Showing posts with label appeal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label appeal. Show all posts

Monday, March 27, 2017

Lest Factionalism Blind: Reflections on Divisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Thoughts on Going Beyond Self-Imposed Limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Qorban-ite Maneuver: Fidelity to and Evasion of Our Responsibilities

Alas you phariseesYet you say, ‘If a person says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is qorban”' (meaning, dedicated to God), you allow him to do nothing more for his father or mother [Mark 7:11-12].


With the major candidates in what looks like a race to find how far one can go in moral decline and still get elected, and the largest minor parties saying, “We can be more extreme than the major parties,” the Catholic has major problems finding a candidate who fits the obligation to promote good and limit evil. No matter who we vote for, the candidate who becomes president will, in some way, endorses an intrinsic evil that would normally disqualify them in favor of a sane candidate. While some have made up their minds how to vote and have no problems telling everybody who disagrees that they are wrong. Others see the race as a moral quagmire and can’t find a choice that doesn’t trouble their conscience.

The Common Good

Personally I think the 2016 elections are not an easy choice, and there are serious moral concerns regardless of whether one supports a major party or a minor one. So, when I see someone quickly and confidently embracing a candidate as the “Catholic choice,” I wonder whether they’ve carefully considered the problems with him or her. Since we, as Catholics, must promote the teachings of Our Lord to the world and to seek out the true good of our society, we have to consider what these teachings are and how to apply them properly.

Promoting the common good includes all Catholics, and we can’t opt out of playing our part. According to the Catechism, just societies and just leaders need to address three key points:

1907 First, the common good presupposes respect for the person as such. In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. Society should permit each of its members to fulfill his vocation. In particular, the common good resides in the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as “the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard … privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion.”

1908 Second, the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself. Development is the epitome of all social duties. Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests; but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.

1909 Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defence. 

When we think about what candidates to support or initiatives to support, we have to keep these things in mind. We can’t decide to ignore the parts of political platforms we don’t like or choosing what parts of the Church to obey. So, respect for the person means we can’t support positions which violate the right to life or the freedom to follow a properly formed conscience. We can’t choose to support policies that treat some people as less important than others (for example, the born over the unborn). So, when we vote, or endorse a party platform, we have to make sure that what we endorse—or reluctantly choose as causing less harm—reflects accepting Church teaching as she understands it. We can’t change the rules to benefit us.

The Qōrbān-ite Maneuver [†]

Balok puppetNo . . . not Corbomite Maneuver...

In Mark 7:11, Jesus denounces the Pharisees for a human tradition used to evade God’s commands. This involved declaring something a “gift to God” through a vow (Leviticus 2:1, 4, 12 and 14 are examples of what was properly qorban) which meant one couldn’t use it for other things. Usually, qorban involved gifts to the Temple and for ending a Nazirite vow. Fulfilling a vow to God was not sinful, and was not what Our Lord condemned.

What He denounced was evading the commandments through using whatever was for the care of parents to pay for obligations to God. The piety behind it claimed that one’s obedience to God superseded one’s duty to parents. The reality was using this piety as an excuse to avoid spending extra money by deliberately setting two obligations commanded by God (vows and honoring parents) in conflict and deciding the obligation to God won out. In short, it was an evasion which benefitted the person under a pretense of piety.

So, what does this have to do with the Catholic moral obligation? There is a temptation to misuse Church teaching to justify what one wants, without getting hindered by another moral obligation. This sacrifices one in the name of the other while pretending (or perhaps being sincere in their error) to be more focussed on God in doing so. When the Church teaches on our obligations, we can’t look at it as a hindrance to get around. We need to look at this as guidance on shaping our behaviors to do right in the sight of God.

Doing Right, Not Doing What Benefits Us, Means Difficult Choices

So, when the Church defines the right to life as always opposing abortion and euthanasia, we don’t support a pro-abortion candidate and claim we are doing so to follow Church teaching on respect for the human person. Nor do we support a pro-torture candidate and claim we’re faithful to Church teaching on respect for the human person. Ditto the candidate who violates our religious freedom. If we cast our vote for such a candidate, it is only legitimate in trying to limit a greater evil. This is a matter of discerning Church teaching, not of interpreting things to benefit us.

So we never “sacrifice” one part of Church teaching (which we “coincidentally” think is less important) in favor of another (which "just happens" to be one we strongly agree with). Since we’re faced with a slate of major party candidates who endorse different evils, we have to decide whether to reject both and support a minor party or whether we try blocking the candidate who supports the greater evil and oppose the evils of the less extreme candidate if elected. Of course, voting for a candidate because he supports an evil is a sin. It’s not an easy choice, as the Church is vehement against abortion and torture both and somebody is going to get elected who supports one or more of these evils. 

Offering my own opinion (which is NOT intended as an endorsement of any candidate), I believe we should vote to block the candidates we think will do the most harm to the nation according to Catholic moral values (not our own preferences), and plan to fight the evils endorsed by whoever gets elected—even if it puts us at odds with our preferred political party. We must not think that our job is over on November 9th 2016. If our president-elect supports abortion and violates religious freedom, prepare to fight on those grounds. If our president-elect supports torture and unjust immigration policies, prepare to fight on those grounds. That’s true regardless of whether one votes for a major candidate or a minor party. And of course, as Christians, Our Lord’s teaching on charity means we have to give aid to those in need regardless of what party gets elected and what policies they enact.

As I said, this is a hard decision. It involves trying to limit the harm to our nation, but knowing some harm will happen no matter what. We should pray for the nation and soberly reflect on what Church teaching forms our conscience to do, and then be faithful to that decision, knowing God will judge our intentions and our actions.


[†] Yes, I love bad puns and am a bit of a geek. So, yes, I did a play on words with a Star Trek episode. No, the wordplay doesn’t have anything to do with that episode. The Hebrew term is also spelled Corban or Korban.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thoughts on Two Errors in Catholic Voting


One of the most troubling things about Catholics debating right and wrong is that sometimes that debate gets misdirected. Instead of looking at our calling as Christians, we look at what the Church says through the lens of political preferences. People tend to accept or reject the Church over whether the teaching seems to be in line with their political positions. People tend to confuse their political preferences with what the Church teaches, or misinterpret Church teaching to justify what they want but actually justify what the Church has no intention of supporting. The first is harmful to Christian charity. The second deceives people into supporting evil in the name of a "greater good."

I. Fighting over Legitimate Differences of Opinion

The first ugly problem I see is when Catholics confuse thinking about what the Church teaches with the way we prefer people should apply Church teaching. They are two different things. For example, look at what St. John XXIII wrote in 1963:

11. But first We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of illhealth; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.


 John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1963).

I suspect, while reading this, many started thinking about certain political parties and their platforms, praising one and condemning the other based on their preferences. What makes this dangerous is people are condemning others without cause, not because they reject the Church, but because they reject one proposed political solution. Yes, sometimes, political platforms embrace things the Church warns us are evil (we’ll get into that below). Then we have to oppose the platform, whether we work to reform it from inside the party or rejecting the party and walking away. In such a case we cannot excuse the immoral position, or evade our obligation to oppose it. When the Church says “X is intrinsically evil,” a party which calls the act good, or a right is at odds with living as a Christian, and we must oppose them.

But the Church does not endorse a specific political platform on how to carry out her teaching, and sometimes Catholics falsely accuse each other of rejecting Church teaching when it is more a case of one Catholic thinking the second Catholic’s preferred plan won’t work. We have to be honest with ourselves. We can’t cherry pick the Church teaching to find convenient phrases to justify what we want to do anyway. We have to be sincerely trying to seek out and follow Church teaching when we support legislation or candidates.

One Catholic may think that a particular political proposal will better promote social justice in America. A second may believe the harm it causes outweighs the good claimed. If both are sincere and have their conscience properly formed by the Church, neither sins for not favoring the approach of the other and it is unjust of accusing them of disobeying the Church.

II. Falsely Claiming a Right to Support A Candidate who Favors Evil in the Name of a Good

On the other side, we have to understand that conscience is not the same thing as feelings or opinions. Conscience tells us about what is right and wrong about an act. Our opinions and feelings can mislead us by sentiment, or an imperfect knowledge of the facts. A person may not feel that he does anything wrong. But conscience formed by the Church tells us something is a grave evil and we cannot treat it as a lesser concern just because we like the candidate’s other positions. A person who does not know that Church teaching must form conscience but sincerely seeks to do right might make a mistake in pursuing the good. The Catholic does not have that excuse. 

Since the Church made known to us we cannot use an evil means to cause good (see CCC #1789), we have an obligation to consider the action we want to use and the goal we want it to achieve. If will the evil in means or goal, we cannot use the action without sinning. If we don’t intend the evil, we have to assess if it outweighs the good intended. If the unintended evil outweighs the intended good, we cannot do the act without sinning. We cannot support an action that violates the rights of the human person—and the Church defines life as the fundamental human right—we can only tolerate it prevent a greater evil against that right to life. Our task is to limit the evil done if we can’t stop the evil outright:

4. The complex array of today’s problems branches out from here, including some never faced by past generations. Scientific progress has resulted in advances that are unsettling for the consciences of men and women and call for solutions that respect ethical principles in a coherent and fundamental way. At the same time, legislative proposals are put forward which, heedless of the consequences for the existence and future of human beings with regard to the formation of culture and social behaviour, attack the very inviolability of human life. Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard. John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a «grave and clear obligation to oppose» any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them. As John Paul II has taught in his Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, «an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality»


 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2002).

This is a good rebuke of a popular misconception. Some Catholics believe they can vote for a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil as a “right” on the grounds that his other policies will make fewer people want to avail themselves of that “right.” That reasoning is usually a post hoc fallacy that assumes the candidate’s other policies will cause the decline in abortion, and does not consider other possible reasons for the decline, such as the declining birth rate (many countries are now below replacement levels) and the success of pro-life laws. 

The problem is, even if these policies did make intrinsic evils less necessary do not change the fact that politicians think these intrinsic evils are good and want to defend them, which goes against what Christians need to do—make known to the world the need for salvation and how we need to live to follow Our Lord. Maybe the world will resist what we have to say, but that doesn’t change our obligation. If we vote for politicians who promote intrinsic evils, how convincing will we be when we claim to be against those evils?

That’s the problem of scandal—an attitude or behavior that leads another to do evil. If we don’t practice what we preach, people will decide our practices are easier to follow, even though our words claim we value Church teaching. Our Lord’s words on scandal are not pleasant ones to hear (Matthew 18:6-7). So, if we want to bear witness, we’ll make sure we consider the message our actions send, making sure they match up with our words. That means squaring our political preferences with our Catholic faith, not the reverse.


In this election cycle, neither major candidate could be called good, and even the largest minor parties support intrinsic evil. Most have endorsed things the Church condemns as unjust. As a result, Catholics are scrambling to salvage the best way to limit evil. Unfortunately, we’re greatly divided and observers, understandably, not only have a hard time seeing what American Catholics actually believe, but would have a hard time recognizing Tertullian’s description of how the earliest Christians were seen:

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death.


 Tertullian, “The Apology,” Chapter XXXIX, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 46.

I believe Catholics need to be more aware of the meaning of what the Church teaching, not presuming that we know enough to reason out on our own something unfamiliar to us when we have the Church as mother and teacher. Between now and November, we need to study and pray—to know God’s will and to deal with each other in charity. We should make clear witness of the Catholic teachings that guide our decisions, while striving to avoid bad judgments through misunderstanding.

Our choices may be bad, but we have the opportunity to witness to what is right in charitably discussing the what we believe.

Friday, June 24, 2016

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

Im with stupid

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

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

Pope crazy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Is This Really the Hill You Want to Die On?

There is a rhetorical question out there, derived from the military, which goes: Is this the hill you want to die on? The meaning of the question was “Is this objective worth the cost?” (i.e. is this objective worth dying over?). The question has a wider usage now, but the basic meaning is the same: Is this fight worth the effort? It’s certainly a question we need to ask ourselves, keeping in mind the ultimate goals of our life on Earth. It’s especially worth asking ourselves as we seek to understand whether a task is a part of our life as a Christian or a distraction from it.

The world is full of disputes, and the Christian has to determine whether a dispute is one about his Christian values or about one’s preferences over how they would like things to be. When it comes to the former, the Christian of course needs to take a stand for his beliefs. But if it does not concern the Christian values dieectfy or actually reflects a worldly or aesthetic concern, then the Christian needs to consider well the importance—or lack thereof—when it comes to making a dispute over it. They especially need to consider this well when they are willing to indict those who disagree with their views.

Now, this is not to say that we should be indifferent about real problems. When The Faith is being attacked, we need to respond (though in a manner which is moral and compatible with our faith), and when we have been wronged in a secular matter, we have the right to seek redress. But sometimes the situations we get worked up about is neither an attack on the faith or a redress of grievances. Rather, we want people to acknowledge our ideas as authentic, and attack people who disagree with our opinions.

Consider Social Justice. We as Catholics cannot ignore our obligations in this matter. But some conservatives equate the term with “Socialism” and reject the teaching that is at odds with their political preferences. On the other hand, some liberals think that Social Justice means the embracing of liberal policies on government regulation or taxation. Both end up attacking people who disagree with them as not behaving in a Christian manner. The Pope is labeled a Marxist, and bishops are accused of going against the teaching of Christ. But in reality, they are picking a battle that is senseless to fight. Catholic Social Teaching does not bind us to one political platform. It tells us what sort of things we must acknowledge and avoid, calling us to work together to find a solution that actually helps people.

Or consider the issue of gun violence in America. Of course it is deplorable, especially when it comes to the issue of mass shootings. The Church condemns such things. However, the issue of gun ownership in relationship to gun violence is not as cut and dried as some would lead you to believe. The Church allows for self-defense (see the Catechism ¶ 2263-2264). However, it also recognizes that the state has the responsibility to ensure the safety of the citizens, which may prevent a laissez faire approach to firearms. The people who invoke the authority of the Church to say total banning of firearms is required or to say that infringing on the right to own a bazooka is required are both staking out a position that is not defensible in the name of the Church. A Google search on the subject finds many opinion pieces on the subject (pro- and anti-gun). But the actual statements made by those in authority within the Church do not stake out either position. Consider the 2012 USCCB statement on the subject. It does not demand the total disarmament some Catholic bloggers are calling for. It calls for reasonable restrictions aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of those who would abuse them. Yes, it is not well defined, allowing people to have disputes on what a “reasonable” restriction is. Also of interest is a Vatican statement [*] on small arms trafficking:

Unfortunately, howeverit is impossible to ban all kinds of small arms and light weapons. "In a world marked by evil ... the right of legitimate defence by means of arms exists. This right can become a serious duty for those who are responsible for the lives of others, for the common good of the family or of the civil community. This right alone can justify the possession or transfer of arms". (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, "The International Arms Trade: an Ethical Reflection" in Origins 8 (24), 7 July 1994, p. 144).

This is not an absolute right, since there are specific conditions placed on the licitness of the production, possession and acquisition of arms. Nonetheless, in our meeting today the topic is fairly limited. Here we are discussing illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. This is, in a manner of speaking, a negative statement of the fundamental question of the legitimacy of the international arms trade.

In other words, there can be a legitimate use of small arms for self defense, but not an absolute right. Like the discussion of Social Justice, the Church does not say that one political position is endorsed. Rather she calls on people to work together to find a solution using the teaching of the Church as a basis.

I could mention many other issues of political and economic concern that people stake out as a hill to die on, and I’m sure that in each case the person who supports a certain position would label me as being unchristian and a tool for the other side for not supporting their position. But, that would miss the point. I don’t write this to endorse a specific position (liberal or conservative) on Social Justice or Gun ownership. Rather I write this to point out that the hill to die on is the Church position, and we should be working together to find a good solution.

The “hill to die on,” the things we fight about to defend should be the actual Catholic teaching. In such a case, defending that “hill” done according to Our Lord’s commands may lead people to hate us (see John 15:18-21), but we cannot yield here. However, the things where we can have legitimate differences of opinion as Catholics should not be that hill where we leave people hating us because of our own behavior (see 1 Peter 2:19-20).

So keep this in mind as we discuss issues in blogs or on Facebook. Defend the faith with charity, but don’t fight flame wars over things where there are legitimate grounds for difference of opinion.


[*] Being an address to the United Nations, this document is of course not a magisterial document. But it does raise a point on how the Church views self defense and firearms.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Mercy and Misconceptions

On one of the Catholic news sites out there, I was involved in a debate with another reader about the issue of divorce and remarriage. This individual argued that the Church, in confirming that remarriage after divorce (as opposed to receiving an annulment first) is morally wrong, was ignoring the words of Our Lord concerning the parable of the lost sheep. In other words, this individual was asserting that to show mercy to the divorced and remarried, the Church had to stop teaching their actions were sinful and needed to admit them to Communion.

This kind of thinking confuses mercy with tolerating a lack of restraint, and misses the point of what mercy is. It seeks to assuage the conscience of the sinner by telling him or her that their actions are not even sins at all. The Church is accused of being merciless because she will not change herself when people demand that she stop saying things are sins. The reason she will not is because she cannot contradict God’s commands without being faithless to God. When God commands that we do X or avoid Y, the Church cannot permit us to avoid doing X or permit us to do Y. As Our Lord said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

For the person who seeks to know, love and serve God, we have an obligation to seek out what is right and live in accordance with it. When we find a commandment difficult, and we don’t understand why it is commanded, we are shown our task: To seek to understand why it is commanded, not to ignore it as too hard. The problem is we are used to having our way and seeking ways to justify our behavior before man, assuming that God will not punish those who choose to do what He forbade.

The mercy which God shows us can be demonstrated this way. God does not exact instantaneous punishment on us for doing what is evil. Instead He warns us of the dangers of sin, encourages turning back to Him, giving us the grace to respond. If we do respond (for grace is a gift we can refuse), He welcomes us back with open arms. If we refuse to respond, He continues to call us. Our Lord's mercy is not to tell people "It is OK to sin" or to say that what was once a sin is no longer one. It is to call people back from sin and to heal the relationship with them.But the person who refuses to heal that relationship is actually refusing the mercy Our Lord offers. The Church cannot change that reality and she cannot pretend to change that reality without being faithless to God.

So why does God command us to be merciful and to forgive? The answer is that He forbids us to behave in such a way that refuses to give mercy to the penitent and refuses to be God’s means of reaching out to the sinner. He forbids us from considering any person irredeemable. Nor can we refuse to forgive the person who has wronged us or refuse to make amends with the person we have wronged. Our task is to seek the redemption of the sinner or the person who wrongs us, not their damnation. God’s laws are made to show us how to live. Ultimately, if we reject these laws, we will face His judgment. We do have until the moment of our death to repent, but none of us know the day nor the hour of our death, so now is the time of respond to His mercy, and now is the time to be vessels of His mercy.

On the other and, when being vessels of mercy, we of course need to remember that we ourselves are in need of mercy. That means showing love and compassion for our fellow sinners who may sin in different ways than we do. We need to remember that we fall every day and are in need of Our Lord’s grace and forgiveness. That should shape how we approach others. Belittling or mocking others will probably drive them away. Nobody wants to be treated in that way, and we should ask if our attempts at humor might actually be counterproductive.

To offer a personal example, consider this account of a joke told by a Protestant minister at an interfaith meeting:

“I read a story some time ago about a man who visited the Pope. He looked around and observed the splendor and wealth of the Vatican. The Pope noticed his amazement and said laughingly, ‘We cannot say anymore that we have no silver and no gold.’ And the man answered, ‘Neither can you say, “Rise up and walk!”’” There was laughter from some in the audience, and I hoped it would break the tension.

Andrew, Brother; Al Janssen (2004-09-01). Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire (p. 215). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

My response to reading this part of the book was a mental middle finger and cost him some of the respect I previously had for him. Such attempts at humor are going to turn off the people who are the butt of the joke. If one wants to offer a fraternal rebuke over what they see as wrongdoing, things like sarcasm and perceived mockery are going to drive people away. Obviously, Brother Andrew was not intending to be offensive to Catholics (though I think his writings display some casual prejudice in that area). But his tone was counterproductive to some he might have otherwise convinced in a good cause.

Now of course the offended person has to practice forgiveness as Our Lord commanded. When someone behaves badly, we have to move beyond it and seek the truth. But people are human beings with feelings that can be hurt and fears that need to be considered. So in this case, I had to work past a bad joke that implied that the Church was worldly and no longer carrying out her mission to consider the merits of his book, but his book would have been more effective if he had omitted the wisecrack.

In a similar way, we have to consider how we present our message as God’s tools to present His mercy. Do we show compassion for their fears and sufferings, even if we must say “No” to the desire to treat sin as morally acceptable? Or do we bear false witness by leading people to think “Christians are jerks”?

Unfortunately, despite the tone we take, some will just take offense simply by the fact that we say X is a sin. Americans really tend to fall for the “Either-Or” fallacy, where if we don’t support one view, we are assumed to support the opposite. So, for example, if we oppose “same sex marriage,” we are accused of supporting all of the wrongs done to persons with a same sex attraction. Or of we oppose divorce and remarriage, we are accused of wanting to trap people in an unhappy, abusive, (insert negative description here) marriage. So if we stand for the Christian definition of marriage, we are accused of “hating homosexuals” and “not caring” about the suffering of people in broken marriages.

Obviously when we defend the teaching of Our Lord as passed on by the Church, we can’t help it if one takes offense at the teaching. But we have to be sure that the way we present that teaching is not a stumbling block.

Moreover, we have to avoid being avenging angels. We’re not like the Greek “Furies” who pursued the wrongdoers with vengeance all their lives with the intent to punish. We have to make clear that our concern is one of love and wellbeing as opposed to “vanquish the heathen!” Pope Francis used the image of the Church as field hospital—we’re here to save those people who have been wounded by sin, not throw them out the door because they’re not healed.

However, just as in medicine, saving the wounded does not mean telling the man with diabetes to continue doing the things that led to the disease, saving the spiritually wounded does not mean telling the sinner to continue to sin. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery, but He still told her “Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:11).

So it’s a balancing act. We cannot give sanction to sin, and we cannot act like jerks when reaching out to the sinner. Some may refuse to accept the mercy God offers because that mercy tells them that what they want is killing them, but we still have to love them, even when they hate us and remember that ultimately God will judge both them and us.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Do We Trust in God? Or In Ourself?

At times everyone fears what the truth might require…that accepting the truth might ask us to give up more than we want to give. This is especially the case when we have staked our claim on a position that is being challenged. If we follow the truth, and truth tells us that something we held important is actually not true, then we have to admit that we were in error. That is hard to do. Nobody wants to admit they were wrong—especially when they have to admit that their opponent might have been in the right all the time. That’s a hard situation to reconcile, and probably why many find it difficult to go from non-Christian to Christian, and from non-Catholic to Catholic. (Read some of the conversion stories out there and see how hard it was for some of them to come across to our Faith. Some of us who were already here as a part of the Catholic Christian faith either forget or never knew the difficulty of the conversion from error to truth and to admit that what they defended as truth was actually falsehood.

So why is it, when it comes to the Catholic faith which we profess to be the true Church, do we fear when the Church teaching challenges us? Why do Catholics get angry when the Pope speaks in a way which challenges our comfortable behaviors? When we’re reminded about teachings that challenge our political preferences? If we profess to believe in God, and that the Church binds and looses with the authority given to her by Our Lord, why do we fear to have our flawed understanding changed? Is it because we fear that the Church is falling into error? Or is it because we fear the consequences of having to admit we followed the faith incorrectly at times?

In other words, it’s a question of whether we are trusting in God or trusting in ourselves.

If we trust in God and recognize our own tendency towards sin and error, we can trust in the teaching authority the Church to remain under God’s protection even when the individual Bishops, Priests, Religious and Laity act sinfully and in error. We can trust that when the Church teaches and it goes at odds with what we feel comfortable with, we can change and trust in God to protect us from being misled—if we follow His Church.

But if our confidence is in ourselves—In our confidence to interpret the Scriptures or Church documents and reject anything that challenges what we feel comfortable with—then we put ourselves before God. Ultimately, we claim to know the truth and don’t feel the need to pray for guidance from God, or to obey the teaching of the Church. The funny thing is when we claim to know the truth to the point that we know better than the Church, it always seems to work in our favor. There’s seldom a case where we acknowledge our need to change. It’s always the other person who needs to change.

I think in these times, when growing numbers of Catholics are openly showing their contempt for the teachings of the Church, the teachers of the Church or both, we need to start asking ourselves where we put our trust. If our trust is in God first, then we can trust Him to protect His Church from teaching error. In such a case, we can avoid overreacting to the times when people in the Church make mistakes or do wrong. We can trust that God established a Church where we can know where to look for the truth when there are multiple factions defying it. We know that no matter how bleak things look, our enemies will not prevail against us in the end.

But if our trust is in ourselves, then we are going to become embittered and living in fear as the members of the Church continue to do things differently than we would have them done—and thus be suspicious of every change. We tell ourselves that if only the Church would do things our way, then we would not be having these problems. Some think the Church needs to change her teaching on divorce or on contraception. Others blame the rise of dissent on the diminished use of Latin and the introduction of the Ordinary form of the Mass. They say that if only the Church had changed a teaching here or not changed a discipline there, all would be well. But since the Church is having problems, it is assumed to confirm that the individual is right and the Church is wrong.

But that’s no way to live. There’s always going to be differences and disputes and disobedience—even among Catholics who generally want the same thing. If we think that our personal standards are the truth to live by, then there is going to be an awful lot of heretics out there (in our minds) and we may end up trying to oppose something that is not even wrong.

But if we recognize that God is the one whose standards we are called to follow, and that His is the Power and the Glory, we might turn our ears to listen to Him and see if we’re not acting more like Saul the Pharisee instead of Paul the Apostle, seeking to change if we do so. We recognize that the authority God gave to bind and loose is not in ourselves, but in the Church herself.

Ultimately, when we trust in God, we allow ourselves to be humble. That doesn’t mean to be passive in the face of wrongdoing, but it does mean that we need to open our eyes, ear and heart to discern what His will may be. But if we trust in ourselves, we become arrogant, and we are so sure we are right, that we forget the possibility of seeing if we’ve missed the point in following Him.

All of us (and not just the other guy) need to pray and discern to see where our trust truly lies. If it is in ourselves, then we need to pray for a change of heart.

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.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Seeing Clearly: Church Teaching and Politics

One of the big problems I see with how the Church is viewed in America seems to come from the belief that similar positions must share the same political mindset. The idea that if the Church has a position on X (X being whatever issue is controversial at the moments) and a political party has a similar position on X, it must mean that the Church is sympathetic to that political party. Similarity must mean a one came from the other, right?

In logic, we call this the cum hoc fallacy (from the Latin cum hoc ergo propter hoc—with this, therefore because of this). An example of this might be:

  1. The President announces an executive order which will legitimize same sex “marriage” across the nation (it could happen).
  2. The Bishops of the Catholic Church, seeing an attack on what the meaning and nature of marriage is supposed to be, speaks out on the subject defending the traditional understanding of marriage and saying that no government has the authority to change the meaning of marriage.
  3. At the same time, members of the Republican party speak out from a variety of motives (personal moral beliefs coincide with Catholic view, some shoring up stance with base, etc.) against this executive order.
  4. Members of Democratic party accuse the Church of "violating the wall of separation” alleging the Church is pro-Republican.

But the point is, the Church speaks out of her own sense of moral obligation while the Republicans who speak out do so from their own motives. The Church position is not made because of the Republican position, but independently of the Republican position. We can switch parties in this role (for example, the Church speaking out on immigration or social justice is similar to Democratic views, and in these cases, Republicans make the same accusations). Even though there is similarity of position, the positions are not identical, and the motive for holding the positions are not identical.

This tactic is basically treating a moral obligation as a political obligation, and accusing the Church of being political when she is speaking out on a moral issue which is in the media. The fact that the Church has spoken about this issue at times it was not part of the media attention is ignored. Both the Church and the Democrats/Republicans spoke out on this issue. Therefore the Church is accused of sympathizing with the political position (though a few generations ago, the party would have been accused of being under the control of the Church).

This is an error that can be made by both secular opponents who see the Church as an enemy and by Catholics who fear that the Church may be embracing an enemy. Those individuals and groups who know their position is in opposition to Church teaching tend towards discrediting the Church. Those members of the Church who are attached to a political view that is not in keeping with the Catholic view might prefer to think of this teaching as a change so as to excuse themselves. Or, on the other side of the coin, a person might choose to cite a Church teaching which is similar to the political position to give added support to the entire political platform.

As I see it as a matter of what one uses as the focus. If one uses a political ideology as the “center,” then the Church can look schizophrenic. Sometimes she adopts a liberal position and sometimes a conservative one. How can she be so inconsistent? But, on the other hand, if one uses the Church teaching as the center, then we see a view where political parties sometimes gets things right, and sometimes goes very wrong. It’s when we see things with this latter view that the Church begins to make sense. The Church is a signpost pointing to God, and political parties, being determined by men and women who can only see things from a limited perspective, tempted by sin, can put the wrong priorities on things and call evil good and good evil. It is only through this understanding that we can avoid the ludicrous idea that the Church can simultaneously be a left wing group and the “Republican party at prayer” because of her positions.

I think these considerations can be useful to people who want to be faithful Catholics, but are scandalized by the Church teaching on certain issues that do not fit into the favored ideology. It’s never comfortable to suddenly be faced by the idea that perhaps you’ve fallen away from what the Church position requires, or that perhaps a position you staked out as being morally wrong is more nuanced in the eyes of the Church.

Of course, we need to distinguish between the Church teaching and the individual interpreting the Church teaching. When the Church teaches abortion is always wrong, a person within the Church who tries to say that a Catholic can support abortion as good is not passing on authentic Catholic teaching. There will be Catholics who do misrepresent their personal error as Catholic teaching. But we must make the distinction between what those who have the authority to make binding teaching say, and what those who misrepresent it say.

It’s easy to see the secular media giving the Church a positive or negative spin based on ideology, and being influenced into thinking the Church is going astray, and I think this is destroying the peace of mind of Catholics who want to be faithful, but are afraid to trust what was said. If the Church seems to sound goofy, is it the fault of the media, the faithless teachers or the magisterium itself? How do we know what to trust?

This can be difficult to unwrap. With false teachers saying they are true, one might despair of knowing the truth. I think the key is that, when we are faced by one of those “What in the hell?” moments, where the media is reporting something that sounds so bizarre, we need to start asking whether what was reported = what was said. We also need to look at how reliable the source has been in the past in reporting on the Church. For example, if the source has showed itself grossly uninformed on the Church teaching (even if it has been reliable on economics or politics), then we should consider the possibility that we should look to another source to confirm or deny their interpretation, rather than assuming it to be true.

Of course, we want to avoid the genetic fallacy, rejecting all news because of the source. What we are talking about is determining the knowledge the source has about Catholicism and its tendency to report accurately or through an ideological lens. That’s not always easy. Especially if it is a source which one has previously trusted on other things. So we need to avoid the opposite fallacy as well—the irrelevant authority. A news source which might be quite knowledgable in political or economic issues might not have a good understanding of religious news, and in fact, might try to judge the Church teachings from those categories of economic and political experience.

What we need to remember is we need to be informed on the subjects we speak on. If we want to speak on what the Church does or says, we need to be clear on what she said or did. When we hear something alarming, we need to ask ourselves:

  1. Who reported it?
  2. Was it a transcript or a summary?
  3. Is the source knowledgable on Catholic teaching?
  4. Does the source have an axe to grind in this area?
  5. Do I properly understand the news reported.

These are important issues. For example, with issues 1-4, the Vatican newsfeed can be considered a more accurate source of news about what the Pope had to say than the local secular news or a blog or a political analysis site. Issue 5 shows the other side of the equation. Even if the news is reported accurately, the question still remains as to whether the individual understands what was read. It’s widely assumed that there’s no problem with the listener, so if there is a problem, it’s the fault of the speaker. But that ignores things like the cultural experience of the speaker and the listener as well as the possibility of different languages run through a translator. We can show this through a simple graphic:

Communication Barriers

What we see is a case where the listener needs to be aware of the fact that A speaks through his own experiences, that may be different from ours and we listen through our own experiences that may be different than his, and we may need a translator which may change the emphasis slightly (if done well) or greatly (if done badly). Keep in mind that ideology can be part of the cultural experience, so can our biases, and so can the orthodox faith for one unfamiliar with it. So we can see that there is a lot of areas where the listener can get it wrong, simply by not being aware of the difference—they assume they heard rightly because they do not consider that these filters are in existence.

So, this is why I try to encourage my fellow Catholics not to be discouraged because of what is reported about the Church. The media takes relish in trying to contrast Pope Francis with his predecessors. radical traditionalists take relish in trying to portray him as someone who can be ignored, but both are misreading the Pope and misleading others because they do not consider the fact that the meaning the Pope gives to his words do not have the political baggage that the listeners give to it.

Let’s just remember that when we see something reported in the news about the Pope that seems like a huge problem in relation to our faith. It may turn out (and thus far always has turned out) that people have misinterpreted what he has to say because of their cultural blinders.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Candy Bar Theology

24 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He had Paul summoned and listened to him speak about faith in Christ Jesus.

25 But as he spoke about righteousness and self-restraint and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “You may go for now; when I find an opportunity I shall summon you again.” (Acts:24:24-25)

One thing I have noticed in modern Christianity is the tendency of the believer to choose or not choose a belief based not on whether it is true, but on whether it is appealing.  Thus we hear the message of love, but believe the messages of obedience and judgment are left behind.

The Origin of the Term

In his insightful book, Socrates Meets Jesus, the character of Socrates speaks of the modern beliefs in Christianity as such:

Socrates: And I still don't know why you believe what you believe.

Bertha: I just do, that's ail. Maybe it's irrational, Maybe we choose to believe things and choose to do things for other reasons than rational reasons. Didn't you ever think of that?

Socrates: Like eating that candy bar, for instance?

Bertha: Yes. I think you're wrong when you teach that evil comes only from ignorance. That's rationalism. That assumes that rea­son always rules. It doesn't. It gets pushed around by the desires and the will sometimes.

Socrates; I think you are convincing me of just that. In fact, I think I have seen two instances of it just this morning— instances of something I disbelieved in until now.

Bertha: Two instances?

Socrates: Yes. Your candy bar and your beliefs. You choose both not because they are good for you, or because they are true, but because they are sweet. Your belief that God forgives but does not judge is rather like a candy bar, is it not? It Is a sweet thought, the thought that we have only half of justice to deal with when we deal with God, that God rewards goodness but does not punish evil—is not that thought sweet and desirable? And are you not attracted to it just as you are attracted to the candy bar? (Page 55)

How It Afflicts Christianity

The reason this afflicts [no, I did not mean to type "affects"] Christianity is that it focuses on one aspect of God, making it the whole.  When the Church insists on looking at God as both Love and Just, it is the Church which is accused of legalism or being hard hearted in relation to God instead of considering the possibility of a lax conscience of the individual.

Such a view of Christianity seems to make use of the following kind of reasoning:

  1. [God] is [Good] (All [A] is [B])
  2. No [Punishment] is [Good] (No [C] is [B])
  3. Therefore [God] Does not [Punish] (Therefore No [C] is [A])

The problem is the assumption of the minor premise, that no punishment is not good.  This is begging the question because the minor premise needs to be proven, not assumed.  Now of course some punishment may be wrong because it is excessive or inflicted on the wrong individual.  However it does not follow no punishment is good.  Sometimes parents must correct their children.  Sometimes the state must incarcerate law breakers for their correction or the protection others.  We can argue more reasonably as follows:

  1. [God] is [Just] (All [A] is [B])
  2. Some [Punishment] is from [God] (Some [C] is [A])
  3. Therefore Some [Punishment] is [Just] (Therefore some [C] is [B])

We can demonstrate the second premise from Scripture and Church teaching.  In both the Old and the New Testament, we see God speaking of punishment and warning of punishment as a way of calling the sinful man back to Himself.  So from this, the believer has to look at the major premise.  Do they believe that God is just or do they not?  If they believe God is both good and just, then it follows that if He punishes, He does so for reasons which are good and just.

If they don't believe God is good or just, then why follow Him?

"Does God really care about X?"

However, most people who do believe in God believe He is just and good.  It's just that they don't think their own behavior should be considered bad.  Because God is good and they don't think their behavior is bad, they reason that therefore God doesn't think the behavior they do is bad, but rather the "mean old Church" imposes this on people for whatever reason.

So we thus see all sorts of questions:

  • "Do you really think God cares if I have sex with my girlfriend/boyfriend?"
  • "Do you really think God cares if a married couple trying to be good uses contraception?"
  • "Do you really think God wants me to be unhappy because my spouse was unfaithful to me and ran off with another?"
  • "Do you really think God cares about homosexual acts?"

The unvoiced part of the objection is "This is really unimportant and only the Church thinks it is important.  Yet it is that unvoiced objection which must be proven.

The problem is, of course, you can justify any kind of behavior from this point of view:

  • "Do you really think God cares if I offer sacrifice to an idol?"
  • "Do you really think God cares if I participate in the Death Camps?"
  • "Do you really think God cares if I apostatize from the Faith?"
  • "Do you really think God cares if I steal from a rich man?"
  • "Do you really think God cares if I eat of the tree of knowledge?"

The thing is, if an act is contrary to His will and we know it is contrary to what He decrees, we are obligated to do as He commands and are guilty if we defy Him.  If a thing is contrary to His will and we do not know it is contrary to His will, our guilt or innocence will depend on what we could know if we bothered to find out.

The Ultimate Satanic Deception

Ultimately the Satanic deception behind such a mentality is Do what you will.  If you think it is good, it must be good.  Good is made subjective to feelings.  Because a God who forgives but does not punish is a pleasing thought, we hide from the consideration of if a thing is good, and what the consequences are for disobedience for what God commands.  Thus we have the sweetness of a forgiving God and the sweetness of self-indulgence without the responsibility and the obligations to obey and the consequences of disobedience.


It is an act of tremendous arrogance to assume for ourselves what is good or bad depending on what we want to do instead of what we ought to do.  To decide that punishment and sin is only for things which do not involve us and fail to consider what we are required to do or what happens when we disobey is foolish indeed.  It is not based on what is true, but what is pleasing to us.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Mob Turns on Richard Dawkins

Reports are coming in of a dispute on  The history seems to be Dawkins has written a note claiming his blog forum will be more tightly moderated in light of abusive comments.  Ironically, the tight moderation will be enacted sooner than the 30 days stated because of the vitriol he received in response to his policy.

Christian bloggers of course have been on the receiving end of such vitriol for some time.  Trolls, flames, personal attacks and all the rest have been directed us for quite awhile now.  Of course I don't take part in the Schadenfreude which seems to be going around some sites, which seems to be amused by this.  These people are often the ones making insults against Christians.  Personally I'd rather the Internet be filled with a good deal more civility regardless of the topic on a forum than to see Dawkins get what he deserves.

Dawkins says in his post:

Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, over-reacting so spectacularly to something so trivial. Even some of those with more temperate language are responding to the proposed changes in a way that is little short of hysterical. Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people? How can anybody feel that strongly about something so small? Have we stumbled on some dark, territorial atavism? Have private fiefdoms been unwittingly trampled?

I believe the answer to this is: Richard Dawkins rose to fame by appealing to the mob, and now the mob has turned on him.  In his books and public statements, he has made attacks on religion which do not appeal to the intellectuals, but the mob mentality, using rhetorical flourishes to sneak past arguments which aren't valid.

The mob tends to love displays of violence and mockery.  They were the ones who flocked to the arenas during the Roman Empire, they were the ones who took part in lynching individuals, they were the ones who eventually took over French Revolution, turning on the founders.

This is the danger in the appeal to the mob.  One can encourage it to support you, but one can never fully control it.  One generally has to keep upping the ante for satiating the mob, because they become jaded.

The New Atheism has gained its appeal through pandering to the mob.  The attacks we have seen from them are that Christians are "stupid" and "irrational" and call for actions to put Christians "in their place."  The mob liked this, because of those Christians who insist that there are limits to what is acceptable behavior… limits which are unpopular in a hedonistic culture.

For long periods of time, we have seen the foul language, the insults used against the Christians.  So long as it was directed against the Christians, such things were tolerated.

However, once the mob grew angry at Dawkins and his attempts to control his site, the situation changed.  It wasn't Christians saying "You shouldn't do this."  It was Dawkins saying it.  The mob merely took their hostility to the next group "restricting" them.

So now they turned on him, using the vitriol long used against Christians against him.  The preferences of the mob have shifted further than Dawkins wishes to go, but the mob must be sated.  So once Dawkins tried to stop the mob, he paid the price.

He writes:

Be that as it may, what this remarkable bile suggests to me is that there is something rotten in the Internet culture that can vent it. If I ever had any doubts that needs to change, and rid itself of this particular aspect of Internet culture, they are dispelled by this episode.

However, he played a role in his own savaging.  By tolerating the vile attacks so long as it was directed against Christians, it becomes somewhat hypocritical for him to object when he falls out of favor and becomes the target.

Perhaps Dawkins will learn now that there is an objective standard for behavior, and that what is wrong to direct towards him is also wrong to direct against others… even Christians.