Showing posts with label Interpretation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interpretation. Show all posts

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ignorance and Arrogance: A Reflection

Introduction

The saints and the philosophers made a distinction between being ignorant and being arrogantly ignorant. The former involved not knowing. The latter involved not knowing but still assuming one’s rash assumptions were true. The former might or might not involve sin, depending on whether one made the effort to learn to the best of one’s ability (God being the ultimate judge). The latter certainly involves rash judgments. Both of them are to be avoided, though the consequences might differ.



Ignorance

Ignorance can be defined as being “uninformed about or unaware of a specific subject or fact,” or “lacking knowledge or awareness in general.” We tend to see the term “ignorant” as an insult or a condemnation. But that isn’t always the case. Humans, being finite, will always have things they don’t know. Sometimes, what we don’t know is inconsequential (What was Gary Kasparov’s seventh move in the final game of his first victorious tournament?)* Sometimes, what we don’t know can have life-threatening consequences (Is it safe to pass that truck while going over the hill?).

Obviously, ignorance about things impacting our or other lives can be harmful. We can be held responsible if we could have learned the answer but never bothered or refused to learn to avoid acting on it. But if it was impossible for us to learn something (invincible ignorance), we can’t be held responsible. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (#16) tells us

Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

Even if we strive to be faithful Catholics, there is always more to learn. There will be things we didn’t know previously that the Church taught on, or discover nuance in a teaching we had previously thought was more blunt. When we do discover this deficiency, we need to correct our thinking, trying to live according to those teachings. 

To do so, we need to be attentive to the Church, under the visible head, the Pope and bishops in communion with him. When the Church admonishes us that a behavior is incompatible with being a disciple of Christ, we act wisely if we listen to the Church, and foolishly if we refuse to listen and insist on our own views.

Arrogance

Arrogance can be defined as “having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” It combines with ignorance when we have an exaggerated sense of our own knowledge, when we are actually ignorant—we think we know what is important to know, passing judgment without considering the possibility of our own being in error. For example, I have seen numerous instances of people responding to the Pope condemning injustice related to our politics by saying “why doesn’t he speak out on the mistreatment of Christians in the Middle East?”

This is where I wish I could reach through the computer screen to smack the person. The Pope has frequently spoken out on this subject, and a Google search would quickly correct the accusers error. The arrogance is assuming that one’s lack of knowledge is a knowledge of lack. Through arrogance, the accuser turns what they know nothing about into a belief that the Pope is negligent.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns against thinking that way, teaching:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

Assuming the moral fault of another requires knowledge that a thing is so, and not merely assuming that what we think we know is sufficient to level accusations. To accuse the Pope of letting priests marry, of letting the divorced/remarried receive the Eucharist, of supporting Marxism, one has to determine that it is what the Pope intends to do and not what one thinks follows from their interpretation of what he says or writes (I discuss this more, HERE).

The Catholic Church is a catholic (universal) Church. It teaches to people of all languages, cultures, and times. But if we assume that our language, culture, and time is the only way to interpret the Church teaching, we are ignorant and arrogant when we condemn the Church—under the visible head the Pope—for pointing out that we have gone wrong in an assumption.

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(*) No idea. After writing the sentence, I tried Googling it out of curiosity. No luck.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Context and Intent Matter

There’s an old joke that runs as follows: A Catholic Priest and a Protestant Minister were debating. The Minister said, “You are an idolater, for you worship statues! You kneel before them and pray!” “No,” the Priest said, “because it is not our intention to worship an object.” “Who cares about your intention?” the Minister sneered. “You kneel down before statues, therefore you worship them.” The priest replied “You too are an idolator. You kneel down before a wooden bedpost every night and pray to it.” “No,” the Minister said. “That is not my intention.” The priest responded, “Who cares about your intention? You kneel down before it, therefore you worship it.”

One behavior I see when looking at the critics of the Pope, the Papacy in general, or the whole Church, is the assumption that the action they see is to be condemned. The problem is that the context and intention is left out of it or forgotten. But with many acts, the context and intention is the difference between a good act and an evil act.

For example, if we choose to condemn anyone who wields a sharpened blade to cut a person without considering the context, we would have to treat the surgeon in the same way we do an ax murderer. Likewise, if we were to consider the sexual act without context, we would be unable to make a distinction between marital intercourse, fornication, adultery, and rape. They all involve the sexual act. But with context, the first can be morally good, while the others are morally evil. Yet another example: Abortion is always an evil act. But not all acts leading to the removal of the unborn child from the mother is abortion. Hysterectomies and the removal of an ectopic pregnancy are not abortions because the direct destruction of the child is not intended—in fact, if it were possible to save the child, they would. People sometimes call annulments “Catholic divorce,” but annulments and divorce are two entirely different things that superficially seem the same. People call Natural Family Planning “contraception,” even though NFP is abstinence and not frustrating the completion of the sexual act. In all of these, context and intent matter in distinguishing between a morally good or neutral act and a morally evil act.

These examples might seem obvious, but people sometimes forget the concept when it comes to attacks on the Pope. Consider the recent case of the so-called “idol” at the Amazon Synod. There was an object, and people did bow down by it. The critics combined the fact that it was an image and people did bow down. But, the act of bowing, kneeling, etc., is not always an act of latria to something in front of the one bowing.

When we consider an act, we need to consider context and intent. If a person bows or kneels before an something, we need to understand whether it is an idol, a symbol of a different sort of reverence, or not the focus of the action at all. To judge whether an action is good or evil, we need to understand the context and intent.

So, with the so-called “Pachamama,” we need to ask several questions. Yes, we saw people bow. But to what purpose? Was it created as an idol? Apparently not. It was purchased from a vendor at a craft fair several years before the Synod. But if it was, did the missionaries who bought it know that? Did they use it as an object of worship when they used it as a tool in the missions? Did they intend to worship it as “Pachamama” when they performed the tree planting ceremony? Does bowing mean the same thing to those coming from the Amazon as it did to the Western European/American accusers? 

These are all questions that the accusers need to address before they can say, “An act of idol worship was committed in the Vatican Gardens and an idol was placed in the Church!” But the critics have not answered any of them with direct evidence. Instead, they rely on hearsay that claims it must be an idol and the ceremony was an act of pagan worship. From the action—without discovering the context and intent—the image was given a name and the act was called “worship. They cling to their unproven “fact” so tightly that anybody who says, “I do not believe your accusations,” is treated with derision… even though the burden of proof is on the accuser and the Pope’s defenders have pointed out the flaws in their claims.

In a similar way, critics take chapter 8§ of Amoris Laetitia and, taking the words out of all context and without considering the intention of the Pope in writing it, they accuse him of “changing Church teaching” because they believe it “contradicts” Familiaris Consortio #84.

The context they miss, however, is that St. John Paul II was speaking about those who wanted to allow reception of the Sacraments without repenting, and Pope Francis was speaking about getting people who were at odds with God and His Church back into right relationship. The Sacraments would be for those lacking all three required conditions for mortal sin and were striving to get back into right relationship with God. With the context, Amoris Laetitia can be understood as saying access to the sacraments in these cases were for those not in mortal sin due to insufficient knowledge or consent. This access is not a permission for the divorced/remarried to receive indiscriminately.

These examples demonstrate how critics of the Church go wrong when they rely on their own interpretation of text or events stripped of the context and intent needed to understand them. One section of the Church has become convinced that the successor of Peter is either openly “teaching error” or at least enabling it. But understanding context and intent is necessary if we are to be faithful to the actual teaching of the Church and not some unholy parody of our own creation. When one reads Calvin, reads Luther, reads the Patristic heresiarchs, etc., we can see that their understanding of the Scriptures and Church documents shows a failure to properly understand what they mean.

The modern critics need to look at these past errors and be wary. They might not cause a spectacular schism as those men did. But they will nevertheless cause harm to the Body of Christ by insisting that the Pope must err, never considering that they might have failed to understand. 

Context and intent do matter. If we ignore it, we will wind up believing that whatever the Church does that goes contrary to our context-free interpretation is “error.” History shows that is the path of heresy and schism. God only knows if the modern critics will go that far. But, as for me, defending the Church against these errors is essential for heading off—or at least reducing the numbers of the faithful involved in—heresy and schism before they happen.


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(§) To be honest, I rather doubt that many of the combox critics read any more than Chapter 8 from the document (some seem to have read only parts of that chapter). They thus missed the context of what the Church needs to do to build healthy marriages. It’s only by understanding this context that we can understand what Chapter 8 sets out to do.

Monday, March 5, 2018

False Narratives: Garbage In, Garbage Out

One temptation in life is to replace seeking and finding the truth with attaching ourselves to a narrative and following it—even if it leads to error. I suspect that the reader immediately thought of people they disagree with (I did, and I’m writing it). But the problem is, it is difficult to look at one’s own narrative with the same scrutiny. If our assumptions are false, the way we interpret events and motives will be useless and probably harmful.

We see these false narratives everywhere. Whether in religion or politics (and, tragically, we tend to confuse the two), we are tempted to take our preferences on how the world should work and treat any deviation from that preference as a proof that the person we disagree with is in error—and probably maliciously so.

For example, in the 2016 elections, we saw Catholics struggling over which candidate would do the least harm. Disagreement over this issue led to accusations that the person with a different view was openly supporting the evils of that candidate. Or, after the Parkland shooting, we saw Catholics accusing each other of willingness to let innocents die or willingness to let people become victims.

Or, in terms of the Catholic faith, we see people assume that their personal views on what Church teaching means are true, and whoever takes a different view—even if it is the Pope—must knowingly support error.

In each case the assumptions ran:

1. My views are correct
2. This person disagrees with me
3. Therefore, this person willingly supports error.

But the first premise must always be investigated. Even if we desire to be faithful to the Church, it does not follow that the interpretation we give is correct. The magisterium, led by the Pope and bishops in communion with him, determines the correct interpretation. To go against that interpretation is to show that one’s assumption is false.

The second premise’s relevance then depends on whether the first premise is true. If my views are objectively true, then disagreement is a concern: For example, because abortion is an intrinsic evil, a person who disagrees with Church teaching is doing wrong.  But if the person disagrees with the view that opposing abortion means supporting political platform X, that disagreement is not necessarily wrong.

The conclusion is only true if the person has accurately interpreted Church teaching and the opponent has knowingly rejected Church teaching. If the person has misinterpreted Church teaching or confused Church teaching with an opinion on interpretation then the first premise is false. If the person has wrongly confused disagreement with rejection of truth, then the second premise is irrelevant. In either case, the conclusion is unproven. (Remember, it’s possible that both opinions can be in error).

To avoid a false narrative, we constantly investigate whether our assumptions are true and whether there are other ways moral obligation can be legitimately applied. As Catholics, we believe—or are supposed to believe—that the Church authentically guides us on how we must live. But there are different ways we can legitimately apply Church teaching. If the person we disagree with uses one of those different ways (as opposed to trying to evade Church teaching), we cannot accuse them of error.

From “Dogma and Preaching”
[From “Dogma and Preaching”]

The false narrative we must reject is that our preferences are truth and that to reject our preference is to reject the truth. We can be mistaken about things: Whether about how Church teaching works [†] or about the motives of the person we disagree with. To avoid this, we must constantly seek the truth about what Church teaching means and what those we disagree with really hold.

Otherwise, we are the blind trying to lead the blind (Matthew 15:14) because we cannot see past the view that we might err. The old computer programming maxim applies here: Garbage In, Garbage Out. If we assume error to be true, or truth to be error, the conclusions we draw will be worthless, if not harmful.

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[†] I reject the notion that the Church teaches error. While she can change disciplines, she will never go from teaching X is evil to X is allowed. Many critics of the Church confuse discipline with doctrine with disastrous results.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Thoughts on the Difference Between What is Perception and What is Reality

I was recently reading, The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc—a collection of the actual documents of St. Joan of Arc’s heresy trial. It seemed like the English churchmen involved were using the “Spaghetti Approach” (throw it at the wall and see what sticks). It was a little off-putting seeing some of her responses though. From the sensibilities of a 21st century American, some of her ideas seemed harsh, or even flaky. 

But, on reflection, I realized that how a 15th century French woman expresses herself has an entirely different set of cultural baggage from a 21st century American male. Without recognizing those differences, it becomes extremely difficult to interpret the meaning of things.

This led me to think about the ongoing disputes within the Church, especially with the claims of the “break in continuity,” or “error in past teachings” (depending on how one views Church history). I see a problem with confusing one’s perception with what IS. When we ignore our cultural baggage and our preconceptions, we begin to think of our biases as reality and think our interpretations of Scripture and Church teaching are the actual meaning of Scripture and Church teaching.

The meaning of words change over time, and we need to understand the meaning of the word at the time a document in question was written. For example, I occasionally see people treat the Church interactions with the Albigensians as a sort of genocide, because some documents talk about “exterminating” them. The problem is, the word “exterminate” has a different meaning today than in the Middle Ages. In Latin, exterminatus had the meaning of “banish, expel; dismiss.” To translate it in the sense of “exterminate” today (“destroy completely; eradicate”) is to mistranslate it.

Conditions also change over time. The world today is not as it was in the past. We cannot expect a program based on the social and political structures of the 15th century to meet the needs of the social and political structures of the 21st century. But neither should we expect that what the Church rightly condemned in the past means that an underlying good is condemned.  For example, European governments in 19th century Europe were notoriously anti-clerical, and claimed to do so for the benefit of humanity. The Church rightly condemned those false invocations of human rights. But that is not a contradiction with the Church defending true human rights later on in history. 

I could go on multiplying examples, but the above show that what we perceive to be a contradiction or error may not actually be one. It may be that based on our assumptions and flaws in knowledge, what we perceive to be an error may only be a flaw in how we interpret what is going on.

I think people forget one of those things: Either they forget that the Church teaches things that are objectively true and cannot be contradicted (doctrine and morals), or they forget that they teach these objectively true things with different expressions for different times. The former tends to treat any Church teaching as something which might be overturned if the “right Pope” comes along. The latter thinks that a change in expression is a contradiction of the past. Both assumptions lead to error.

When it comes to the obligation to give assent to Church teaching, I find that some Catholics use the above errors to justify disobedience. The Catholic who thinks a teaching should be overturned will try to find “evidence” of contradiction to justify their own dissent. The Catholic who thinks a discipline should not be overturned tries to find “evidence” of rebuked Popes. Neither considers the possibility of their own failure to understand what is irreformable and what can legitimately be changed.

When the Church abrogates or derogates a certain discipline in her teachings, this is not a contradiction. It is saying, “this is how we can be most faithful to the teaching in this place and time.” It is not “mental gymnastics” to try to discern the objectively true in the midst of the application fitting for that time. It is not Ultramontanism to respect the authority of the Magisterium even when the temporal aspects of a teaching are superseded—it is simply a matter of recognizing the irreformable truth and the reformable discipline that goes with it.

If we can seek to inform our views with the truth, we can avoid the pitfalls of accusing the Church of error, when there is no error.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What I Fight For

During the last four years, I have encountered some Catholics who declare themselves in favor of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and oppose Pope Francis. I have encountered others who declare themselves in favor of Pope Francis, but not his predecessors. I believe that both groups are in error, assuming that their preferences are true and the Pope who seems to be in accord with them is considered right.

In defending the authority of the Church over the ten years this blog has been around, my stance has been that to reject a teaching of a Pope is an act of dissent and to reject that Pope in entirety is an act of schism. If a person demands Catholics give assent to a Pope they agree with, while refusing to give assent to a Pope they dislike is to play the hypocrite. The Pope they like teaches with the same authority as the Pope they dislike.

Because I recognize that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ (Matthew 16:18), and recognize the Popes as the successors of Peter, I hold that to reject the legitimate authority of the Pope is to reject Our Lord (Luke 10:16).

No, this doesn’t mean everything that comes forth from the mouth of the Pope is doctrine. The Pope does not intend to offer teaching binding the entire Church when he gives homilies, addresses, interviews or press conferences. Because of that, he can state things imprecisely. A Pope can pass laws governing Vatican City (or prior to that, the Papal States) that are aimed at governing a specific territory. These are not understood as Church teaching either.  Bishop Fulton J. Sheen once used the example of hypothetically asking the Pope about a stock investment. The Pope is not teaching in this example either.

The above (and the label of Ultramontanism) are red herrings. No informed Catholic considers those things teaching, let alone infallible. But, it does not follow from the fact that it doesn’t fall under the aegis of teaching that it is heresy when it sounds different to our way of thinking. To invoke these things, done by the handful of bad Popes we had in our history, to accuse a Pope of teaching “error” is to miss the point of history in order to slander a disliked Pope today.

The Popes can teach through the Ordinary Magisterium, which is the norm, or the Extraordinary Magisterium, which is rarely used. Many Catholics seem to think that the Pope only need to be heeded when he makes an ex cathedra proclamation, and can be safely ignored on other occasions. That view is dangerously misguided. Pope Pius IX Syllabus of Errors (#22) and Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis (#20) reject that view. Everything that was taught ex cathedra was previously taught in the ordinary magisterium. It was not a case of being an opinion prior to being defined. Ex Cathedra does not turn opinion into truth. It defines truth, confirming what was already taught.

Nor should we think assume from the fact that the Church can revise and reform a teaching or discipline to better address a certain age, that these elements “prove” error. Conditions in the times of Pagan Rome, the Dark Ages, the Medieval period, the Renaissance, or modern times are not the same and how the Church responds to the needs of that age can change without denying the Catholic Faith. A Pope can make a discipline stricter or roll it back as the need requires without contradicting his predecessors. 

So, with the controversy on the divorced/remarried and the Eucharist, it is possible that whoever succeeds Pope Francis will make clarifications as to how his teaching will be applied. For those who interpreted Amoris Lætitia with laxity, such a clarification will probably seem like a “betrayal.” For those who disliked what they thought AL advocated, such a clarification will probably seem like a “repudiation” of Pope Francis. But it will be neither. It will be an application of Church teaching for the current times.

We must remember that how we interpret Scripture or Church documents is not the same thing as Scripture and Church documents in themselves. It is easy for the individual, lacking all the information needed to put things in context, to misinterpret Church teaching and assume that misinterpretation is what the Church in past ages meant. We must make our interpretation of Scripture, a Pope, or a Council in line with how the Magisterium interprets it, not by judging the Magisterium by how we interpret it.

If we do not remember this, we will wind up engaging in pointless polemics on whether or not a certain teaching is “in error.” This debate will be rooted in our own preferences and biases, treating them as doctrine while treating the judgment of the Church as “opinion.”

What I fight for is not the “right” of the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist. It is not for “conservative” views on moral issues or “liberal” views on social justice. What I fight for is defending that the Church can teach the faithful the timeless truths as they need to be formulated for the needs of saving society in this age. This means rejecting those who try to turn this teaching into factional politics and labeling theological orthodoxy as political based on approval or disapproval.

This fight necessarily puts me at odds with the Catholic who claims to support Benedict, but not Francis, and the Catholic who claims to support Francis, but not Benedict. It likewise puts me at odds with the Catholics who put Trent and Vatican II at odds.

I fight to defend the Church as she teaches in all generations, from the time Our Lord established her to the present, and trusting Our Lord to continue to protect His Church in the future. Because of that, I must reject those arguments—intended or not—which deny that protection exists, and that we can ignore Church teaching by claiming it errs when it suits us to do so.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

14 Thoughts on Properly Understanding Church Teaching

Introduction

Last week, the Pope gave an address on the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In it he startled some people by proposing that the section on the Death Penalty be revised, saying it was never legitimate to use. As usual, people went berserk. The usual game was played: The Pope was reported as “changing Church teaching,” and the usual suspects either thought it was good or bad. Very few people I encountered asked whether this might not be a change of teaching in the first place, but actually a deepening of understanding regarding the value of life.

I think the problem is some people tend to know less about how the Church teaches then they think. As a result, whatever doesn’t square with their understanding is automatically a change. So these people tend to think that the Church is moving to the “left” or the “right” (sometimes factions accuse the Church of both at the same time).

This article is a response to this problem. I’ve come up with a list of 14 things we should keep in mind to properly understand Church teaching. This list is not done in a particular order. It is more a list that formed pondering the problems I’ve seen. Nor is it an exhaustive article. I could spend more time and come up with more things to consider (in fact, as I finalize this for posting, I think of more I want to add) but that would turn a blog post into a massive tome. Of course it is not a doctrinal article. I’m a member of the laity. I merely offer this as a set of thoughts on what we must keep in mind.

Things to keep in mind 

So here are 14 points I think are important to remember when dealing with the confusion around what the Church has to say.

1) There is a difference between “irreconcilable” and “I cannot reconcile A with B.” The first says that A and B are objectively in conflict and cannot be resolved. The second admits that the inability to reconcile is at the level of the individual or group, but not necessarily at the level of objective truth.

2) Since we hold that when the magisterium teaches—as opposed to a Pope or Bishop giving a homily or a speech—we are bound to obey, we must either trust that God will protect the magisterium from binding us to error, or we must reconcile our mistrust of the magisterium with Our Lord’s promise to be with and protect His Church always (Matthew 16:18, 28:20).

3) Discipline is not doctrine and, therefore, can change—even if that discipline has been held for a long time. Doctrine cannot change, though it can develop. So, if we think that a Pope is saying or teaching something “against doctrine,” we have the obligation to make sure it is not a change of discipline.

4) We must realize that our interpretation of Church documents is not the same thing as Catholic doctrine. We must also realize that our interpretation is not necessarily correct. We must interpret these things in light of the magisterium, not assume that we are right and the magisterium is wrong.

5) In different ages, the magisterium expressed itself in different ways. Sometimes forceful, sometimes gentle. We cannot assume by the language or the age of the document that something is doctrinal. For example, some believe that the language used by St. Pius  in Quo Primum (promulgating the Missal of 1570) means it was an infallible declaration, and the Mass in that form could never be revoked. There’s a problem with that claim. Blessed Paul VI used language in promulgating the Missal of 1970 affirming it was law and affirming it superseded previous documents [∞]. If tone is a sign of ex cathedra definition, then we already have cases of conflicting doctrine. It’s only when we investigate how the Church understands past teachings that we can determine authority.

6) When appealing to the Old Testament, we must realize that God did not mandate things like slavery, herem (putting all inhabitants of a city to the sword), divorce when they did not exist before. God actually put limits on things existing in even harsher forms among the Hebrews’ neighbors. God was moving them away from the barbarisms and towards stricter limits when the Israelites were able to bear them. So, a Pope taking a stand against the Death Penalty is no more going against Scripture than a Pope condemning genocide is contradicting Scripture on herem.

7) As the Church develops doctrine and changes disciplines, she sometimes limits pre-existing behaviors and eventually eliminates them. In the time of St. Paul, slavery and divorce were accepted facts of life in the Roman Empire. In Pre-Christian Britain and Germany, burning at the stake was considered a legitimate punishment. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the secular laws on slavery and divorce remained on the books, and continued to be followed. Some Christians justified the existence of these pre-Christian practices. While Popes condemned the reemergence of slavery in the 15th century, Christians continued to keep slaves. In fact, they pointed to the Old Testament to justify it.

8) However, we cannot use Divine Accommodation or the Church gradually overcoming the sins of the world to claim that the moral commandments can someday be superseded. Atheists sometimes attack Christians for following Biblical teaching on sexual morality by pointing to parts of the Jewish Law that we don’t follow. Some people try to argue that the condemnation of homosexuality is just as changeable as the condemnation of the eating of shellfish, but that is a false analogy. Divine Accommodation, culminating with the teaching of Jesus Christ has been about closing loopholes and holding the faithful to a higher standard (Matthew 5:22-48)

9) We must base our judgment on what is promulgated, not on what we fear will be promulgated nor on what we think should be promulgated. When the Pope gives an address or writes a book, that is not a teaching act. It is helpful in understanding how to apply Church teaching, but it is not teaching. In these non-teaching instances, we should listen respectfully and attentively. But we should not view those things as “proof” that the Pope is a heretic.

10) An individual priest, bishop, cardinal, friend of the Pope, unnamed source, etc., who claims to have the ear of the Pope or claims that the Pope is in error is not a proof that the Pope is in error. For example, Cardinal Kasper claimed that the Pope agreed with his views on marriage. But actually, Amoris Lætitia did not accept his ideas of treating divorce and remarriage as the Eastern Orthodox do, and the Pope has affirmed things that some people have claimed he would deny.

11) There is a difference between Church Teaching and the application of Church teaching. The former is doctrine. The latter is a discipline on how doctrine is carried out. If the Church forbids a certain application, then that application is closed to us until the Church sees fit to change it for our spiritual good. This is not something we can “lobby” the Pope and bishops over. Yes (per Canon 212 §2, 3), we can make known our needs and desires respectfully. But if they think it is inopportune or not needed, we cannot disobey without sinning. For example, In the Council of Trent, the Church determined it was not opportune to permit Mass in the vernacular. After Vatican II, it was permitted. But a priest who tried to say Mass in the vernacular when it was forbidden did wrong. The priest who does so today does not.

12) How we think Church teaching should be applied is not Church teaching. Some Catholics, including some priests, bishops, and cardinals, believed that all Catholics who were divorced and remarried must be treated as if they gave full consent to mortal sin. The Pope said that confessors must evaluate each case, and if culpability was diminished so that the sin was not mortal, the person might be permitted (i.e., not given a right) to receive the sacraments if conditions justified it [†]. This is not a change of doctrine or permitting sin. Nor is it a refusal to obey Our Lord on marriage or St. Paul on the Eucharist.

13) Abusus non tollit usum. (Abuse does not take away [right] use). The fact that people misuse the teaching of the Church or the writings of a saint does not make those things bad. I have seen people misrepresent St. Thomas Aquinas on Double Effect to try to justify abortion. That does not mean that the concept of double effect is evil. I’ve seen people misapply the Church teaching on just war. That does not mean that the teaching on just war is evil. People misrepresenting Pope Francis is not something new. It’s just that communications were not as swift before the Internet and the smartphone. People had to wait for St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor to be released and read it before they could report on it. People immediately spread errors about Benedict XVI’s Light of the World interview and so-called changes in Caritas in Veritate

14) The Church is not to blame for your misinterpretation. All of us have the obligation to seek out the truth and live in accord with it. That is different from making a literalistic “plain sense” reading of a summary of what the Pope said from a hostile or a religiously illiterate source.  All too often I have encountered people who misinterpreted the Pope and, when shown the quote in context, they blame the Pope for “not speaking clearly.” Assuming a negative interpretation from one’s words or actions instead of learning what is actually meant is rash judgment [¶]. 

Conclusion

I believe that remembering these things can go a long way towards remaining calm as people seek to disrupt the Church by remaking it into what they think it should be. If we realize that the magisterium alone has the authority to determine how to apply Church teaching, and realize that what we want may not be compatible with God’s will, we will be less likely to be deceived by those who claim that their claims about what they think the Church holds supersedes what the current magisterium of the Church says (Luke 10:16).

________________________________________

[∞] Missale Romanum: “We wish that these Our decrees and prescriptions may be firm and effective now and in the future, notwithstanding, to the extent necessary, the apostolic constitutions and ordinances issued by Our predecessors, and other prescriptions, even those deserving particular mention and derogation."

[†] I personally believe that if some bishops are accurately represented as having a “come if you feel called” policy, they misapply Amoris Lætitia

[¶] I think this is another problem that got worse with the emergence of the smartphone. A reporter rushing to be first with something he wrongly thinks is a change in Church teaching gets an out of context quote traveling around the globe before the actual transcript appears. People tend to treat that first report as the truth, and then the official transcript as a “walking back” or “clarification.”

Friday, April 28, 2017

On the Outside Looking In: Thoughts on Misinterpretation

Introduction

I was reading a book on how Westerners misinterpret the Bible. It made the point that we have cultural blinders which lead us to give meaning to things that were never originally intended. Ironically, the book gave an unintended example of this when talking about the Protestant Reformation trying to recover the original meaning of words:

Viewed from one perspective, the Protestant Reformation began as an effort to correct a mistaken assumption about equivalency in language. Over time, the Roman Catholic church had developed a doctrine of confession that included works of penance, such as reciting a certain number of prayers (think “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers”) and, most disturbing, the purchase of indulgences to assure forgiveness of sins. By the late Middle Ages, church leaders insisted this system is what Jesus had in mind when he called sinners to repent—that do penance was equivalent to (meant the same thing as) repent

 

E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 76.

The book went on to argue that this was not what early Christianity meant by repenting. The problem is, this is also not what Catholicism means by repenting. The section started with an error and wrote on what Martin Luther was “saving” people from. Except he didn’t.  The authors wrote about how Catholics in the Middle Ages confused the concept of penance with the Greek word for repenting. Except we didn’t. They wrote about how we created this in medieval times. Except we haven’t. The Orthodox churches also have the concept of the sacrament of penance, and some of them have been separated from us since the 5th century

The problem with the authors is they assumed that the distorted vision of Catholicism they received was true, and created a view of Catholicism which had nothing to do with us. They had cultural blinders that caused them to misread us. Catholics have never believed in indulgences being sold, let alone for the forgiveness of sins! When it comes to the Latin word Paenitentia, the meaning is: regret (for act); change of mind/attitude; repentance/contrition (William Whitaker, Dictionary of Latin Forms). Properly going through the sacrament of confession requires us to regret our actions, change our attitude, and intend to do right in the future. In other words, the same meaning as the Greek metanoia. There was no error of understanding on the part of Catholics. There was an error of understanding on the part of those on the outside looking in because they assumed they knew without investigating whether it was true.

I bring this up not to ridicule these Protestant authors, but to illustrate a point: We too can go wrong if we either assume others think like us, and focus on what we think it means, and we can go wrong if we get so distracted by the differences that we miss the point behind those differences.

Missing the Meaning

The further we are removed from the original meaning, the more likely we are to diverge from what was meant. These can be linguistic, cultural, historical, or many others. Once we include history, we add the difference of time to the difference of language and culture. What people experienced in AD 17, 517, 1017, 1517 and 2017 are widely different. Laws, government, customs and the like would change over time even in one region. Once we go to a different region in a different time where they used a different language, and there are many ways we can go wrong if we forget these differences exist. 

For example, when an English speaking critic reads a transcript of Pope Francis today, there is a difference of language requiring a translator and there is a difference of culture between a member of the clergy who lived in Latin America and a lay blogger living in the United States. If the critic does not take these differences into account, the odds are good that the critic will get things wrong. For example, when the Pope spoke of a large number of marriages possibly being invalid, and of some couples living together being closer to the true meaning of marriage than some married couples, people went berserk. They assumed he was talking about 21st century American marriages and justifying cohabitation. He was not. He was talking about vicious customs in South America where people sometimes face insurmountable difficulties getting married while others treat the sacrament of matrimony as merely part of the celebration.

In other words, people assumed his words against vicious customs which they never witnessed were about marriage in the United States—which has its own set of problems. They forgot about these differences and thought that what he said must be directed at them. They missed the meaning because they were blind to differences facing Catholics in different parts of the world.

We can learn, despite these differences. But we need to learn the intended meaning, and not assume the people of different times, cultures, and languages think like 21st century Americans. Otherwise we risk attacking the Church because we think the Church is “attacking” moral values when she is in fact responding to cultural problems. For example, the radical feminist who sees “patriarchy” everywhere or the radical traditionalist who sees “modernism” everywhere because they assume that their interpretations are the norm, refusing to consider the possibility of their own error.

Missing the Point

On the other hand, we can go wrong by being distracted by differences of cultures. Sometimes these differences involve the existence of things we today know are morally wrong. We’re offended by the fact that a saint from another century speaks about them as if they were normal, and miss the point he was trying to make. 

For example, in reading some of St. John Chrysostom’s homilies, I’ve come across the reference, in one of his homilies, to the slave market. At this time, the Roman Empire was about a thousand years old and had slaves for the entire time. This can be quite jarring. Because of our experience with the ugliness of  slavery, segregation, and racism in the United States, we are rightly appalled at the evils. So, the fact that a Saint talks about slavery in a matter of fact manner can be shocking. But if we stop at the differences, without understanding them, we miss some real insights.

St. John Chrystostom makes reference to Our Lord being a noble at a slave market asking us (the slave) if we will choose to serve Him. In the 21st century, our egalitarian views balk at this image of Our Lord buying slaves. But in doing so, we risk missing the point that would have been clear to 4th century Greeks. St. John Chrysostom was invoking an image the people of Constantinople could understand with the differences of social rank

That Our Lord, in the role of the noble, offers to purchase (redeem) us from the slave market of sin and asks if we are willing to serve Him showed a difference between God and man that our egalitarian views might misunderstand. Recognizing an image of Jesus as a Noble Lord, us as the lowly slave, and the purchase price being His own blood, we can see an image showing how great God’s love for us is when He is so far above us and is willing to pay so great a price for us if only we will serve Him—a choice that is not forced on us.

If we stopped at the level of being offended with the existence and mention of slavery, we’d entirely miss the point of the homily on what Jesus has done for us in relation to what He asks of us.

Yes, sometimes saints in one era say things in a way that seem cringeworthy or excessively harsh in our time. That doesn’t mean the saint was in error or promoting evil. We have to understand the context and meaning if we are to profit from it, rather than be members of the Church of Perpetual Indignation. Otherwise, we risk accusing the Church (falsely) of supporting evils she does not.

Conclusion

The point of both examples is this: If we stop at what we think is meant and don’t actually investigate what the person we were offended with actually intended, then we do wrong. We judge rashly. We accuse them of supporting things they do not. Whether it is accusing the Pope of contradicting Church teaching or accusing a reformation era saint of holding to a heresy, the fault of rash judgment is with us if we do not investigate what the person we think offensive actually means. If we’re scandalized by a Bible verse, a Church teaching, a saint, or a pope, we need to recognize that the Church was not cruising on autopilot, rubber-stamping error when she confirmed the canon, made a teaching or named a saint. 

If we feel like something the Church has affirmed is error, that’s a warning sign that we need to reassess our own interpretation and see what we missed when viewed in context.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Thoughts on the Errors of Combox Warriors

Introduction

There seems to be a slew of errors going around on social media which feed on a misrepresenting of the interviews with Cardinal Burke over the dubia. Like always, I’m not accusing him of supporting those actions done invoking his name [†]. I’m opposing errors from those I call “Combox Warriors” (Catholic battling in social media over Church matters, viciously attacking those who disagree). These errors stem from the refusal to consider they might have gotten something wrong in comparing what they think follows from what they think the Pope says with what they think previous Church teaching means. In other words, the attacks on the Pope depend on the ipse dixit claims of his critics who need to prove what they assume is true.

So let’s look at some of the problems with their claims.

How is it that X Isn’t a Teaching, but Y is, When Both are Taught at the Same Level?

One of the claims used to deny the teaching authority of Amoris Lætitia is to say it isn’t a teaching because it is only an Apostolic Exhortation. The problem is, these critics also insist that this Exhortation is wrong because it “contradicts” (a point to be proven, not assumed) Familiaris Consortio. But there is the problem. Familiaris Consortio is also an Apostolic Exhortation. So, if Amoris Lætitia is not a teaching because it is “only” an Apostolic Exhortation, then logically one must concede that Familiaris Consortio is not a teaching either.

In other words, you can either accept the authority of both or reject the authority of both. But to accept one and reject the other on these grounds is irrational.

There’s No Facility for Removing a Pope from Office

Another problem comes from Combox warriors quoting St. Robert Bellarmine out of context (we’ll talk more about that below).  The argument is that when a Pope is a manifest heretic, he is no longer the Pope. It is claimed that the Pope’s teachings “prove” he is a heretic (or will be soon). Therefore, it is argued that he’s not the Pope. So, who determines whether the Pope has crossed that line? Cardinal Burke thinks it can be done but “It would have to be members of the College of Cardinals.” The problem is, there is no competent tribunal to judge him. No valid council has ever deposed a sitting Pope. In fact, the Code of Canon Law (#1404) tells us, “The First See is judged by no one.”

Indeed, the cause of the Great Western Schism came about because a majority of cardinals deserted Pope Urban VI and elected an antipope (Robert of Geneva, aka Clement VII) in his place. Later, to try to correct the confusion, cardinals called a council at Pisa [*] and tried to depose both the Pope and the antipope and “declared” a new person Pope (antipope Alexander V). In all of this, the Church regards the true Pope to have been Urban VI and his successors.

The Council of Constance declared that a Council had the authority to depose a Pope (the Haec Sancta Synodus decree), but this decree was never approved by Gregory XII (the legitimate Pope of the time) nor his successor Martin V, so it is not considered a magisterial teaching. Therefore, it cannot be invoked against Pope Francis. The point is, despite whether one, four, or even all 121 of the cardinals under the age of 80 want to depose the Pope, there is no valid means they can use to do so.

Before a Pope could be removed from office because he was a “manifest heretic,” we would need one of two things to happen:

  1. The Pope would have to issue a decree defining how a Pope could be removed.
  2. A Council called by a Pope would have to decree on how a Pope could be removed—and the Pope at the time of the Council would have to approve that declaration. 
In other words, the Church has no ability to force a Pope from his office, and will not get one unless a Pope enacts such an ability through his authority. So long as there is no such authority granted, we can trust in God to remove such a Pope—and I deny any Pope past or present fits the condition of manifest heretic.

Let’s Talk About St. Robert Bellarmine’s Opinion [§]

Earlier, I mentioned the passage of St. Robert Bellarmine that critics of the Pope cite to say a Pope can be removed. The arguments I have seen run along the lines of pointing out that he is a Doctor of the Church and therefore his writings are official teachings of the Church. This is not true. The text in question actually discusses 5 opinions. What’s not normally quoted is the fact that the first view rejects that the Pope can be a heretic in the first place:

The first is of Albert Pighius, who contends that the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case: 806 [Hierarchiae Ecclesiasticae, bk 4, ch. 8.] such an opinion is probable, and can easily be defended, as we will show in its proper place.

However, he says that because “the common opinion is to the contrary, it will be worthwhile to see what the response should be if the Pope could be a heretic.” Note that phrase, “if the Pope could.” He’s not assuming it happens. He’s making a speculative, “What if that’s wrong?” Of those four opinions He rejects three of them:

  1. That the Pope can be deposed the instant he falls into even personal heresy.
  2. That the Pope can’t even be deposed for manifest heresy.
  3. [St. Cajetan’s opinion] That if the Pope falls into manifest heresy, he can and should be deposed by the Church.

After analyzing and rejecting these, he supports the following:

Now the fifth true opinion, is that a Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the opinion of all the ancient Fathers, who teach that manifest heretics soon lose all jurisdiction, and namely St. Cyprian who speaks on Novation, who was a Pope in schism with Cornelius: “He cannot hold the Episcopacy, although he was a bishop first, he fell from the body of his fellow bishops and from the unity of the Church.” 819 [Bk 4, epist. 2]. There he means that Novation, even if he was a true and legitimate Pope; still would have fallen from the pontificate by himself, if he separated himself from the Church.

Bellarmine, Robert (2015-05-22). On the Roman Pontiff. (De Controversiis Book 1) (pp. 309-310). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition. 

Unfortunately, the term “true opinion” is misunderstood today. It’s a philosophical term which refers to an opinion which is held for reasons that are true, as opposed to arbitrary preference, but many wrongly think it means “fact.” So, this isn’t Church doctrine, and St. Robert Bellarmine doesn’t think it is either.

I would sum up this chapter as follows: While not defined, it is probable to believe that the Pope can’t be a manifest heretic, and therefore can’t be deposed. But, if he could be a manifest heretic (which is debated), members of the Church don’t depose him—he’d merely stop being Pope because he’d stop being Christian. (Many of Pope Francis’ critics who cite the Saint’s opinion actually seem to misinterpret it as #1 and #3 which he actually rejects.)

That being said, St. Robert Bellarmine’s treatise was never turned into the official teaching of the Church. As pointed out above, the Church has no defined way to remove a Pope, so this cannot be used by cardinals or councils to depose a Pope.

Popes Honorius I and John XXII

Two Popes who have been mentioned as “proof” of Popes being heretics are Honorius I and John XXII. The problem is, neither Pope proves anything in the case at hand, and it is unjust to claim Pope Francis is in the same situation.

Honorius I was condemned at the Third Council of Constantinople, 42 years after his death, because, in a letter to Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, he seemed to privately hold the heresy of monothelitism. But there is a dispute as to whether he disagreed with Our Lord having two wills (heterodox) or disagreed with the idea of Our Lord having two wills in conflict. Regardless of which was true, he is considered as having failed to carry out his duty by evading the issue instead of confronting it.

If it was true he privately held heresy, his case does not show a Pope can be deposed for heresy. He died in office and a later Pope confirmed the sentence of the Council. Nor can his evasion be equated with Pope Francis refusing to answer the dubia. Honorius I sought to evade an answer. Pope Francis insists the teaching is clear, but some people want excessive clarification. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Pope, there is no evidence that he is seeking to evade a debate.

Pope John XXII is (wrongly) portrayed as a Pope who taught heresy. That is not an accurate accusation. The issue was whether those who die see the Beatific vision immediately or not until the Final Judgment. At this time, the issue was not decided. What John XXII did was give homilies (which are not an occasion for infallibility) holding the former position. The controversy is over whether he was defining doctrine. He was not formally corrected, but was persuaded to change his opinion on the subject.

The accusations of heresy came from a group called the Spiritual Franciscans whom the Pope ruled against. The issue was over whether his condemnation of the idea that, “Christ and his apostles had no possessions whatever.” Seeking to discredit the Pope, they accused him of teaching heresy. However, this was not a defined doctrine and the Pope was not teaching. It was not until his successor, Benedict XII, that the issue was defined. Since 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” and John XXII did not deny anything, let alone obstinately, we don’t consider him a heretic. 

Conclusion

It’s not my place to judge the intentions of the cardinals who are troubled by the Pope, and I won’t accuse them of bad will.  Cardinal Burke did explicitly say Pope Francis was not a heretic, so it would be unjust to put those words in his mouth.

Unfortunately, some Catholics on social media are using his words to justify their attacks on the Pope. These attacks have long been based on their own readings of what they think the Pope says, contrasted to what they think the Church said previously. In doing so, they have two prove two things:

  1. That they have interpreted the Pope according to his intention.
  2. That they have interpreted previous Church teaching according to the understanding of the magisterium today.
In fact, these “combox warriors" show they understand neither correctly. Quotes from both are lifted out of context to show they are “contradictory.” These are the same tactics used by the critics of Vatican II and every Pope from St. John XXIII forward. I won’t lump all these critics together (there are variations), but we have to realize that some of the most abusive attacks come from people who have long seated grudges against the Church and refuse to consider the possibility that they could have gotten it wrong.
 
It’s my hope that by discussing some of the more common claims, this article might show that the arguments of such “combox warriors” are flawed and leading people astray by deceiving them into thinking the Church is in a state of error. It is only by recognizing the possibility of our own error when disagreeing with the magisterium that we can avoid spreading dissent while thinking we are in the right.

 

__________________________

[†] One wishes the combox warriors would give the Pope the same consideration.

[*] This gathering was condemned in the Lateran V Council.

[§] Permissions to quote sections of the recent translation of this work was given by Mediatrix Press. The volume in question can be found HERE. (To get to the relevant chapter, go to Book II, Chapter XXX) I’ve copied the footnotes to the text in brackets after the number for readers who want to make sure nothing is overlooked. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

False Interpretations and Unspoken Assumptions

There’s no doubt that there is infighting in the Church. Without getting into who is right and who is wrong, Catholics are pitted against each other. This time, it is not just orthodox vs. heterodox. Added to that conflict is a civil war between Catholics professing to be faithful to the Church—indeed Catholics who strove to defend the Church during earlier pontificates—on whether one needs to oppose the current shepherds or whether that is wrong. One of the areas of contention is over the claim that we never had this level of confusion in the Church before (a claim I disagree with).

I have a few theories. One of them involves the growth of Social Media plus smart phones allowing us to be instantly misinformed about what is going on with the Church. One who wants to undermine the Church can now reach a global audience as opposed to xeroxed pamphlets shoved under people’s windshield wipers. But that’s only one part of the problem. It doesn’t explain how some stalwart defenders of previous Popes can now turn on the current one. To some critics of the current Pope, they don’t see how one can support him without rejecting his predecessors. Since they know his predecessors taught truly, they believe they have to oppose the Pope today.

Yes, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI did explain boundaries of intrinsic evil. Nobody denies that. But what we forget is they also stressed reconciling the sinners to God, not expelling them from the Church, except for grave issues in hopes that would bring them back to their senses. Like it or not, they did have teachings against unrestrained capitalism and destruction of the environment (in earlier documents, they called it “ecology”). Like it or not, there were bishops who did regrettable things during their pontificates but remained in their positions. There were pro-abortion Catholics who were never excommunicated back then too. We tend to forget these things and that some Catholics bitterly condemned them.

It seems to me that Pope Francis takes his predecessors’ teaching on intrinsic evil as a given and has devoted his teaching to emphasize what we overlooked (but was always present) in his predecessors’ teachings—how to reach out to those Catholics estranged from the Church in the hopes of bringing them back. This is why I think some have missed the point of previous papal teaching: We were so concerned with blocking those people actively trying to corrupt Church teaching (and they existed), that we assumed all people who wound up afoul of Church teaching were part of this group. We didn’t consider that some of them might have been badly educated on what the Church taught and why, and might be brought back if we reached out to them. We assumed they made an irrevocable decision and any attempt to reach out to them meant compromising on truth.

Yes, some of the issues are muddled because some people do want to undermine Church teaching, whether knowingly or through being mistaken. But when one starts wth the assumption that the Pope’s position is the teaching of the Church (the quote ignored in favor of “Who am I to judge?”), we will see his teachings on mercy and forgiveness presuppose the works of his predecessors. It’s only if we assume he intends error to begin with that we’ll see error in his words. This is why Benedict XVI could talk of Pope Francis in an interview this way:

[Q] Some commentators have interpreted this exhortation as a break, particularly because of its call for the decentralization of the Church. Do you detect a break from your Papacy in this programmatic text?

[A] No. I, too, always wanted the local churches to be active in and of themselves, and not so dependent on extra help from Rome. So the strengthening of the local church is something very important. Although it is also always important that we all remain open to one another and to the Petrine Ministry – otherwise the Church becomes politicized, nationalized, culturally constricted. The exchange between the local and global church is extremely important. And I must say that, unfortunately, those very bishops who oppose decentralization are those who have been lacking in the kind of initiatives one might have expected of them. So we had to help them along again and again. Because the more fully and actively a local church itself truly lives from the centre of faith, the more it contributes to the larger whole.

It is not as though the whole Church were simply dictating to the local churches: what goes on in the local churches is decisive to the whole. When one member is diseased, says St Paul, all are. When, for example, Europe becomes poor in faith, then that is an illness for the others as well – and vice versa. If superstition or other things that should not occur there were to fall in upon another church, or even faithlessness, that would react upon the whole, inevitably. So an interplay is very important. We need the Petrine Ministry and the service of unity, and we need the responsibility of local churches.

[Q] So you do not see any kind of break with your pontificate?

[A] No. I mean, one can of course misinterpret in places, with the intention of saying that everything has been turned on its head now. If one isolates things, takes them out of context, one can construct opposites, but not if one looks at the whole. There may be a different emphasis, of course, but no opposition.

[Q] Now, after the present time in office of Pope Francis – are you content?

[A] Yes. There is a new freshness in the Church, a new joyfulness, a new charisma which speaks to people, and that is certainly something beautiful.

Benedict XVI, Pope (2016-11-14). Last Testament: In His Own Words (Kindle Locations 769-787). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

This is the testimony of a Pope emeritus who believes the current Pope to be orthodox and consistent with his predecessors. But many Catholics who praise Benedict XVI seem like they would disagree with his assessment.

This is why I have misgivings about the things four cardinals, a group of philosophers, and a mob of Social media critics say—in various levels of politeness—the Pope should answer the dubia. Whether they intend it or not, what some of them really mean is, Answer it so we can see if you are orthodox or heterodox. When one looks at it this way, there is no confusion when the Pope and his supporters say things are already clear. He does intend them to be understood in the light of Church teaching.

I believe the way out of the confusion some complain about is not in the Pope speaking differently. Confusion ends when we start assuming the Pope is orthodox and we interpret what he says from that perspective. No Pope will look orthodox if people assume he is heretical. Remember, sede vacantists and the SSPX interpreted St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI as teaching error when these Popes went against their views.

The confusion is not about what Pope Francis said or did. The confusion is about individual Catholics on the internet being mistrustful of the Pope. They have interpreted Church teaching in a certain way and anything that does not match that interpretation must be in error. What they don’t ask is whether they misinterpreted the Pope or prior Church teaching. If a critic misinterprets one of these (they often misinterpret both), they will reach a false conclusion.

We should start questioning our own interpretations. If interpretations do not correspond to what a teaching is, they are false interpretations. We should look at our own assumptions. If they are wrong, we will be misled. The hard part is, self-deception is easy. Nobody likes realizing they’re wrong and we have ways of shifting the blame to excuse ourselves. But when this interferes with our obligation to seek out and follow truth, that can have dangerous consequences.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Confusing Church Teaching With Opinions on Applying It

Dealing with Biblical literalists, I noticed they constantly made the same mistake. That mistake was confusing the words of Scripture with their opinions on applying it against the Catholic Church. They would keep insisting that this wasn’t their opinion. After all, they were citing the words of the Bible—weren’t they? What they couldn’t grasp was this: We did not deny the authority of Scripture. Nor did we deny the words of the text. What we did deny was their claim to applying it accurately against the Church.

While some Catholics may laugh at their silly blind spot, some of them make the same error in applying Catholic teaching. They cite a teaching of the Church, they apply it against a practice in the Church or behavior by an individual and accuse them of going against Church teaching. Like the literalist, they assume that the rejection of their opinion on how to interpret it is a rejection of Church teaching itself. 

The problem with the literalist and the Catholic demanding on their interpretation of Scripture or Church teaching is one of authority. The problem is not what Scripture or Church teaching says. It’s about who can interpret it in a binding way. The person who does not have that authority cannot demand people follow their views. They can only point to the teaching authority that exists. The teaching authority belongs to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. The priest takes part in this authority by working with the bishop and never apart from him.

The rest of us can explain the teaching of the Church. But we have the responsibility to explain it rightly and make sure we separate what the Church teaches from how we would like people to apply it. There is a difference. If a Catholic tries to twist Church teaching to justify disobedience, we need to challenge that. But if a Catholic is faithful to Church teaching but disagrees on the “nuts and bolts” ways to apply this teaching, savaging him is wrong.

Discerning this difference is not always easy. Yes, people sometimes do get things wrong and we need to help them understand the right. But in doing so, we have to make sure we have a clear understanding on what the Church teaches, and make sure we are not replacing Church teaching with our own opinions on what we think should follow from it.

For example, I have seen people argue that Church teaching demands Catholics vote for or against a specific candidate. Some will go so far as accusing Catholics who disagree with them of being bad Catholics. This confuses Church teaching with personal opinion on applying Church teaching. Yes, Catholics who vote for a candidate because the candidate holds a view which is against Church teaching do wrong. And, yes, Catholics need to consider the consequences of their vote. But if a Catholic  uses Church teaching to guide them, seeking to be faithful, we can’t accuse them of being faithless just because their decision does not match ours.

As I see it, if we find a person’s actions troubling but not intrinsically evil, we have to discern their reasoning and how they understand Church teaching. If they understand Church teaching rightly, and are using Church teaching to guide their actions, we cannot condemn them. The Catechism tells us how we must approach things:

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

 

 Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 594.

But some Catholics don’t give a favorable interpretation. They don’t ask how the other understands it. They don’t correct with love. They assume from the fact that the other disagrees on how to best handle a situation, they must be bad Catholics. That’s rash judgment, and the Church forbids it.

Think about that the next time you’re debating on social media.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Pope Francis, Mercy, and Misrepresentation

Chesterton orthodoxy

Introduction

Those who think the Pope’s emphasis on mercy supports laxity—whether critics or people who wrongly hope for change of teaching—misunderstand what mercy is. I find that Bishop Robert Barron has a good response, rejecting that view:

Many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer matters. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness.

Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 199-201). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.

His response is a good one. Jesus showed mercy to sinners. He did not tell the that their sins did not matter. The Pope doesn’t tell people that their sins do not matter either. What the Pope does say is it is not enough to tell people what is wrong. We also have to help them get back to what is right.

The Error of Contrast

While I reject the misrepresentation of Pope Francis, I do understand how they got to that point. His predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, had to take on a world openly hostile to the Catholic moral teaching, especially on sexual morality and the sanctity of life. These two Popes spoke to the world, showing why its values were harmful. The world, in response, misrepresented these Popes as caring only “about rules” while ignoring human suffering. They downplayed what these Popes had to say about mercy and love.

The error people make about Pope Francis is they assume his emphasis on bringing sinners back to a true relationship with God is contradicting his predecessors instead of complementing them. His critics and those who wrongly hope he is changing teaching and practice fall into the either-or fallacy. They assume Popes either emphasize teaching or emphasize mercy. The problem with looking at things this way is you will equate mercy with laxity instead of with love, and as Bishop Barron points out, "Mercy is what love looks like when it turns toward the sinner.” [*]

Our problem in looking at mercy as laxity is it is like wearing a defective pair of glasses. It distorts what we see until we take them off. People have to go past their perception of what they think is there and seek what really is. That means becoming self-aware of our flaws and learning more about the depth of our Catholic teaching, instead of assuming that what we know is that depth.

Confusing Interpretation With Assumption of Meaning

People who don’t do this have gone badly wrong about Pope Francis. They see quotes like “Who am I to judge?” and “I could say ‘yes,' and that’s it” [†] but do not see those words in context. They use “Who am I to judge?” to claim the Pope sees same sex activity as morally acceptable, and “I could say ‘yes,’ and that’s it” as encouraging the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist.

But theology doesn’t work that way. You can’t just take a single verse of Scripture or a line from the Pope’s words and contrast it with a single line from an earlier document. That ignores context. Nothing taught by the Church exists in a vacuum. Whether it is an anti-Catholic citing “Call no man father” (see Matthew 23:9) or a person citing footnote 351 in Amoris Lætitia, or a Papal Press Conference, one cannot build a claim around one quote. We have to investigate context and intention to see how it is intended.

Peter Kreeft described it this way in a Socratic dialogue:

Socrates: I think you are confusing belief with interpretation.

Flatland: No, I'm just saying we have to interpret a book in light of our beliefs.

Socrates: And I'm saying we must not do that.

Flatland: Why not?

Socrates: If you wrote a book to tell other people what your beliefs were, and I read it and interpreted it in light of my beliefs, which were different from yours, would you be happy?

Flatland: If you disagreed with me? Why not? You're free to make up your own mind.

Socrates: No, I said interpreted the book in light of my beliefs. For instance, if you wrote a book against miracles and I believed in miracles, and I interpreted your book as a defense of miracles, would you be happy?

Flatland: Of course not. That's misinterpretation.

Socrates: Even if it were my honest belief?

Flatland: Oh, I see. We have to interpret a book in light of the author's beliefs, and criticize it in light of our own.

Socrates: Precisely. Otherwise we are imposing our views on another.

Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 749-755). Kindle Edition.

So, if Pope Francis does not intend for his teachings to justify things people accuse him of justifying, they are making an error by assuming their belief is what he meant.

Exploring context does not mean “explaining away what he said.” It is investigating whether an opinion about the Pope’s intention is accurate If it is not, we must stop repeating the allegation as if it were true. That’s why we can’t accept the rushed mainstream media and anti-Francis blogs as true. By quoting things without considering the context, they cannot provide a trustworthy analysis of what the Pope intends.

Amoris Lætitia, Evangelii Gaudium and Footnotes 

Let’s look at one example where people are arguing about What It All Means when it all revolves from one point taken out of context. That item is Footnote #351 from Amoris Lætitia. People are arguing over one point in that footnote:  "I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).” People who interpret that as justifying Eucharist for the divorced/remarried (whether they favor it or oppose it) argue that the Pope was talking about the divorced and remarried in ¶305. From that, they accuse him of changing teaching or practice. But ¶305 is not dealing with changing rules about Sacraments. It is about priests not just reciting rules and assuming that all people in the same situation share the same level of culpability. It is about considering the culpability of the individual.

Evangelii Gaudium ¶47 (referenced in Amoris) happens to be about the fact that even Catholics who are living in opposition to Church teaching are not cut off entirely from the Church, and should join in at the level which is allowed to them. This section of Evangelii has its own footnote which references two early Christian Fathers on one not staying away from the Eucharist just because he is a sinner. [§]. But we can know Pope Francis does not use these citations to justify reception of the Eucharist. In his press conference returning from Mexico, he spoke this way:

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, when asked what he meant by integration, he explicitly said that it did not automatically mean “Eucharist.” When Pope Francis speaks of a path, he means exactly that. It’s a path back to reconciliation with God. That path calls priests and bishops to go beyond citing rules and helping sinners reconcile with God through a process. Some people may be in situations where they can receive the Eucharist.

Here’s an example. When the synod process began, I met many angry women on Facebook. They were angry because they were unjustly divorced by their husbands, and thought it not receiving the Eucharist was unjust. As the comments continued, we discovered something. Some of those women had never  remarried. They stayed away from the sacraments because they thought divorce alone barred them. They were amazed to discover they were never denied the Eucharist to begin with.

Not everybody is in an easy fix situation. But not all situations are impossible to reconcile with people of good will seeking to make things right. Even in situations where the person will not change their relationship, the Pope says not to give up on them. They’re still part of the Church even if their situation prevents them from receiving the Eucharist. As he wrote in Amoris Lætitia ¶309,

The Bride of Christ must pattern her behaviour after the Son of God who goes out to everyone with- out exception”.358 She knows that Jesus himself is the shepherd of the hundred, not just of the ninety-nine. He loves them all. On the basis of this realization, it will become possible for “the balm of mercy to reach everyone, believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst”. 

In that parable, the shepherd was not content with the 99 sheep that did not stray. He went after the 100th sheep that strayed. That is what this chapter of the Apostolic Exhortation is about. Not permitting sin. It’s about finding and helping those who did stray back to the flock.

Conclusion: Avoiding Eisegesis and Circular Reasoning

To accuse the Pope of promoting “Communion for the Divorced and Remarried,” a person must start with a preconceived notion that the Pope intends to do this.It’s begging the question, assuming something is true when accusers need to prove their claim. With this fallacy, every bit of “evidence” against the Pope entirely depends on the accusation being true—which is what we insist they prove first before we accept it. If one does not read personal assumptions into the Pope’s words and actions, what he says and does is entirely in keeping with his predecessors and what the Church has always taught.

People believe the Pope is heterodox because they interpret his words as changing the Church teaching in a break from what cannot change. The problem is, they interpret his words as being a break from unchangeable teaching because they believe the Pope is heterodox. That’s arguing in a circle. Each part depends on the other, but neither part stands on its own. Mistrust of the Holy Father builds into a monstrous falsehood that destroys people’s trust in God protecting His Church. We must reject this spurious reasoning that undermines the Holy Father and stop claiming his calls for mercy are calls for laxity.

 

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[*] (Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 615-616). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition).

[†] Some Catholics have taken the translation of the Italian word Punto as finality ignoring everything he said after.

[§] Footnote 51 of Evangelii Gaudium reads: 

Cf. Saint Ambrose, De Sacramentis, IV, 6, 28: PL 16, 464: “I must receive it always, so that it may always forgive my sins. If I sin continually, I must always have a remedy”; ID., op. cit., IV, 5, 24: PL 16, 463: “Those who ate manna died; those who eat this body will obtain the forgiveness of their sins”; Saint Cyril of Alexandria, In Joh. Evang., IV, 2: PG 73, 584–585: “I examined myself and I found myself unworthy. To those who speak thus I say: when will you be worthy? When at last you present yourself before Christ? And if your sins prevent you from drawing nigh, and you never cease to fall—for, as the Psalm says, ‘what man knows his faults?’—will you remain without partaking of the sanctification that gives life for eternity?”

 

 Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Surreal World of Radical Traditionalism

Alice in Wonderland

Introduction

Membership in the Catholic Church is different from memberships in other religious groups. Unlike other religious bodies that simply insist on members accepting the authority of holy books or certain practices, the Catholic Church also insists her Pope and bishops are the successors to the Apostles and have the same authority which Our Lord gave to the Apostles. To reject the authority of the Pope and bishops is far more serious than a Presbyterian rejecting the authority of his minister. The Presbyterian can go to another denomination or to another church within his denomination and still be Protestant. But a Catholic who denies the teaching authority of the Pope and bishops has damaged their relationship with the Church we profess was founded by Christ.

That’s a serious matter. The person for whom membership in the Catholic Church is important, must justify rejecting the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him by arguing that he is not in opposition to the Church. Rather he is being faithful in larger matters. The people who do this have different motivations and political leanings. Some try to argue that the Church teaching is harsher than Our Lord ever intended and this justifies disobedience. But others claim that they follow the Catholic teaching as it was always practiced, claiming that the Church fell into error beginning with St. John XXIII and will be in error until the Church rejects Vatican II and all the changes which followed. This is the position of Radical Traditionalism.

Making Distinctions

Before continuing, we need to make some distinctions. A radical traditionalist differs from the Catholic who simply prefers the pre-Vatican II form of worship and devotion (commonly called “traditionalist.” [†] The traditionalist may wish the Church handled things differently, but recognizes the magisterium today has the authority to decide on these matters and seeks to obey despite misgivings over their prudence. The radical traditionalist rejects the authority of the magisterium when that authority challenges something they hold dear.

We need to remember that while all radical traditionalists are traditionalists, not all traditionalists are radical traditionalists. So we need to be careful not to assume that a Catholic who prefers the extraordinary form of the Mass must be guilty of disobedience. All A = B does not mean All B is A.

All a is b[Just because All A is B does not mean All B is A]

Radical traditionalists have many different factions. It ranges from people who stay within the Church while sniping at the Pope and bishops to those openly denying that the Pope is the Pope. Because of these factions, criticisms of the errors from the extreme side of radical traditionalism won’t apply to the “mainstream” versions, but all versions prefer their own interpretations to any teaching they disagree with. They claim to be the survival of truth within the Church while the Pope and bishops fall into error. They never assume that they fell into error. 

Begging the Question through Invented Theologies

To justify his claim, the radical traditionalist invents a theology that works this way. Based on the opinions of a few theologians who defended the Papacy in the 16th and 17th centuries, they claim that if a Pope teaches heresy his teachings cannot bind (some even claim this means he is no longer Pope). From that assumption, they argue that a difference exists between what the current Pope said and what the Church taught in earlier centuries. From that claimed difference, they claim the current Pope is a heretic. From this, they conclude with the argument that they can ignore (or sometimes, depose) the Pope.

The problem with this argument is this: It is the Begging the Question fallacy. The radical traditionalist takes as given several things which they have to prove before we can accept their claims as true.

  1. They have to prove that the theological positions in the writings of certain saints were more than just theological opinions.
  2. They have to prove that their interpretation of past Church documents are accurate and in keeping with magisterial interpretation
  3. They have to prove that their citation of past Church documents have the proper context
  4. They have to prove that their interpretation of Pope Francis is the same as his intention
  5. They have to prove that what Pope Francis intends to say is in fact error that contradicts past documents.
  6. They have to prove that they have authority in making these determinations.

They do none of these things. Instead they beg the question, appealing to their own non-magisterial interpretation against the magisterial interpretation of the Pope and bishops. But no matter how many arguments they make over how the Pope goes against an obscure document, they all assume exactly what they have to prove: That they, not the Pope, have properly understood the document. But only the Pope and bishops in communion with him can judge how to best apply past teaching documents to today’s situations. Not the layman. So, no matter how eloquent the radical traditionalist might be, they simply offer opinions, not authoritative teaching.

The Pope and Bishops, Not the Radical Traditionalists, Interpret and Apply Church Teaching

Once we recognize this, we can say about the radical traditionalist, “The emperor has no clothes.” He or she can't pass judgment on the Pope or bishops, or call them heretics. As St. John Paul II pointed out, radical traditionalism has a fundamental flaw. They have

...an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".

 

But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church. 


 John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei #4

So, in the eyes of the Church herself, the person who rejects the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him is starting in error and ending in error. They can rage against the Pope for writing about social justice or how to help people in an invalid marriage, but their accusations of heresy have no authority. Canon 1404 tells us, “The First See is judged by no one.” Not a Council, not a personal interpretation of past Church documents.

Forgetting God’s Hand in the Church

Radical traditionalists falsely accuse other Catholics of “papolatry” when these Catholics insist on hearing the Pope and ignoring their accusations. They accuse us of believing the Pope cannot sin and of being blind because we say to the radical traditionalist, “You’re the one who is wrong.” But they forget what we remember: God is with His Church and protects her from teaching error. That’s vital. If the Church can bind error or loose sin, we can never know when she was right. We could only say we think she was right when we happen to agree.

But if God’s promised to be with the Church always (Matthew 28:20) and that the gates of hell will not prevail (Matthew 16:18), then we can have faith that He will protect the Church from allowing sin or forbidding moral obligations before God. That protection does not mean that old laws from the Papal States or certain condemnations given will be just. Those are not things that God protects from error. But God does command us to obey His Church (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17). Even if an individual Pope's personal behavior goes against our moral teaching, that does not remove his authority of binding and loosing (Matthew 23:2-3). 

The radical traditionalist has some bizarre ideas. He accepts that God prevented bad Popes like Benedict IX, John XII or Alexander VI from using their teaching office to justify their sins. But he assumes that Pope Francis uses his teaching office to approve error and sin left and right. So does God protect His Church or doesn’t He? The Catholic faith tells us He does, and Popes before 1958 [*] insisted on obedience to even the ordinary magisterium of the Church. For example, Pope Pius XII wrote in Humani Generis:

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

 

 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1939–1958 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), 178.

We can have faith in God to protect His Church or we can deny that He does. But God insists we obey the Church, and the Church has consistently taught that this obedience is not limited to a certain era. So we have a choice. We can either have faith that God will protect His Church from teaching error or we can pretend He does not when we dislike Church teaching. But God obliges us to obey the Pope when he intends to teach. We must obey God rather than men. God decrees we obey His Church. So to obey His Church is to obey Him and to reject His Church is to reject Him. Given that the radical traditionalist seeks excuses not to obey the Pope, we must say that their theology is counterfeit and has no authority over and against the Pope and bishops in communion with him..

 

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[†] It’s important to make that distinction. Traditionalist ≠ Radical  Traditionalist. The traditionalist who faithfully follows the Church under the current Pope should not think I am indicting them alongside the radical traditionalist.

[*] The radical traditionalist usually believes there was a radical change in the Church beginning with the pontificate of St. John XXIII