a dangerous one. It’s dangerous because it implies that the authority of the Pope is a burden we must escape from. In contrast, St. Pius X spoke about what sort of attitude Catholics should have:

Therefore, when we love the Pope, there are no discussions regarding what he orders or demands, or up to what point obedience must go, and in what things he is to be obeyed; when we love the Pope, we do not say that he has not spoken clearly enough, almost as if he were forced to repeat to the ear of each one the will clearly expressed so many times not only in person, but with letters and other public documents; we do not place his orders in doubt, adding the facile pretext of those unwilling to obey—that it is not the Pope who commands, but those who surround him; we do not limit the field in which he might and must exercise his authority; we do not set above the authority of the Pope that of other persons, however learned, who dissent from the Pope, who, even though learned, are not holy, because whoever is holy cannot dissent from the Pope. (Allocution Vi ringrazio to priests on the 50th anniversary of the Apostolic Union November 18, 1912)  [§]

Reading the words of St. Pius X, I see him as saying: When the Pope speaks to us, whether he intends to formally teach or not, he speaks for our benefit and we would be wise to learn from what he has to say. If he is right, then the Catholics who try to find excuses not to listen or think the Pope is a burden or harmful do not love him in deed, even if they love him in theory. But, when defenders of Pope Francis cite this allocution, these critics argue that this does not apply. I have read some comments saying that St. Pius X couldn’t have anticipated a “modernist, Marxist Pope” or he wouldn’t have said this. But his words do not justify this opinion or allow people to appeal to other theologians or saints against the Pope.

The Church has been clear on the range of authority of the Pope. It’s not just in his ex cathedra teachings. It also exists in his governing the Church. The First Vatican Council teaches, in Pastor Æternus:

If then any shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those things which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the pastors of the faithful; let him be anathema.


 Vincent McNabb, ed., The Decrees of the Vatican Council (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907), 42.

People who say ad populum is wrong may want to take note.

The Pope has the right and responsibility to apply the timeless teaching of the Church to the circumstances of today. Bishops and theologians advise him, but the final decision is his. When he does so, he is binding and loosing as Our Lord intended in Matthew 16:19. We trust in The Lord to protect us from a Pope binding a bad teaching or loosing a good teaching.

When The Pope Isn’t Speaking as Head of the Church

But what about when he’s not teaching as Pope?

I won’t deny that Papal press conferences and interviews cause headaches. I just deny the claims of some people who say the Pope causes these headaches. But this does bring us to the question of the Pope speaking as a man and not as the head of the Church. This is a recent phenomenon. Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have given interviews, addresses and written books during their pontificates but were offering their private views, not teaching as the Pope. How are we to approach this? A 1915 book on apologetics offers this insight:

The Pope is therefore not infallible when he gives a decision as man, bishop, scholar, preacher, or confessor, nor when he expresses an opinion on questions of art, politics, or secular science. Infallibility is quite distinct from personal impeccability.


 F. J. Koch, A Manual of Apologetics, ed. Charles Bruehl, trans. A. M. Buchanan (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1915), 177–178.

What the Pope says in these cases are not protected under the charism of infallibility. But it doesn’t follow that this means what a Pope says in these circumstances are laden with error. His holiness, learning, and wisdom as a man, bishop, scholar, preacher or confessor still exists and we should consider this. People who defend the Pope on these grounds are not guilty of Papolatry. Nor are they ultramontane.

What this qualification does mean is we don’t call someone a heretic just because he disagrees with what Benedict XVI says about Our Lord in his Jesus of Nazareth books. It also means if a Pope like John XXII speaks in a homily, he’s not teaching heresy or defining a teaching. It also means that the laws he passes as ruler of Vatican City (or earlier of the Papal States) are not Church teaching.

The Fact that Bad Popes Existed Doesn’t mean Pope Francis is One

Another pitfall to avoid is thinking just because bad Popes existed in Church history does not mean Pope Francis is one. Bad behavior goes back to St. Peter eating apart from Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14), and Popes are sinners just like the rest of us. So every Pope will have cringeworthy moments. But when people appeal to bad Popes to argue Pope Francis is one, they dredge up the notorious Popes. Benedict IX, John XII, Alexander VI, Julius II and others.

The problem with this appeal is these Popes behaved badly, but they did not teach badly as Popes. Either they taught rightly or did not teach at all. The Popes who did wrong did so as men or as rulers. They practiced vice, treated their position as if they were a secular king. etc. Pope Francis behaves nothing like this, so it is an irrelevant analogy. Some, realizing this, will point to John XXII [∞], Liberius, or Honorius and argue that they spoke falsely or heretically, and Pope Francis can do the same. The problem is, the Church denies those Popes taught heresy, even privately. Their faults were they taught ambiguously or did not act when they should have. So these Popes antics don’t mean Pope Francis is heretical.

That brings us to our next point.

Do We Understand Context and Meaning? 

The problem with people accusing Pope Francis of holding error is that they assume that Pope Francis embraces the dubious claims of Cardinal Kasper and then interpret the Pope’s words according to the meaning the Cardinal gives them. For example, some Catholics are afraid that the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Lætitia promotes giving the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried. Yes, Cardinal Kasper appears to favor this. But the Pope said something entirely different:

Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration.

That’s one example of how people put a meaning into the Pope’s words he never intended. They assume that “integrating” the divorced and remarried into the Church means giving them the Eucharist and get upset. But they don’t consider whether the baggage they attach to a word is what the Pope intends. We who are Americans or western Europeans have a view of the world we think is normal, but the rest of the world doesn’t share it. He describes problems in South America and we think he hates capitalism or America. He talks about gradually moving people away from vicious customs in Argentina and we think he supports American vice. That’s not his fault. That’s our fault for assuming the rest of the world thinks like us.

We make this worse by our reliance on instant news coverage popping up on our smartphones from religiously illiterate sources. They take one sentence from an interview and treat it as if he is changing Church teaching. We rely on the analysis of that one sentence and form an opinion before the full transcript comes out. The problem is, you can’t interpret Pope Francis by one sentence. You have to look at his whole answer. He tends to describe a scenario first, and from that scenario describe a solution. If you don’t keep the scenario in mind, the quoted sentence sounds like he’s okay with sin. But if you do look at his whole answer, it becomes clear that he is not okay with sin.

I think we rely too much on bullet points and one sentence summaries. As a result, we aren’t used to diving into complex descriptions when we find them. But that’s our problem, not the Pope’s, and it’s our task to understand what he means, not to blame him because we misinterpret through our cultural mindset.

Conclusion: Judgment vs. Love and Respect

can. 1404 The First See is judged by no one.

One thing we have to remember when people want to question the Pope’s orthodoxy, that act assumes they have the right to judge his actions. Such an action implies their knowledge and their fidelity to the Church is greater than his. It assumes to read his heart and mind and finds them wanting. But we cannot do this. When the Pope teaches, we need to give assent (Canon 752). When he speaks privately, we need to be respectful. We have no right to judge him.

That doest mean the Pope can do whatever the hell he wants and we can’t say anything. There is fraternal correction. St. Thomas Aquinas describes how we must handle this:

I answer that, A subject is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment: but the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction.


Now an act which proceeds from a habit or power extends to whatever is contained under the object of that power or habit: thus vision extends to all things comprised in the object of sight. Since, however, a virtuous act needs to be moderated by due circumstances, it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect. Hence the Apostle says (1 Tim. 5:1): An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father. Wherefore Dionysius finds fault with the monk Demophilus (Ep. viii.), for rebuking a priest with insolence, by striking and turning him out of the church.


 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, (II-II q.33 a.4 resp.) trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne).

The problem is the social media complaints against the Pope show nothing fraternal. It assumes wrongdoing and speaks in an unflattering way. Some is patronizing. Some is abusive. But it generally assumes the Pope is, at best, guilty of fuzzy thinking or, at worst, a heretic. People do speak of him as if he were a burden. People do say they still wish Benedict XVI was still Pope. People do hope he’ll retire or die soon. Not everybody does these things, but the point is the attitude which thinks he is a burden to the Church is undermining our faith and trust in the shepherds. We look at what he says and does and judge whether we think it is acceptable or not.

But what we don’t ask is if we are sinning in our attitude. St. Pius X linked loving the Pope with respect and obedience. He rejected the idea of looking to another theologian against the Pope. But how many people look to Cardinal Burke, Cardinal Sarah or Bishop Athanasius Schneider [∑] as being more reliable than the Pope when it comes to fidelity to the Church?

I want to be clear I don’t seek to judge any individual or blog here. I wrote this article because I see troubling things undermining the authority of the Church and the Pope, leaving people afraid and mistrustful. I just hope to encourage people to think a different way about these things, trusting God to protect His Church under Pope Francis just as He protected the Church under every other Pope. If any person is struggling with these things, I hope my reflections help and do not drive them away in defensiveness.


[†] The actual title of the book was Der antirömische Affekt which translates as “the anti-Roman attitude.” (according to Google Translate) The book spoke about the hostility to the Pope c. 1974. Much of this anti-Roman attitude seems to fit today as well.
[§] This translation was from 2012 when Benedict XVI was Pope. Many people who cited it then deny it now.
[∞] Despite the views of some, Pope John XXII did not even preach heresy privately because the Church had not yet defined the matter at the time he offered his opinion.
[∑] I want to make clear here that I do not blame them for people elevating them this way against their will. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Being Faithful in Small Things Means Being Respectful to the Pope

When people talk about the Catholic Church becoming more faithful, they generally think of a Church that expels the liberals and leaves us with a more conservative Church that was doctrinally pure—according to the preferences of the individual imagining it. It’s easy to understand the temptation. Catholics get tired of dissenting Catholics walking around with seeming impunity and they get tired of what they think are ineffective bishops. Catholics wanted vindication and they didn’t want to keep battling people who claimed to be good Catholics while openly rejecting Church teaching. What people didn’t consider was that this would stand the parable of the lost sheep on its head, where the shepherd who, instead of leaving the 99 to save the one, wouldn’t worry about 70 lost sheep so long as he had 30 good sheep who didn’t stray.

This mindset shows up when Catholics take offense with the Pope’s words about seeking forgiveness from those we wronged. Since this involved the past mistreatment of people with same sex attraction, people reacted with outrage. Some went so far as accusing him of wanting to apologize for Church teaching. That sort of thing happens all the time. The Pope speaks. People rely on out of context quotes and go berserk. They assume mercy means permissiveness, and asking forgiveness for mistreatment means apologizing for Church teaching—even though the Pope specifically rejected this interpretation.

But what makes this troublesome is I’m not talking about radical traditionalists here. I’m talking about people who spent years or even decades defending the Church suddenly treating Pope Francis as if he were a burden to endure and saw themselves as needing to defend the faith in spite of him.

These people will hasten to tell you they are not being unfaithful. They profess obedience to the Church and Pope. I don’t dispute their sincerity. What I dispute is their belief that their behavior is not dangerous. I do not believe a person can withhold loyalty and respect to the Pope in small matters without eventually becoming disloyal and disrespectful in great matters. Our Lord warns us in Luke 16:10, “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.” If we can’t trust a person to be respectful and loyal to the Pope in small matters, how can we trust him to be faithful in large matters?

No, I’m not talking about radical traditionalists. I’m talking about Catholics who profess loyalty to the Church and the Pope, but they are patronizing about it. They feel superior to him and think they have a better grasp of Church teaching. They’ll argue that the Pope can make mistakes when speaking as a private person, and not intending to teach the Church (which is true). But they don’t ask if maybe they are the ones who made mistakes in interpreting the Pope or Church teaching itself. They’ll point out that we have bad Popes (which also is true) but they don’t show that Pope Francis is one. In other words, they mention the cases of not being infallible and of bad Popes in order to lead people into thinking the Pope’s might have spoke in error and might be a bad Pope. What they don’t do is prove that the Pope speaks wrongly. They  blame him for the misunderstandings that happen but don’t ask whether there is another cause—like our tendency to focus on one sentence in isolation when we must read his entire statement in entirety if we would understand. 

This is the danger: If one is so confident that they know better than the Pope, they eventually will decide that they can only obey him when they agree with him. The danger though is that Our Lord linked obedience to his Church with faithfulness to Him (see Luke 10:16 and Matthew 18:17), and the Pope is the head of the Church. Even when one might disagree with him on a minor matter, it is wrong to treat him like a fool—even if one is polite in doing so. I’m not advocating papolatry or ultramontanism (two popular ad hominem attacks thrown at Pope Francis’ defenders). I’m simply saying that Catholics who rush to blame him for the confusion caused by religious illiteracy are causing scandal, leading people to mistrust the Pope and the Church. Such people should remember that  Our Lord warns that the fate of those who cause such scandal:

But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh. 


 The Holy Bible, Translated from the Latin Vulgate (Douay-Rheims), Mt 18:6–7.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Rise of the "I'm With Stupid" Faction in the Church

Im with stupid

The modernist and the radical traditionalist are two factions that pretend to be good Catholics while openly distorting or rejecting what the Church says. They interpret what Scripture and Church teaching say in order to promote the views they already want to be true and to attack orthodoxy where it rebukes them. Faithful Catholics oppose these factions, because they realize that Our Lord built a Church led by the Apostles and their successors and that hearing this Church means hearing Our Lord (Luke 10:16, John 14:5).

But there is a new faction rising which seduces the orthodox Catholics by way of making professions of loyalty to the Church and Pope—with a twist. This is the faction that professes their obedience and loyalty to the Pope, but treats him like a burden must endure every time he opens his mouth or writes something. I call them the “I’m With Stupid” Catholics. These Catholics spend more time trying to criticize what the Pope said, than they do showing how the Pope’s words are Catholic. 

Pope crazy

They might not accuse him of heresy as the radical traditionalists do, but they do believe they need to lecture him on what the Church teaching is. That’s not helpful and it’s not loyal either. I say this because such complaints leave the reader with doubts about the Pope’s orthodoxy, knowledge, intelligence, or sanity. One does not build up the Church by tearing down the Pope, no matter how polite one is about it.

It is not helpful to publish articles talking about what harm might happen if people should misinterpret him. Can you imagine the Church Fathers writing epistles about how people might misinterpret Our Lord telling people that if our eye leads us to sin, we should pluck it out? How about St. Francis de Sales, writing Controversies, spending his time complaining about how some teachings of bishops and Popes were badly phrased and led Protestants into error? They didn’t. They spent their time explaining how these things were properly understood. 

Let’s face it. Many have misinterpreted Scripture and many have misinterpreted Church writings to justify terrible things. That does not mean Scripture or Church writings must be full of error. It means we can’t rely on ourselves to properly understand if we rely only on what we think the text means. We have to understand the words in the context the speaker or author intended. That means we treat fact as fact, hyperbole as hyperbole, anecdote as anecdote, and so on. We don’t scour the footnotes to find a secret meaning that is different from the actual text.

It also means we don’t make it about us. We don’t show off our own knowledge against the Pope’s words. Our task in social media and in our blogs and articles is to help people understand the faith better, not to criticize those who shepherd us because we think the Pope or bishops should have said things better. The Pope’s not an idiot. He’s not heterodox. He doesn’t speak poorly. The misunderstanding happens because people assume Pope’s words mean what they think the words should mean. That way of thinking forgets the Pope speaks in a different language and comes from a different culture than what we know as Americans. So if we assume the translated words we receive—especially when we receive them from short quotes from secular media—have the same emphasis everywhere in the world as we give them, more often than not, we’ll get it wrong.

Will people uneducated in the faith make this mistake? Yes. But our task, as Catholics seeking to defend the faith, is showing people why this way of thinking is wrong and how they should understand it instead. That means we must clear up misinterpretations of Pope Francis’ words in the same way that we clear up every other misinterpretation of what the Church teaches from the First through the Twenty First centuries.

If we would do that, we have to stop treating what the Pope says as a burden to be suffered and start leading people to understand how his words can help us deepen our understanding of the faith.