Showing posts with label accuracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label accuracy. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Is It Really So?

Awhile back, I was reading about St. Paul VI. The account pointed out that there was a ten year gap between his last encyclical (Humanae Vitae) and his death in 1978. The conclusion drawn was that he was so shaken by the response to Humanae Vitae, that he withdrew for ten years into a sort of isolation while the Church fell into chaos.

There was a major problem with this conclusion though: it wasn’t true. Yes, Humanae Vitae was his last encyclical. But it wasn’t his last teaching. The 1970s were filled with Apostolic Constitutions and Motu Proprio on different topics, implementing Vatican II and dealing with the rebellion that arose in the late 1960s. Not to mention his unprecedented travels [§].

This example of Church history should remind us that if you only look at part of the data instead of the whole picture, you’re going to reach a false conclusion. The Church has 2000 years of history which need to be understood when assessing what is going on. If we look at only parts of it, we won’t correctly interpret it.

I bring up this example to make a point about how people portray the Church. If someone only tells part of the story with part of the data, it could turn out that the story they tell about the Church is false. If someone tells part of the story about the Church prior to Vatican II, focusing on the strongest elements alone, it will appear as if that period was a “golden age.” It wasn’t. Or if someone takes the words of Pope Francis out of context, omitting the things he says and does that defend the moral teaching of the Church, it will sound like he’s a heretic.

But you can use this tactic with any age of the Church to make it sound good or bad. You can make a saint sound demonic or a heresiarch sound faithful. Ultimately, that’s how you can detect the bias. If someone consistently takes quotes out of context to fit the narrative, it’s most plausible to suspect that the person is devoted to a narrative about the Church instead of the Church as she is.

The Church as she is will, of course, have sin and sinners in every age. Every Pope will have his flaws. But there will also be saints in every age, and the Popes will have their strong points as well. The accurate evaluations will recognize both. The biased version will omit whatever goes against their preferred interpretation. We should keep this in mind when we read accounts trying to set one era of the Church against another.

[§] We tend to think of St. John Paul II as the first to make these trips, and indeed he definitely traveled the furthest so far. But St. Paul VI was the first modern Pope to travel.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Quick Quips: On Speaking and Acting Rightly

I think it is time for another edition of Quick Quips because there are a number of problematic behaviors appearing that are incompatible with our Catholic faith that Catholics seem to be in danger of adopting.

Justice Requires Us To Act Justly Even if Others Act Unjustly

In Plato’s Republic, there is a discussion about justice. One of the guests (Simonides) discusses the nature of justice when it comes to giving a person his due and describes it as "it is that which renders benefits and harms to friends and enemies.” (Republic, 332D). During the course of the discussion, Socrates demolishes this assumption, pointing out that justice is about doing right to a person, regardless of whether the person is a friend or an enemy. That shouldn’t be a surprise to the Christian. We believe our Lord told us:

31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit [is] that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. 35 But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:31–36.)

The point is, even if someone we oppose is evil, that person’s wrongdoing does not justify their foes in doing evil in return. Many Christians, especially in election years, may shrug off that retaliation as “Karma’s a b*tch” or even cheer on wrongdoing when it happens to a foe. In the most extreme, we see this mindset when a deranged person kills an abortionist and the response is, “He deserved it.” In lesser extremes, we see politicians condemned for using a tactic when it inconveniences us but cheer it when it benefits us.

But that’s exactly what we must not do. If we believe something is wrong, and condemn it when a foe does it, we must not support it or laugh when an ally does it. If something is wrong, we must not do it. Finding excuses on why the situation is not exactly the same and therefore justifies the slightly different situation is just splitting hairs. Of course we need to make certain that the substantial differences do not outweigh the similarities (the fallacy of the irrelevant analogy), but compiling differences that are merely appearance is not substance. Nor can we object on the grounds that we just don’t want to face the same inconveniences our opponents suffered (that’s the fallacy of special pleading).

When it comes to politics, people may think that benefitting friends and harming enemies is the way of the world, but as Christians, we’re called to a higher standard of behavior, and we’re not to sink to the level of the world.

For Better or Worse (They’re not About the Same Thing)

In discussions, we tend to talk in terms of comparisons. We say that A is better than B or that X is worse than Y. As long as we are using the same scale of comparison, there is no problem with making factual comparisons or even offering opinions on the subject. But what we must not do is confuse them. If we are saying A is better than B, it does not mean B is worse than A. Likewise, if we say that X is worse than Y, this does not mean that Y is better than X. In other words, if a person makes a statement of comparison, it is unjust to change his words. So the person who says A is better than B cannot be accused of saying B is worse than A.

That’s because the two words are two different comparisons. Better means “a more favorable degree." Worse means “a more unfavorable degree.” Therefore, when a person chooses the term “better,” he is speaking about the nature of which is more positive. To accuse him of saying the less favorable one is worse is to put words in the mouth of the speaker that were not intended.

For example, The Church teaches that rape is worse than consensual fornication, but that both are mortally sinful and condemned. The person who would try to argue that "the Church says consensual fornication is better than rape” would be speaking nonsense. The Church says both are evil and neither can ever be done. The fact that one does greater evil does not justify calling the one that is not as extreme “better.” The point is that the Church cannot be accused of saying “fornication is better than rape.” She didn’t say that!  She didn’t offer approval of fornication in making that comparison.

I bring this up to make a comparison. I think people are forgetting this however in day to day life. When it comes to the political debates, I have seen people offering the view that Candidate A is worse than Candidate B. Then someone comes along and says “So you think Candidate B is better? What about this, that and the other? How can you be OK with that?” Again, the person making the comparison between politicians isn’t saying that one candidate’s evil positions are worthy of support. He’s saying that he views one candidate’s views as being more serious in terms of doing harm to others and does not downplay the other candidate’s evil.

Tying these Together 

I mention these issues to make a point about how we behave towards others. In times of controversies (and the elections certainly are that) it is easy to justify wrongdoing and to speak falsely about a foe. It’s also easy to misinterpret and draw conclusions about a politician or a fellow voter that they never intended to say. The political system has low expectations and promotes savaging weakness—at least when it happens to the foes—and grossly distorting an opponent’s position. But we who profess to be Christian cannot do this. We must treat those who hate us with the same love and justice that we treat those who love us. We must do to others the way we would be treated—even if they do not return the favor.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

When a Little Knowledge is Dangerous

When it comes to Church teachings that are unpopular, the common tactic is on one side of the coin to dismiss them as old teachings and point out how some teachings have changed from the past. People argue that If the Church changed teaching X, she can also change her teachings on contraception or divorce/remarriage. On the other side of the coin, when it comes to actions of the Church that people wanted to remain as they were, the common tactic is to appeal to the old writings and argue that they are irreformable and attempts to make changes are heretical.

These two attitudes demonstrate the truth of the adage, “A little knowledge is dangerous.” In both cases, the proponents cite a portion of a Church document with the intent to demonstrate that the Church has changed with the purpose of undermining the authority of the Church. The only difference between the two is that one cites it with the intention to alter other teachings (claiming that the Church’s refusal to change is unjustified) while the other cites it with the intention to reject changes they dislike.

I believe both groups display a lack of understanding about the Church and how she teaches. The fact is, when the Church teaches something is to be done or not done, we need to discern the moral absolutes that the Church holds always and the elements of what the Church mandates as how to follow the Church teaching when facing certain evils of a particular time.

The Case of Usury

For example, it is popular to cite the “fact” that the Church “changed her teaching” on lending money at interest. Since the Church seems to have changed from saying lending money at interest is a sin to saying it is not, the argument is that any Church teaching can be changed. The problem is this argument is based on a false understanding of what the Church taught. For example, Pope Benedict XIV wrote in the bull Vix pervenit (published in 1745) that, on one hand it is usury to loan money to a person in need with the intent of charging interest, but on the other hand he warned against extremes:

III. By these remarks, however, We do not deny that at times together with the loan contract certain other titles—which are not at all intrinsic to the contract—may run parallel with it. From these other titles, entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract. Nor is it denied that it is very often possible for someone, by means of contracts differing entirely from loans, to spend and invest money legitimately either to provide oneself with an annual income or to engage in legitimate trade and business. From these types of contracts honest gain may be made. (Vix pervenit #3)


 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1740–1878 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), 16.

In other words, the Church did not change her teaching on usury. She merely recognized that there were some circumstances—not existing in the past—that permitted a legitimate return on investment. So, as I understand it, if somebody comes to me and says, “Dave, I need $20 for gas so I can drive to the hospital and see my sick child,” I would be committing usury if I said in reply, “Sure, just pay me back $30 next week.” But I wouldn’t be committing usury if I invested money in stocks or bonds, expecting interest in return. I’ll leave it to theologians to decide whether modern credit cards and payday loan companies commit usury (I’m inclined to think the latter certainly do), but the point is, the Church considered the changes to the ways economics worked and determined that investment was not the same thing as usury—though she would condemn usury disguised as investment.

It doesn’t always work that way. For example, in 1960, The Pill was invented. It worked differently than the traditional barrier methods of contraception, and people were asking whether that meant it was not contraception. So the Church investigated the question, “Is the pill contraception?” It soon turned out that the answer was yes. It still intended to take the sexual act and frustrate the potential of pregnancy. So Blessed Paul VI issued the encyclical affirming that all contraception was wrong. [†]

These examples are why I am not alarmed when Pope Francis calls for an investigation into an issue (for example, the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried). The fact that a question is asked does not mean that a change will be made. In fact, when it came to the question being raised at a press conference [*], the Pope replied,

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. 

For all of the fears and false hopes about the synod of the family changing Church teaching, it turned out that the Pope had no intention to change Church teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” He merely did what Benedict XIV and Blessed Paul VI did—he consulted with theologians to determine if the changing times involved new situations that were not covered by previous documents.

The Cases of Denouncing Recent Teaching from the Church

There are also cases where individual Catholics object to the teaching of the Church in the period from 1958 [When St. John XXIII was elected Pope] to the present, on the grounds that these things contradicted Church teachings from the past. It is argued that these earlier teachings were irreformable and therefore the changes must be heretical. This ranges across many issues. The Vatican II document on religious freedom [§], Blessed Paul VI making changes to the Mass and so on.

In these cases, people overlook the fact that even when the Church teaches on irreformable doctrine, there are elements where the Church is making disciplines which apply to certain times but the successors to the Chair of Peter can change if they determine a single dispensation or an overall change of practice is needed. For example, Benedict XIV ruled, “The Roman Pontiff is above canon law, but any bishop is inferior to that law and consequently cannot modify it.” (Magna nobis #3). Some two hundred years later, Pius XII would point out that when it comes to changing practices, “If it was at one time necessary even for validity by the will and command of the Church, every one knows that the Church has the power to change and abrogate what she herself has established." (Sacramentum Ordinis #3). [∞]

Here’s an example. In 1769, Pope Clement XIV issued a document on avoiding the appearance of simony, and seeking to reduce corruption in the Church. Now the evils of simony and corruption are not something which will change with time. If a member of the clergy demands money for performing a work of the Church, that is always wrong. [∑] However, the things Clement XIV discusses in Decet quam maxime involves all sorts of discussion of what sorts of fees could be collected and by whom. He talks about aureus and obols and junios. Coins were once used in the Papal States, but no longer exist (just try to work out the rate of exchange for an 18th century obol to a modern Euro for example). When a future Pope decides to make changes to the rules set in Decet quam maxime, he will not be changing the teaching of the Church on simony. He’ll simply be applying the teaching of the Church to the conditions that exist in modern times.

This is how changes can happen in the Mass. The Mass is of vital importance to the Catholic. No Pope could abolish the Mass or change the meaning of the Eucharist. But some people confuse the discipline of the Mass with the essence of the Mass. St. Pius V reformed the Mass in 1570, abolishing rites less than 200 years old (Quo Primum). Some Catholics interpret the words of this bull... 

Therefore, no one whosoever is permitted to alter this notice of Our permission, statute, ordinance, command, precept, grant, indult, declaration, will, decree, and prohibition. Would anyone, however, presume to commit such an act, he should know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

…as if it meant that nobody in the Church could make any changes to the Mass. But his successors did make changes to the Mass. Changes were made in 1604 (Clement VIII), 1634 (Urban VIII), 1884 (Leo XIII made official the changes since 1634), 1920 (Benedict XV, completing the work of St. Pius X), 1955 (Pius XII, radically changing the Mass for certain holy days) and 1962 (St. John XXIII, implementing the changes of Pius XII). That’s not even counting the changes between the first century AD to St. Gregory the Great. Basically, it’s a cycle of changes are made, and then the missal is eventually revised to implement all the changes between editions.

The point is, nobody the time understood Quo Primum to mean the Mass was irreformable. The successors of St. Pius V did not consider themselves heretics in making changes. [ø]. The objections that “denied" Blessed Paul VI the right to make changes to the Mass tend to be ignorant of those facts.

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

That ignorance is ultimately the problem. Both tactics try to create the appearance of a break where there is no break. The appearance of a break only seems to be there if one is not aware of all the facts of the case. The danger comes because the person who does not know all the facts is unaware of the fact that he or she does not know. When a person is aware that they do not know something, they can learn. But when a person is ignorant of the fact that they do not know, it never occurs to them to see what the facts are. Thus they can build elaborate theologies of dissent without ever considering the possibility that they are the ones in error.

The remedy is to stop assuming that one’s personal knowledge and interpretation of Church documents is sufficient to pass judgment on the teaching authority of the Church. When one sees a conflict, the first task is to see if one’s own understanding is correct. The next step is to determine what the truth actually is, and how the Church herself understands the document. Catholic theology is not done in the same way as “the plain sense” that some Protestants ascribe to Scripture. We believe that to understand a Church document, we need to read it in the sense that the Church understands it and not assume that the Pope and the magisterium has somehow forgotten or chose to ignore the older documents.

In the over a quarter century since I first began my studies of Catholic theology, one thing I have learned has stuck with me: Just because one cannot personally find an answer to a seeming conflict does not mean the Church has no answer. Sometimes it has taken me years to find the needed information, but I have always found out that the apparent conflict did not exist when studied. It was that searching that led me to realize that when I haven’t found the right answer yet, the solution was to trust that the Church had an answer which I had not discovered yet.

The reason for this is, instead of trusting in my own knowledge or in the personal holiness and wisdom of the individuals in charge of the Church, I trust that God keeps His promises to protect His Church. I have never been let down in this trust.



[†] Unfortunately part of the commission issued to study the issue exceeded their mandate and argued “Yes, it’s contraception, but the Church should change her teaching.” They had no right to do this and the Pope was under no obligation to make their abuse into Church teaching.

[*] Literacy and research skills seem to be lacking nowadays when people misinterpret these things. People tend to give full weight to the media rushing to scoop their competitors by sending out quotes without context, and then use those reports to interpret the actual transcripts that are released later when they should be evaluating the reports by the transcripts.

[§] Judging by reactions, people never bothered to read it. Otherwise they would have read the part in Dignitatis Humanae about:

First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you” (Matt. 28:19–20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. (DH #1)


 Catholic Church, “Declaration on Religious Freedom: Dignitatis Humanae,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

[∞] I have encountered some people who, legalistically, try to limit these documents to only applying to one specific case: the minimum canonical age for marriage (in Magna Nobis) or whether the imposition of hands was enough for ordination (Sacramentum Ordinis). However, in both cases, the Popes assumed that they had the authority to change how Church disciplines were to be applied in a given time.

[∑] I’m of the opinion that Pope Francis’ speaking about eliminating fees for annulments altogether is not just based on avoiding a barrier to getting an annulment but is also based on the concern that some people think of it as “buying” an annulment.

[ø] The principal weakness to the appeal to Quo Primum is that we have had these missals existing uncontested. If the Mass of 1570 was irreformable, then any changes by Popes would have been heretical. Some try to counter this by saying it was the same Mass since the time of St. Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 to 604) but this gnores the existence of valid Masses before his pontificate that had differences in form.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

To Speak the Truth


People who know me know that I like Aristotle’s definition of truth. It is a simple definition and it lays out parameters for understanding the reality of what is said:

To say that what is is not, or that what is not is, is false; but to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true; and therefore also he who says that a thing is or is not will say either what is true or what is false. (Metaphysics 1011b.20–39)

Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, Translated by Hugh Tredennick. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989).

So, when we speak, what we say either corresponds to reality or it does not. Unfortunately, society today does not seem to care for discovering what corresponds with reality. Rather many people prefer an interpretation of events that justifies themselves and puts those they agree with in a bad light. The result of this mindset is the fact that people will only listen to what makes them comfortable and seek to reject what makes them uncomfortable. But if what makes them comfortable is false, then their sources are harmful in seeking out the truth and living in accordance with it.

Pride and Fear of Being Shown Wrong

Compounding the problem is the fact that nobody wants to be shown to be wrong. To admit that one’s viewpoint, which has been defended zealously hitherto, has been a defense of something worthless feels like an indictment of one’s judgment—nobody wants to be thought of as a fool and admission of error is seen as admitting to being a fool. That is what made Socrates so unpopular. That barrier of pride is a large stumbling block to discovering what is and living in accord to it.

I think this is the reason it has traditionally been held that the two taboo subjects for discussion are religion and politics. For a person to have to admit that their view of reality in general or their views on how society should be governed are false—especially when they have invested so much in defending these views—is often too much to bear. As a result, people stop looking for truth when it is perceived to threaten their comfortable beliefs and become hostile when it comes to people who question their comfort zone.

That’s unfortunate. To make progress, whether as an individual or a society, one has to discern what is true and follow where it leads. But if one refuses to consider whether what is threatening to comfort is true, no progress can be made.

Fear of the Obligation to do That Which is Right

There is another reason for hostility to truth. That reason is the recognition that if what we support turns out to be false, especially when that falsehood turns out to be morally wrong, we will be obligated to turn away from that belief or that behavior. Denial of that indictment of wrongdoing and hostility to the person who makes us aware of the wrongdoing are ways to avoid thinking about whether we need to change. This is one of the reasons that defensive people misquote Matthew 7:1. If a person can turn tables on the person who says “X is wrong,” putting him or her on the defensive by making it appear that the appeal to doing what is right is actually wrongdoing, then people have shifted the attention from the issue at hand—that X is wrong—and towards the person who insists on moral truths which are obligatory to follow.

“Hypocrisy” then becomes a popular epithet to hurl at the person speaking the truth. Basically the accusation says “You say not to do evil X, but you do evil by saying that X is wrong. Therefore we can ignore you!” Actually no. It is true that every one of us struggles with some sort of evil (with the exception of Our Lord and His Mother). But one does not become a hypocrite until they have no intention to change their ways. That’s the kind of thing Jesus condemned as judgmental—writing someone off as irredeemable. But frail as we are, we are still required to speak out against what is wrong while praying for God to change our hearts for our own sins. We must avoid thinking that “As long as I’m not as bad as that guy, I’m fine."

Truth and Assumption

Of course we need to make some distinctions here. It’s not wrong to defend a position one thinks is right. But all of us need to distinguish what is true about the position it and defend that truth, as opposed to defending assumptions without investigating whether they are true. Some things are simply indefensible and must be rejected.

Moreover, many people assume things are facts without discerning whether they are true or simply commonly repeated but false. People sometimes elevate wrong opinions or falsehoods to “fact.” For example, they may confuse sequential events for cause/effect and then stand their ground on something that does not need to be defended. Or they may assume anecdotes represent the whole or go by what “everybody knows” without determining whether it is true. People may rashly assume motives for why others hold different positions which the other person would deny are his or her motives.

The point is, many things we take for granted as being true are actually saying of what is that it is not or saying of what is not that it is. Once we are aware of the obligation to speak that which is true, and the need to discern between what is true and what is assumed, then we need to look to what we defend and what we oppose. Do we defend what is true? Or what is comfortable? Do we oppose what is false? Or merely what we dislike?

If we assume bad will on the part of those we disagree with and don’t consider the possibility of our own misunderstanding of the other person or if we don’t consider the possibility of the person being in error out of ignorance, then we are making an assumption that might not be true.


I think we need to keep these things in mind wherever we are. When things are reported on the news, or show up on Facebook or in blogs, or in comments, we have to ask whether what is said is true before embracing it. When something seems to challenge a comfortable belief, we have to ask whether our comfortable belief is true before making a defense based on our assumption. If it turns out that the popular or comfortable assertion is false, we must stop repeating it.

Likewise, when we are inclined to accuse a person of bad will for holding a position we do not like, the obligation to speak the truth requires that we investigate their position and the reason they hold it. We might find that they still are in error and need to be refuted, but at least in doing so we will not come across as intolerant and ignorant—even if opponents still accuse us of being so.

As Christians we believe that God forbids us from bearing false witness. I believe this not only includes deliberate lies used to incriminate others, but also includes rash judgment and calumny against those we disagree with. While invincible ignorance is not a sin, we do sin when we repeat things when we could learn the truth but simply don’t care to do so. We will have to account for our rash judgments, uncharitable accusations and holding on to false beliefs and will be held accountable for the things we could have learned but chose not to check. This also applies to when we choose to live a lie rather than discern whether we do wrong. 

We are called to speak and live the truth. So let us do both. Let us say of what is, that it is and of what is not, that it is not. But let’s not just say it. Let’s also live it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Beckoning Their Foes to the Exit? The Curious Case of the Media and Slanted Reporting on the Church

Article: US cardinal slams Pope Francis over softer approach to homosexuality | Daily Mail Online

I have been writing about the conservative grumbling about the synod and some of the rhetoric about the faithful opposing Pope Francis. Of course I think it is a dangerous thing to make oneself a judge over whether the Pope is faithful or not. But the drumbeat of the media is interesting as well. It seems that they are not content to report on disgruntled Catholics, but want to stir up their discontent as well.

There have been several news reports about “conservative” cardinals “opposing” the Pope because of his “changing" the teaching of the Church. But the headlines don’t match what the cardinals actually say. There are no rebukes of Pope Francis. There are no changes to the teaching of the Church. What is being said is that some members of the laity are confused about the reports about the synod.

So, what we have seems to be a three step attack:

  1. Media misreports words of Pope or synod to give impression of changing Church teaching.
  2. Media misreports words of bishops to give impression of rebellion.
  3. Media encourages thoughts of conservative Catholics wanting to leave the Church.

Basically, it looks as if they’re making the Church to look bad enough (from a conservative perspective) that the faithful won’t trust the magisterium, and perhaps want to leave—encouraging an exodus from the Church (whether physical or mental), leaving it to those with a liberal perspective. It’s a media participation in the devil’s plans to encourage the orthodox Catholics to doubt God’s role in the Church.

It seems to be working. I have seen certain Catholic news sites turn from accurately reporting the facts to assuming that the media reports are true, reacting in horror, doubting the Pope, thinking the Church will change her teaching. I have seen Catholic bloggers turn from defending the faith to assuming that the Pope is changing it. I have seen some apologists go from defending the Church from misrepresentation to complaining that they have to defend the Church from misrepresentation—blaming the Pope for the media irresponsibility.

When that happens, it becomes easy for the average Catholic to become demoralized, thinking the teaching authority of the Church is being overwhelmed with error.

To prevent this, faithful Catholics need to be informed so they can recognize the difference between the actual teachings and interviews with the Magisterium. It’s time to stop taking media reports (whether mainstream media or political commentary from either faction) as if they were accurately reporting the news. None of these have shown themselves to be reliable in assessing what is going on. Once a source has shown itself unreliable in accuracy, we need to investigate what they claim, rather than taking it at face value.

Otherwise, we give the devil the opportunity to try to separate us from our faith.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Thoughts on the Portrayal of Catholicism in Fiction


I have to admit something. I don't care for the BBC series Brother Cadfael and don't think highly of the books either. It's a dislike rooted in how the series portrays the Middle Ages and its approach to religion. One gets the impression that if Cadfael wasn't under the authority of ignorant men, he'd be able to accomplish so much more. At other times you see religion portrayed in a way that the Church specifically spoke against doing—trials by ordeal, allowing a man to abandon his wife to enter a monastery, etc. Behavior where the viewer asks "How could The Church ever allow that?" Actually, they didn't. No doubt there were some places where abuses took place, but the abuse is not the same thing as being sanctioned by the official teaching of the Church.

In both cases, the Church in medieval times is portrayed in a way which startles viewers and makes them think that Catholicism behaves badly by its very nature—that people are right to oppose it.

Trying to Draw ALL out of SOME

Mind you, it's not a flaw exclusive to this series. Just consider, when is the last time you saw/read about...

  • a (non-rebel) priest assisting the heroes instead of the villains?
  • a (non-rebel) Crusader who wasn't portrayed as ignorant and brutal in comparison to the Muslims?
  • a (non-rebel) priest, monk or nun who wasn't portrayed as viewing technology and science as evil... or at least suspicious?
  • a (non-rebel) priest who wasn't either cold and intolerant or naive and inexperienced when it comes to dealing with those in need?

Odds are you haven't seen it very often—if at all. In general, the portrayal of the Church—especially with fiction set in the past (or a Church-like institution if the genre is fantasy)—is one of oppression and opposition to reason, mercy or justice. Those that don't have these vices are rebels who scoff at the rules of the Church, getting it right when their legalistic fellow clergy are shown up to be buffoons, knaves or hypocrites.

It's not always a malicious thing—I suspect most authors or producers don't wake up one morning and think, "Hey! Let's make the Church look bad!" The ludicrous anti-Catholic theories portrayed by Jack Chick or Dan Brown are extremes. But extremes are often distractions from the less flagrant misrepresentations. Some might want the Church to look bad. But probably more often we have a case where people merely portray the Church according to the stories they have been led to believe are true.

But the fact is the Catholic Church does not teach the faithful to act like this. So the general image shows create: that Catholics (especially priests and nuns) do behave this way—because of their Catholicism—is a problem.

I find that often, when it comes to portrayal of the Catholic Church in books, movies or TV, the portrayal of the behavior in a religious community is shown as aberrant—but gives the viewer or reader no sense of context so they can understand that the behavior actually is appalling to the practicing Catholic as well.

Of course, when a Catholic objects, the response is "It's just a work of fiction!  Don't take it so seriously!" But that response is to miss the point. The portrayal of the Church in fiction is implied to be based on the real Church of history. People see the "historical portrayal" and assume that the author must have done some research or he/she wouldn't make the assertion. (This actually happened in response to the "historical" assertions made in The Da Vinci Code).

The problem is, regardless of the motivation, the media tends to portray the Church (or, in fantasy, a fictional church with the trappings of the Catholic Church) as being one or more of the following: corrupt, jealous of power, judgmental, avaricious, suspicious of science, arrogant, hypocritical, arbitrary... I could go on. The idea being presented is that being a part by choice of this Church makes one hostile to compassion and progress. Those within the Church who don't have these vices are generally giving the impression of being naive or being seen as a misfit by others in the Church.

Now, yes, it is true that there are people within the Church who possess these traits. Some of these may also have authority within the Church. But, you can not start with a SOME and conclude that the SOME is a proof of the whole. The fact that Some X is Y does not allow us to make a judgment about the whole of X.

So, no doubt some churchmen are avaricious or hypocritical. But that does not mean all are. Think about the racial stereotypes--it's the same error. I can find some members of an ethnic group that match a stereotype—but trying to claim these members of the group accurately represent the whole group is unjustified.

There's another error here, the post hoc fallacy. It assumes that because a person belongs to group A and has objectionable view B, it means membership in A causes behavior B.

We can show this is bad reasoning:

  • Pelosi is Catholic
  • Pelosi is Pro-abortion
  • Therefore Catholics are Pro-abortion.

This shows that the behavior of an individual Catholic or small group is not necessarily caused by the Church. The Church teaching, after all, is that abortion is never permissible.

It's also the Church position that being corrupt, jealous of power, judgmental, avaricious, arrogant, hypocritical or arbitrary (etc.) are not permissible behaviors.  So, just as Pelosi holds her position in opposition to Church teaching, the Catholic who holds these vices do so in opposition to the Church.

So that's why I get annoyed when the Church gets portrayed in this way in fiction. The bad behavior of some is used as the basis for portraying Catholics as a whole in a bad light, when it is not reasonable to do so.

See, we wouldn't mind a portrayal of Catholics behaving badly if it was made clear that their behavior went against what the Church requires. But mostly it isn't made clear.  The viewer or reader is given the impression that the portrayal is typical of the Church at this period. A non-Catholic viewer/reader is left with the impression that the Church is that way by nature.

The Problem of False and Distorted History

Aside from the issues of bad reasoning and presuming that the whole is guilty of the part, there is another problem. That problem is the falsification and exaggeration of history. There are things that the Church was accused of doing, but did not. There are things that the Church was accused of not doing, but did. There are also places where action or inaction by the Church was grossly exaggerated.

Basically, the form of the accusation is:

  • The Church did or said X
  • X is evil
  • Therefore the Church is evil.

The problem is, the major premise is either false or distorted about the X that the Church was alleged to have done or said, (I've already addressed above the problem of claiming the whole Church took part in an error on the grounds that some did, because you can't allege the whole is guilty of the sins of the part).

In the minor premise, the problem is the X done by the Catholic Church is not always the intrinsic evil act (evil by its very nature) it's accused of being. Think the old "Catholics worship statues" accusation: Since Catholics don't worship statues, the fact that "Worshipping statues is evil" doesn't apply. If it is not intrinsically evil, then conditions may exist when the act is not evil. Also, while the Church may have done an act, it doesn't mean that the act done by the Church is the action condemned as evil.

When the premises are false, then the argument is not proven. You can't use the argument to prove your point. So if the Church didn't say or do X or the X that the Church did wasn't the same act people associate with evil, then the conclusion "Therefore the Church is evil" is unproven.

Again, the ludicrous examples of this argument come from the allegations of people like Dan Brown and Jack Chick. But the problem is, when people set the bar at the level of Jack Chick and Dan Brown, less extreme examples come across as seeming true.


The Internet can tell you many things . . . and some of them might even be true.

But, when people actually goes to research some claims (and by research, I mean seek reliable sources, not whatever the hell people put on the internet) made against the Church, one finds the alleged actions fall into one of three categories:

  1. The alleged event did not actually happen as described
  2. The action was not something done by the entire Church, but actually came from local customs and were only carried out in that area.
  3. People of a nation take up something actually condemned by the Church.

The first case is an exoneration. The second case shows the accusation is confusing SOME and ALL. The third case shows the accusation is blaming the wrong party.

Examples of the First Case could be things like "Jesuits were  trained assassins" (nope), or "There was a female Pope" (we can account for every Pope in the timeline when she was alleged to have reigned) or Leo XIII said in 1900 that it was good to burn heretics (a fabrication made up by an ex-priest) etc. These things are alleged to have been done or said by the Church, but in fact these are false. They never happened.

An example of the Second Case includes the medieval Trials By Ordeal, Witch Trials (both holdovers from the Germanic Barbarian invasions—customs that preceded the Church missionary activity in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages), or in more modern times, the sensational news stories made about Ireland about the care for children—that turn out to be less than totally accurate in terms of scope and severity.

Examples of the Third Case are the abuses the Spanish carried out in the New World. The Church condemned the revived Slave Trade. For example, Sicut Dudum was issued by Pope Eugene IV (lived 1383-1447) as soon as news of the enslavement of the natives of the Canary Islands.  If you read it, you'll see pretty much everything the Spanish did was condemned in 1435—57 years before the Europeans first encountered the New World. So why did it remain a problem? Well, it's kind of like the abortion problem today. The Church keeps condemning it, and Catholic politicians keep ignoring the condemnations. If the politicians aren't afraid of Hell, the Church doesn't have very many options.

The point of these three cases is, the Church is often condemned as a whole for something totally fabricated, something practiced as a custom by only a portion of people who professes the Catholic faith, or something actually condemned by the Church.

The Past Was Brutal—But the Brutality Was Not Exclusive to Christendom

There's another problem to remember too. When we look at the past, we will find things which seem startling to our 21st century sensibilities. We look at how government functioned and justice was carried out and feel appalled. Of course, I imagine we'd also be appalled by medicine and hygiene back then too. The difference is, we're not morally appalled by the problems with hygiene and medicine.

The problem is, we recognize that the advances in hygiene and medicine came about as people learned more, but we don't realize that the same advances in government and law came about the same way . . . nope, people assume that we had sadists in charge and they were sadists because the Church said it was OK. That's the approach I'm often seeing fiction take with Catholicism.

Conclusion: What Is To Be Done?

The effect of these beliefs in the medium of fiction, whether in books or in TV or in Movies is that many people substitute relying on an author or director  in place of actually seeing if these allegations of action or attitude are true and taught by the Church.

Now these authors, whether through malice or ignorance or something in between, are portraying a false image of the Church by allowing it to appear that the Church was responsible for these behaviors and attitudes that seem repellant to us. If the author or director is attempting to give the impression that his portrayal is historically accurate and was the common Catholic practice, he has responsibility to do basic research and report what a thing actually was. The failure to do so makes him responsible for slander or libel depending on whether the falsehood is spoken or printed—either by deliberate action or by negligence.

But the fact that we have writers, directors and the like, who do make these kind of assertions requires the viewer or reader to practice responsibility. One ought not to just assume that what is alleged is true. Any fool can allege any kind of secret conspiracy by the Church in a work of fiction. Any writer of fantasy can portray his monks as drunken, debauched hypocrites. Any TV show or movie can portray the Church as cruel, greedy and intolerant.

But the question remains… Is it true?

The viewer or reader has the responsibility to assess the claims made by searching for credible sources which accurately report history and the teachings of the Church. There are many anti-Catholic sites which make all sorts of bizarre claims—usually all relying on a very limited number of biased sources. So search wisely, and don't assume that the portrayal in a work of fiction is accurate.