Showing posts with label assent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label assent. Show all posts

Friday, August 31, 2018

Reflecting on Seeking Truth

Introduction 

My blog’s Facebook page suddenly got a lot more active. I’m fielding a lot more comments and messages in the past week than I did in the past three months. The common theme of this interaction was the issue of truth. Whether asking what it was or arguing about whose theory is true, people show a belief that truth exists and a sincere desire to know and live out what is true. 

Since truth cannot contradict truth, when we encounter conflicting claims, they can’t both be true. However they can both be false. This means that we can’t argue that rejecting one claim means the other must automatically be true. Aristotle famously defined truth as “to say of what is that it is, and to say of what is not that it is not.” If we want to do this, we must investigate what things are.

This article will not be an exhaustive treatment of truth or logic, but I will mention some things I think are in danger of being forgotten.

The Authority of Our Lord and His Church to teach Truth

As Christians, we believe Our Lord Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the light. So we must live in accord with His teaching. As Catholics, we believe that the Catholic Church is the Church Our Lord established (Matthew 16:18) and made necessary (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). So we must live in accord with the Church teaching if we would be faithful to Him (John 14:15). The ones who determine what is compatible with these teachings are the magisterium—the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. They bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). This office exists regardless of the sinfulness of the men holding the office. We trust that God protects His Church from teaching error (Matthew 16:18, 28:19-20). Because of this, any attempts to separate loving God from obeying His Church does not live according to the truth.

This becomes challenging when some members of the magisterium do grievous wrong. But we are not excused. Our Lord anticipated the teacher who did evil when he said in Matthew 23:2–3: “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.” When the bishops exercise their office in communion with the Pope, their personal sinfulness is not an exemption from obedience.


Avoiding Things That Lead to False Conclusions 

There are all sorts of things that can mislead. They don’t have to be deliberate lies. A person can think they sound reasonable. But if the argument has false premises or bad logic, the conclusions are unproven. For example, if “proof” of a claim depends on the claim being true, those proofs aren’t proof. That’s begging the question. If a person calls his opponent a liar at the beginning and turns his audience to suspicion of his opponent, that’s turning people away from considering all sides, that’s poisoning the well. If a person conjures up strong emotions to sway the audience to a desired conclusion, that’s an appeal to emotion fallacy.

Moreover, a person can lie about or be mistaken over facts. If they speak falsely, they cannot prove a conclusion.

There are many ways to mislead. But the person misleading might think it is true. Someone untrained in logic or mistaken about facts can sincerely go wrong without intending to mislead. But we have to investigate claims—especially accusations of wrongdoing—to determine if they are true. 

The Credibility Issue

Some sources are more reliable than others. Sources that shows repeated ignorance, deception, or bias are seen as more dubious and their claims are given less weight than informed sources which strive to be accurate and balanced. While we can’t just outright reject a claim solely based on the origin (that’s the genetic fallacy), we can certainly question the claim of a dubious source.

The Evidence Issue

If I make a shocking claim, you shouldn’t accept it just because I said so (ipse dixit). We have to ask whether it happened or happened under the circumstances claimed. A lack of evidence isn’t proof that it didn’t happen. But neither can silence be used to prove it did (“nobody denies it....”) A lack of evidence means nothing more than a lack of evidence. It doesn’t prove somebody destroyed evidence. It doesn’t prove that the person making the claim is a liar. It just proves... nothing.

A variant of this is the “everybody knows” claims. You can’t interview “Everybody.” We need to talk to a credible witness or an expert. “Everyone” may have heard, but not everyone is a witness. People talk, rumors expand. Do they have any basis? Or is it hearsay? Except in rare circumstances (like the “dying declaration”) you can’t testify what someone else told you. The person who saw it has to testify.

Nobody likes a dead end. We like things to be resolved. But real life sometimes can’t provide what we need to prove something. Criminals walk free. Society endures that on the grounds that it is better that a guilty man go free than an innocent man be punished. In terms of reason, we would say: if we can’t prove a man is guilty, the courts can’t say he’s been proven guilty.

Putting it Together 

So, when it comes to evaluating a claim, we have certain restrictions that push us to the truth. We must accept the Christian-Catholic view on right and wrong. We must identify things that could mislead us and reject them. We must consider the reliability of the one who makes a claim and whether evidence backs it up. If one or more of these things are absent, we cannot declare that claim “proven true.”

Applying This to the Scandals 

Going by what Christ and His Church had taught, rash judgment is closed to us. We cannot assume malfeasance unless malfeasance is proven. Based on logic, we cannot use bad reasoning that leads us or others to wrong conclusions. In terms of credibility, we cannot rely on sources known to be unreliable or biased to form the basis of our views. In terms of evidence, we must rely on what is proven, not on what is claimed.

The problem I see is, in America at least, a vocal portion of Catholic Social Media is ignoring these things. Many are allowing their preferences and biases to shape their opinion and treat it as fact. A person who has a longstanding hostility to the Pope or has indiscriminately read biased sources are swallowing up whatever fits their ideology.

I don’t object to seeking the truth. But there is a strong tendency towards rash judgment that must be rejected. If we would be unbiased, we must be willing to consider the idea that the Pope is not guilty of accusations against him—something that seems to be sadly lacking on what I see in social media (which probably means I have to start unfollowing the worst offenders).

Conclusion 

Is there wrongdoing in the Church? Of course. Even before McCarrick and the Pennsylvania report, that was clear. There will always be wrongdoing in the Church. That doesn’t mean we should be complacent about it. In each era of Church history, there are always things that need reform. This era is no different. 

But in assessing where the wrongdoing is and curing it, it requires us to be open to finding the truth and eliminating things that lead us astray. This is a requirement for everyone. The person who assumes that only the person who disagrees with us need to do this is not looking for the truth.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Thoughts on Assent and Dissent

Lately, the Papacy is either an obstacle or a token in the mind of the factions of the Church. If the Pope is emphasizing teachings that go against the ideology of the faction, then he is seen as an obstacle. But if he says what one happens to agree with, then he is a token to use to claim that one’s own ideology is the true meaning of the Church. Neither faction shows obedience when the Pope says something they dislike. Dissent is justified if a Catholic disagrees and unjustified if the Catholic agrees.

Because of this, it is a mistake to think that faction X is less of a problem than faction Y. When they misrepresent Church teaching, the faction causes harm by misleading others to think that the magisterium is a faction to be swayed. The Church is neither conservative nor liberal, though various Church teachings have superficial similarities to ideologies.

Church teaching is based on the two Greatest Commandments: Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself. Loving God means we cannot live in a way contrary to what God calls us to be. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means we cannot do the evil we do not want others to do with us. And combined they mean we cannot choose a means contrary to God in interacting with our neighbor nor think that mistreating a neighbor is loving God.

Our agendas stand as a stumbling block to these Greatest Comandments. When we try to explain away absolute prohibitations in the name of “love,” we are not loving our neighbor who does those things. When we use God’s commandments as an excuse to hate, we are not loving God. To love God and our neighbor is to do what is objectively right and to show mercy when others fail. It’s not to choose one and neglect the other. It’s not to claim or imply that the Pope, bishop, or priest is neglecting God’s teaching by giving a command to be merciful in application or to defend an objective teaching.

Unfortunately, too many interpret Church teaching according to their ideology, accepting or rejecting a teaching depending on one’s own preferences and claiming obedience is wrong when obedience is against what one wanted to do in the first place. The problem is, the Church is the pillar of truth (1 Timothy 3:15) that binds and looses (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and to reject the Church is to reject God (Luke 10:16). When the Church teaches, we are bound to give submission, even when the teaching is from the ordinary magisterium. We are not the ones who judge the teaching of the Church, saying what we will and will not follow. If we profess to love Jesus, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15) and not find excuses to disobey.

The person who selectively cites the Church in order to defend an agenda does wrong. We profess the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, after all. We profess that God will remain with His Church always (Matthew 28:20). Therefore we must be willing to constantly reassess our preferences compared to how the Church applies her teachings to the needs of this age.

Unfortunately, many think that saying that X is a sin is (or should be) a hatred of people practicing that sin. From this, they justify a behavior at odds to what we believe through either laxity or severity. But this view is refusing the teaching of Christ. It thinks that “I would not act that way if I was God,” and ignore the fact that we are not God. We can strive to understand what God teaches and apply it in each age, but we do not have the authority to turn God’s no into a yes (or vice versa). When there is a conflict, it is the Church that judges our views not us that judges the Church.

So, when I see people treating the Pope like an idiot because he stresses mercy; when I see people treat the bishop as left wing and right wing simultaneously because they teach on how moral teaching is applied, I see a people who have forgotten what the Church teaches, calling evil good. We must avoid this if we would be faithful to God.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

Watch Your Footing

When I was young (before the internet), we used to go out to the hills out past the outskirts of town. Climbing up and down them hiking was our activity. Sometimes we would use rocks as places to set our feet to help make the climb easier. Of course you had to be careful. A rock might look solid, but if it wasn’t anchored to the hill, it could shift and lead to a fall. Of course some were obvious. A rock sitting freely could easily shift. Others were harder to spot. A rock might seem deeply embedded in the side of a hill, but loose dirt, cracks, or mud could serve as a warning.

I found myself thinking about that watching the disputes of theologians about what we are called to do to be faithful Christians. Especially when some I once deeply respected took a stance I could not follow in good conscience. If we think of the Hill as symbolizing the teaching of the Church, and the rocks as individual theologians, we can form an analogy. The theologians can help us grasp the teaching of the Church more clearly...if they are firmly anchored to the truth. But if they are not, they will most likely cause a fall.

I think the the “loose dirt, cracks, or mud” to beware of in this case is whether they give the proper “religious submission of the intellect and will” (see Code of Canon Law 752-754) to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. If they start to undermine that authority, beware! They are no longer safe to rely on.

Of course, at this point, usually somebody will point out that we have had heretical bishops and morally bad Popes. I believe that is to fall down a rabbit hole. The heretical bishops are acting against the communion with the Pope. The morally bad Popes are not teaching. They are not “proofs” justifying disobedience to the teaching of any Pope or Bishop.

It’s important to note that the dissent is not limited to one faction. Yes, in the post-Vatican II years, some liberals (political and theological) were (and still are) infamous for rejecting the magisterium when it comes to moral teaching on sexual ethics. But some conservatives (political and theological) are using the same playbook, rejecting the moral teaching on economic and social justice. 

This leads us to another warning of unstable ground: the downplaying of one Church teaching in favor of another—which “coincidentally” matches the dissenter’s political views. Yes, the conservative rightly opposes abortion. Yes, the liberal rightly opposes economic injustice. But the temptation is to limit obedience to the issues one happens to agree with while ignoring the issues one disagrees with, calling them “less important.”

Now, it is true that some sins are graver than others in the eyes of God. Some are intrinsically evil. Others can become wrong because of intentions and circumstances. Yes, the Church recognizes that some sins are worse than others. But to think that because we don’t commit sin X, we are right with God is to reenact the role of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14, forgetting that the deadliest sin is the one that sends us to hell. We might not be murderers or abortionists. But if we commit other mortal sins, we will still be damned if we are unrepentant.

This is warning of unstable ground: the unshakable conviction of being in the right. The saints were humble. They recognized their weaknesses. They knew of their own need for salvation. But if we tend to be proud of our behavior and look to the sins of others as a proof of being in the right, we’ve become arrogant. Instead of leading by the example of repentance, we tend to have a hard “@#$& you!” approach to those who sin in different areas than we do. We’re tempted to think that they must reach our level before they can be forgiven, forgetting the parable of the merciless servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

I think this is the meaning of the oft misinterpreted Matthew 7:1-5. It doesn’t mean we can’t call an action morally wrong. It means we must remember that the same God who judges our enemy also judges us. If we are so focused on the sins of others, we will lose sight of our own sins and need of salvation. We will forget to be penitent and to forgive those who trespass against us—a vital condition for being forgiven ourselves.

This should not be interpreted as a morally lax approach to life. Some things are morally wrong. We may not do them. We must warn others about them. But the Christian life is not one of lording it over others or exalting ourselves. Correction must be done with humility, not arrogance.

This is what we must watch for. No doubt some teachers in the Church will disappoint in their personal life or in administering the Church. But when they teach in communion with the Pope, they have the authority to bind and loose. If we reject that authority, we reject Our Lord (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). If what they teach seems contrary to what the faith seems to mean to us, we must consider the possibility that we have either misunderstood the Church or the Pope accused of heresy. We must recognize that God protects His Church or we will be unable to give the submission required. 

If we will not do this, if theologians will not do this, we become unstable stones that send people falling. Then woe to us (Matthew 18:6).

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Grammar of Dissent: Reflection on Modern Rebellion in the Church



From An Essay in Aid to a Grammar of Assemt (page 240). 
I believe it also applies to “cradle Catholic” dissenters.

The current dissent within the Church today is scandalous. Catholics who were once diehard defenders of the Papacy are now undermining the current Pope, inventing a theology of dissent while pretending to be faithful. At the same time, certain Catholics who rejected previous Popes are now misapplying what Pope Francis says to portray their long-running dissent as being justified.

The only way I can think to explain it: one faction of Catholics merely happened to agree with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and mistook that agreement for obedience. Now that we have Pope Francis, they don’t agree and justify disobedience because they never learned the obedience the Church has always required. Another faction rejected Church teaching under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI and just happen to agree with what they think (inaccurately, in my view) Pope Francis is saying. 

Some confused conservatism with Catholicism. They assumed that because some teachings lined up with their labels, Church teaching was “conservative.” They praised or condemned it based on their ideology. Others confuse Pope Francis’ Catholicism with liberalism. Both factions downplay or attack Catholic teaching that doesn’t match their ideology. None of them consider the possibility that they’re wrong; that they, not the Pope, cause the confusion in the Church by pushing an ideology and calling it “Catholic.”

We must remember we still have the same Church which teaches with the same authority. Discipline has changed in different eras of the Church but it still revolves around gathering people in so they might learn what they must do to be saved (Acts 2:37). An act that is intrinsically evil (always wrong, regardless of circumstances) remains wrong. But how the Church reaches out to the sinners who commit these acts can change depending on the needs of the time.

So, both insistence on changing what the Church cannot change and insisting that the Church remain attached to the discipline, customs, or practices of a certain age are to replace the virtue of obedience with following the Church only to the extent that it supports what we were going to do in the first place. That’s not obedience. That’s just membership in a group.

One of the radical ideas of Catholicism is that Jesus Christ established a Church which He intends to teach with His authority. He made clear that rejection of this Church was a rejection of Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). If this is true, then we must obey the Church when she intends to teach. If it is not true, then there is no real reason to be a Catholic in the first place.

I think we’ve lost this sense today. We think that we are the ones who “know” the truth and we are “cursed” with a Church steeped in “error.” But we forget that in past ages, when we really did have Popes of dubious character, the saints still insisted on obedience, that we trust and obey the Church even if it ran counter to our own perception.

From The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

Note that St. Ignatius does not create exceptions for Popes we dislike. He does not limit this obedience to ex cathedra statements. He affirms that when there is a conflict between ourselves and the Church, we must obey the Church because of we believe God protects and guides her. If we do not believe this then, again, there is no reason to be a Catholic to begin with. If we believe that God can protect the Church from a Benedict IX, John XII, Liberius, or Honorius I, why do we believe that He stopped protecting the Church in 1958 (the beginning of St. John XXIII’s pontificate), 1962 (the beginning of Vatican II), 1970 (the implementation of the Ordinary Form of the Mass), or 2013 (the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate)?

Either we trust the Church because we trust God to protect her, or we lie when we say we have faith in God. The authority of the Church is not in the holiness of her members (we would have been debunked millennia ago if that were the case) but from God. Sometimes, this authority of the Church shocks—remember that members of the Church were shocked when St. Peter baptized the first gentiles (Acts 11:1-3)—but we believe that teaching is binding.

The problem is people confuse things that are not universally binding with teaching. When the Pope has a private conversation or a press conference, this is not teaching. When a Pope promulgates a law for Vatican City (or previously, the Papal States), this is not teaching. But when the Pope published Laudato Si and Amoris Lætitia, he was teaching [†]. For example, he explicitly identified the authority of Laudato Si saying:


We cannot call this an “opinion.” The Code of Canon Law makes clear that when the Pope teaches, we must give our submission—even if the teaching is not ex cathedra.


So, regardless of the faction one comes from, there is no basis for the rejecting the teaching authority of the Pope and there is no basis for trying to deny that a teaching is a teaching. Accepting the authority of the Church comes from putting faith in God protecting His Church. If we won’t do that, we are NOT faithful Catholics. We’re merely dissenting about different things.

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[†] It is downright bizarre that critics of Pope Francis reject Amoris Lætitia because it is “only” an Apostolic Exhortation and appeal to Familiaris Consortio—which is also an Apostolic Exhortation.



Monday, April 30, 2018

Countermagisterium

For the entire history of the Church, we had an understanding that the Magisterium of the Church—the Pope and bishops in communion with him—are the ones who determine what is orthodox and what is not. They are also the ones to determine whether it is an appropriate time to change the discipline of the Church. That’s not to say we didn’t have disagreement in the Church, or that all of those with authority exercised it in an unblemished manner. But the point is, when the Church taught, orthodox Catholics recognized the obligation to give assent. Those who refused to give assent were recognized as dissenters or possibly even schismatics and heretics.

But in these current times, stretching back to the end of Vatican II, we’ve seen the rise of a new way of thinking, one which claims that a person can be a “good Catholic” while rejecting portions of Church teaching they disliked. Initially, it seemed like this movement was politically “liberal.”  We had people arguing that Humanae Vitae was not binding, or that the teaching on abortion was in error. They appealed to either dissenting theologians like Charles Curran and Hans Küng, or to spurious interpretations of past saints and legitimate theological concepts like double effect. These people argued that anything which was not ex cathedra was not protected. Since it could not be protected, it could be in error. Because it could be in error, it could be rejected.

There was no basis for those claims. It depended on the interpretation of people with no authority to interpret and rejected the authority of those who did have that authority. But people fabricated their own theology to justify what they intended to do anyway. When the Popes and bishops rejected their views, they were seen as trying to “undo” the work of the Council. This movement was, of course, in error. Faithful Catholics flocked to the defense of the Church.

There was a problem though. Because the dissenters of that time tended to be politically liberal, it became easy to confuse the defense of the Church with political conservatism. Some defenders of the Church were actually defending conservative politics—which did not always line up with Catholic teaching. When this happened, it was easy to downplay the teaching that rejected conservative politics... but the fact remained that Church teaching did not line up with one political faction. [†]

St. John Paul II, September 16, 1987
St. John Paul II, September 16, 1987

Advancing to the time of the current pontificate, we see that the current dissenters are behaving just as wrongly as the dissenters of the past. They are again falsely citing the words of the saints and legitimate theological concepts. They are again rejecting those with the authority to teach while promoting those who either have no authority to teach, or are confusing their teaching office with their personal views. When the Pope says X, this countermagisterium argues that the Pope had no right to say X. Like the previous generation of dissent, the current faction is choosing to listen to the countermagisterium while treating the real magisterium as a false opinion.

One of the tragedies here is seeing members of the Church I hitherto respected taking a path I cannot follow if I want to be faithful to the Church. When the Church permits Eucharist in the hand and Mass celebrated.ad orientem and a respected churchman is telling us this is diabolical, then I cannot follow that churchman in this matter. When a high ranking member of the Church openly questions the teaching of the Pope, a red flag goes up in my mind. When a theologian starts questioning the orthodoxy of the Pope, I start questioning the orthodoxy of said theologian—did he really understand the teaching of the Church? Or did he confuse orthodoxy with conservatism?

The reason I do this is not because I am a liberal dissenter who wants to undermine the Church [§]. Rather, I think they do not speak rightly about the Pope. While I will not judge their motives [¶], I believe they are reacting to a caricature of the Pope. Therefore when the Pope teaches X and the countermagisterium says the Pope is wrong, I believe that the Pope has the authority while his opponents offer opinions which they confuse with authority. 

For example, reading Amoris Lætitia, I believe that the accusation of “opening up Communion to the divorced and remarried” is a false charge. It is clear that the Pope is asking bishops to apply the determination of culpability to these cases instead of assuming all elements of mortal sin are present. It’s quite possible that the number of cases where culpability is reduced is ZERO. But we can’t presume that. Therefore when I read something that claims that the Pope is “opening up Communion,” I believe we have a false statement—even if sincerely believed to be true—on par with “Catholics worship Mary.”

Some critics reading this far may accuse me of trying to match my theological knowledge against men who served the Church faithfully for decades. That would be false. I don’t presume to challenge them. However, when one considers the words of Our Lord on authority (Matthew 16:19. 18:18, Luke 10:16), I am pitting the authority of the Pope against the opinions of these men. Put that way, I must be obedient to the Pope to be faithful to the Church. Therefore, if the countermagisterium opposes him, I cannot listen to them.

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[†] There were warnings of course. The advent of groups like the SSPX were serious threats and the magisterium recognized that. But it was easy for them to be tolerated by conservatives who argued “liberals were greater threats.” In my opinion, the current problems in the Church has that mindset as at least part of the origin.

[§] I have also defended his predecessors from critics on both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals have accused me of being heartless. Conservatives have accused me of being ignorant of Church teaching.

[¶] This is important. The average person who misinterprets the Pope as teaching error can quite easily misinterpret the Priest, Bishop, or Cardinal who expresses concern. We would be wise not to judge them by those anti-Francis Catholics who cite them.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Theologians, Bloggers, and Authority

It is the teaching of the magisterium that binds and looses, as well as interprets how to apply the teachings of the past to the present age. When the Pope and bishops in communion with him do this, we have the obligation to give assent to these teachings. There is no appeal to the decision of a Pope (canon 1404), though a later Pope can decide on a different approach from his predecessor. The magisterium does not invent new revelation, but can develop doctrine from the timeless teachings meeting current needs and challenges.

For those Catholics who are not members of the magisterium (most of us), we do not have the authority to bind and loose. Nor do we have the authority to declare what is the proper teaching and judge people who disagree with us to be enemies of the faith. The value of what we write only goes as far as we accurately portray the teaching of the Church. We might think that position Z logically follows from teaching X and Y, and perhaps our insights may help the Church to deepen our understanding of the faith, but we cannot claim that Z is Church teaching if the Church does not teach Z. Nor can we accuse the Church of error if she rejects our reasoning.

This is important because there is a growing number of theologians and bloggers out there who presume to pass judgment on the current magisterium based on their own interpretations of what should follow from past Church teaching. If they hold one thing, but the magisterium does not act in accordance with that interpretation, these theologians and bloggers have no right to declare them in “error.”

This is the reality we must adjust to. The “progressive” Catholic who wants to change Church teaching or the “traditionalist” Catholic who wants to resist change cannot declare the Church to be in error if the Church should reject their interpretation.

This means we have an ongoing obligation to study what the Church teaching is, and how it is applied. If we find our view is at odds with that of the teaching authority of the Pope, that’s a good sign that our view is the one in error. We have an ongoing obligation to understand in context what the teaching we have problems with really means.

The 2000 years of teaching from the Church cannot be cherry picked to reach a conclusion that we think is more in line with what we think the Church should be. Individual saints from the Church Fathers occasionally offered ideas which the Church eventually rejected. We cannot appeal to those ideas. Occasionally, theologians offered opinions that they later retracted. We cannot try to use the name of the theologian to justify what he later rejected.

The fact is, we do wrong if we seize on these ideas and call them “Church teaching,” when the actual Church has decided against this view. In short, we cannot bind what the Church has loosed, nor loose what the Church has bound. If we think otherwise, we act without authority and become stumbling blocks to the faithful.

That doesn’t mean we can’t theologize or encourage fellow believers to act rightly. But it does mean we must offer submission to the magisterium when she teaches in a way which goes against our preferred view.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Problems of Misinterpretation

In my past few articles, I’ve discussed the problems of Catholic critics who confuse their interpretation of Church Teaching with what the Church actually intends. Whether they start out with false premises, or whether they use fallacious reasoning with true premises, or (sadly, very common) using both false premises and fallacious reasoning, they wind up claiming that Church teaching justifies something that is actually contrary to what the Church teaches.

Some do this to claim that a sin is not a sin, and that they are therefore not guilty of choosing an intrinsic evil. Others do this to discredit a Church teaching they dislike, arguing that we must return to their idealized view of when the Church was right and abandon or restore disciplines to match their idealized concept—the teaching they dislike is considered “proof” of heresy or political bias.

This is not the sole provenance of one faction. I’ve seen some Catholics claim that Jesus wanted a Church of love and mercy—denying that He ever intended condemning acts that they think shouldn’t be sins. I’ve seen other Catholics balk when the Church has changed disciplines when the magisterium determined they no longer serve the intended purpose, claiming the Church has fallen into “heresy.” But both groups are confusing what they want with what best serves keeping God’s commandments and evangelizing the world.

These critics judge the actions of Pope and bishops based on what they want (and, therefore, what they think God must want). If the Pope and bishops do not take that stand, it is considered a betrayal of either Christ or His Church. So, the liberal Catholic applies their assumptions to St. John XXIII, Vatican II and Pope Francis and think they are “correcting” the former “errors” of other Popes, Councils, and Bishops. Conservative Catholics think they are “committing errors” contradicting previous teaching.

But, their conclusions are based on false assumptions. They assume that the Church they conceive of is the way the Church is supposed to be. But if the assumption is false, they cannot prove the conclusion. If their conclusion is not proven, we cannot use their arguments as the basis of enacting teachings in the Church.

It’s important to realize that such false assumptions need not be malicious. The person can be quite sincere. It’s quite possible that the person is assuming that the simplified explanation Sr. Mary X gave them in Catholic grade school was doctrine and either embraced or rebelled against it, thinking it was a doctrinal teaching. The individual can fail to realize that the possibility that the explanation was oversimplified, or that they misunderstood it.

I think this lack of realization is the real problem in the Church. If we do not grow in our understanding of the actual Church teaching, we can easily be led astray. If we don’t understand that the style of Church teaching may sound more forceful in one age than in another, we might be confused over what is doctrine, what is discipline, and what is governance. Doctrine does not change from X to not X. But it can develop with a deeper understanding over time. Discipline and acts of governance can change if the magisterium deems it beneficial to do so.

Yes, it is possible that a Pope can be a notorious sinner, or that a bishop can be unjust. But it does not follow from the fact that we have had such Popes and bishops in the past, that the current ones fit in that category. That’s the point to be proven. If we simply assume the point to be proven, we commit the begging the question fallacy. The “evidence” we provide that is based on that assumption proves nothing.

If one wants to argue that St. John Paul II “betrayed” Vatican II (as liberals like to allege) or that Pope Francis “teaches heresy (as some conservatives like to allege), the obligation is for the individual to investigate whether they have gone wrong themselves—not for the teaching authority of the Church to prove them false.

The problem is, it quickly becomes apparent that the critic has often either not read or has only superficially read the relevant materials. Instead they tend to rely on summaries from biased sources, assuming that the Church has always understood the teaching in the way they think it means. Therefore, the Church is “proved” to be doing wrong—not in fact, but in their mind

Such misunderstanding cannot lead to a proper understanding of the Church. Instead, it leads to obstinacy. Ironically, though the liberal and the conservative disagree with each other about what this fictitious ideal is, they wind up using the same arguments, and ultimately denying the authority of the Church—all the while condemning the other side for their dissent.

The only way to escape that trap is to recognize who has the authority to interpret the past Church teachings and apply them to the present. That authority is the current Pope and bishops who are successors to the Apostles. We believe that Our Lord protects His Church from teaching error in matters where she must be given assent. Without that promise, we could never know when the Church was teaching error.

If we would be authentically Catholic, we must trust Our Lord to protect His Church. When Our Lord has sent authentic reformers from outside the magisterium, they were always respectful and obedient to those chosen to be the shepherds. Those who became heretics and/or schismatics refused to give that respect and obedience.

Yes, we have had a few bad Popes in the history of the Church. But they have never taught error despite doing wrong, or rarely thinking wrong in private thought. The current critics of the Church, by alleging the teaching of error, are de facto denying God’s protection exists.

But once you deny that, you cease to be a witness to the truth of the Church and instead become a stumbling block that causes scandal to potential members. If you deny the Church has authority on issue Z, you lead person to question why the Church has authority on issues A-Y. 

So instead of dogmatizing our errors, we have to realize that since the Church is protected from teaching error, we must consider how the Church can teach differently from our expectations on what she should teach. Yes, there will be people obstinately in error out there. Yes, Catholics who don’t like to follow them will look for lax or rigorist spiritual guides telling them what they want to hear. But these Catholics and their blind guides do not take away from the actual teaching authority of the Church under the current Pope. 

We must remember that, when we encounter a teaching from the Magisterium today that runs counter to what we expect, we have the obligation to seek understanding and not assume the difference means error on the part of the Church.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

It's Time to Take Back the Faithful Catholic Label (and the means are different than one might think)

Introduction

On the internet, a battle rages over what image the Catholic Church should take. Some are all about changing Church teaching. Others are about preferring the older way to do things. But whether these factions are politically conservative or liberal; whether they are modernist or radical traditionalist, or some other faction, they assume they are the ones really being faithful to the Church, and that those who think the preferred faction are wrong are accused of not being faithful. The problem is, this decree is not a decision of the Pope and bishops issuing a teaching. This is the claim of factions that are in opposition to the Pope and bishops. In other words, the Catholics who claim they are really being faithful are the ones who are refusing to assent to the teachings they dislike, and claim that their disobedience is really some sort of higher obedience.

The problem with this claim is: Church history has never recognized the actions of such dissenters as being “truly faithful.” The saints who reformed the Church gave obedience to the successors of the apostles, even when the men who held the office did not personally behave in a manner worthy of it. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story of St. Francis of Assisi meeting Pope Innocent III. Disgusted with the saint’s appearance, he reportedly said to go and roll with the pigs. St. Francis obeyed, impressing the Pope with his obedience and humility. Our 21st century sensibilities rebel against this, but St. Francis, recognized as one of the saints that reformed a Church in danger of becoming worldly showed that one cannot claim to be a faithful Catholic while refusing obedience to the Pope.

There is a vast difference between the saints who showed obedience to the Church out of love of God and the dissenters who declare themselves superior to the shepherds in the Church, and we need to take back the label of “faithful Catholic” from these counterfeits.

The First Steps

You might think the first step is to denounce the dissenters. But that would actually be following into their error—putting confidence in their own holiness. We should consider well the words of St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on the Gospel of Matthew:

Nay, if thou wilt accuse, accuse thyself. If thou wilt whet and sharpen thy tongue, let it be against thine own sins. And tell not what evil another hath done to thee, but what thou hast done to thyself; for this is most truly an evil; since no other will really be able to injure thee, unless thou injure thyself. Wherefore, if thou desire to be against them that wrong thee, approach as against thyself first; there is no one to hinder; since by coming into court against another, thou hast but the greater injury to go away with. (Homily LI, #5)

 

John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 320.

Our first thought should not be on the injuries others have inflicted on us, nor on “getting our own back.” Our first thought should be on where we ourselves stand before God. Because we are sinners, we cannot think of ourselves to be righteous before God. But because of God’s love for us, we cannot of others as being less deserving of His forgiveness. If we forget this, we become like those who misuse the term “faithful Catholic.”

We must also seek to learn as much as we can about the faith. Now the writings of the Saints, the Popes, the Councils and the Bishops  are vast. No one person could read them all—and that’s something we need to learn: That we do not know everything. We can always learn, and our teachers must be those who have the authority to bind and loose—not bloggers or academics who disagree with them. 

Knowing that we do not know everything does not mean that it is possible that Church teaching can justify something we thought was a sin. What it means is we need to recognize we can be led astray by laxity or rigorism if we do not understand that the Pope and bishops teach with the same authority that Our Lord gave the apostles.  They have the authority to teach and govern the Church. When they do, we must assent to their teachings. Refusal to do so is schism:

can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

 

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

If we would be faithful Catholics, we must realize our own sinfulness and our own limits to knowledge. Knowing this, we can turn to God for His grace and forgiveness. Knowing this, we can turn to His Church to learn what we must do to be faithful.”

But What About the Internet Brawls?

Speaking personally, I’d be happy if I never had to take part in another one. But we will encounter some who are either mistaken about the faith or are misrepresenting it. When these situations arise, we should remember 1 Peter 3:15-16:

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. 

If someone’s going to act like a jerk, strive to make sure it isn’t us. If we want to put a verbal smackdown on our opponents, we risk leaving the audience thinking we’re both jerks.

When we encounter those dissenters who claim to be the “true” faithful, the temptation exists to “put those jerks in their place.” But we must not take that attitude. This is partially because we risk being overcome by pride, thinking we are fine as long as we are not like “them.” But also because we risk alienating the people we hope to help. Now, being sinners, we’ll always have problems. I can describe these dangers because I have fallen into them myself. 

So, when someone decides to attack the Church, or the Pope, we must not allow ourselves to flail wildly, or speak viciously. We may have to tell a critic, “We do not believe what you accuse us of believing.” We may have to explain the truth. This may not be effective with the person we are arguing with. But that person is not the only person involved. On the internet, there are more lurkers than commenters. Even if our adversary is not willing to listen to us, the lurkers might—if we give them a reason to. But if we’re rude and abusive, we might win some points with people who already agree with us for doing a stylish smackdown, but we won’t convince others.

Conclusion

How do we take back the label of “faithful Catholic” from those dissenters who claim to be in the right while the Church is in the wrong? As I see it, we have to act like faithful Catholics. That means following the example of the saints in their obedience and humility. If we want to convince people to be faithful Catholics, we have to give them a living example.

That means, turning to the Lord with the desire to repent and follow Him anew, seeking to know and do His will as taught by the Church. Not by what we think the Church taught at a time we think most pleasing to follow.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Knowing, Not Knowing, and Knowing You Do Not Know

Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. (Apologia 21)

 

Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, Third Edition, vol. 2 (New York; London: Oxford University Press, 1892), 113–114.

Introduction

When it comes to the ongoing faction wars in the Church, I suspect many of the participants who attack the Church today as being in error never intend to reject the Church. Instead, they act as they do because they think it is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, what one thinks is the right thing, and what the right thing actually is are often two different things. I think this is an example of the situation described by Socrates’ Apology above—that the person does not know the truth, but does not know about this lack. That is a problem because, if a person does not know that they do not know the truth, they will remain in error while thinking themselves defenders of the faith. 

Unfortunately, one of the problems with social media discussions today is nobody wants to admit that they don’t know something. In fact, implying someone doesn’t know something usually results in an angry response. Bring up the Argument from Ignorance fallacy [†] and people think you’re calling them an idiot. This defensive attitude is unfortunate because every person has a lack of knowledge in some part of their life. The question is, do we recognize this lack and try to learn? Or do we think that what we think we know is all that needs to be known? 

Being Faithfully Catholic Means Constantly Growing

If we are in the latter state, this is harmful for our spiritual health. The Catholic faith requires us to know, love and serve God. That goes back at least to the Baltimore Catechism, and it’s a good summation. We need to know what God revealed, the natural law with which He created the universe, and make use of our natural reason to apply that revelation and knowledge to our personal lives. Being finite beings, afflicted with concupiscence, we do make mistakes in judgment. We do choose the wrong thing. We do miss crucial facts that would change our outlook. And, finally, we do fail to comprehend complex ideas that go beyond our knowledge. There’s no shame in that limitation. But we cannot live that way. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes puts it:

[16] In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

 

Catholic Church, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium Et Spes,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

If we refuse to learn, refuse to form our conscience, we have no excuse when we do wrong. And, since Our Lord gave us the Church to guide us, we have no excuse for going astray if we should ignore the Church. As Lumen Gentium puts it:

[14] They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

 

Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

In short, we can’t stop with what we think we know on how to live the Christian life. Growing closer to God means learning how to live as He calls us to live. Can you imagine a marriage where one of the spouses couldn’t be bothered to learn about his partner? Not caring what the other thought or felt about things? The successful marriage requires a constant change for the better. Our relationship with God requires the same.

Knowing and Learning

Of course the Church goes back to Our Lord Himself, and the writings of the members of the Church, the Councils and so on is massive. One person cannot hope to learn and master it all, even if they had no demands on their time but this study. So one average Catholic may view the encouragement to learn as an impossible demand and give up hope of understanding. Meanwhile another average Catholic might just decide that what he knows is good enough to pass judgment on Popes.

Both views should be avoided. In the first case, the equivalent of a Ph.D is not necessary for salvation. People with the ability and time to study theology can indeed lend their talents to the Church, but this is not the only way a Catholic can be holy and serve the Church. Each one of us has a calling regardless of education and status in life (1 Corinthians 12:15-26). In the second case, assuming one knows enough is to give up learning about Our Lord and growing in relationship with Him. When such a person encounters something within the Church, new to them, they might assume the idea is heretical without considering the possibility of their lack of knowledge making them misinterpret the issue.

To avoid this state, we need to start with the step of realizing the possibility of our not knowing something, considering the possibility that there is more to the situation than we are aware of. We need to realize that, just because we might think, “I can’t think of any reason why the Pope does/doesn’t do X,” does not mean there is no reason that justifies his actions.

Example—The Pope, Divorce, and Remarriage.

One of the problems I see in the social media debates is confusing the intrinsic evil with the actual responsibility of the person. Intrinsic evil means that some act is always wrong regardless of intention or circumstances. One can never have a just abortion or a just rape for example. But one can have a just war if proper conditions are met.

What some Catholics seem to forget (or perhaps did not know), and what the Pope wants us to remember, is that it is not enough to speak against intrinsic evil. Determining the culpability (responsibility) of the person who acts is part of the confessor’s task.  Certain circumstances can reduce the level of individual guilt (but not the fact that an intrinsic evil is done). Confessors have to assess the knowledge and circumstances that led to the action in determining how serious the sin is. For example, masturbation is an intrinsic evil. One must never do it. But some people have formed compulsive habits that are hard to break. In some circumstances, this compulsion reduces the personal responsibility so the person lacks the consent necessary for a mortal sin. The act is still intrinsically evil, and the person is obliged to work at overcoming this compulsion in cooperation with God’s grace. But this reduced culpability does not mean the Church is calling evil “permissible.”

Some critics of the Pope (including a few I ordinarily respect) say they can’t envision a circumstance where culpability can be reduced. But that is an argument from ignorance fallacy. We need to consider the possibility of things being different from what we think, based on our own experience. 

I believe that some Catholics forget this when it comes to the fight over Chapter 8 of Amoris Lætitia involving the divorced and remarried. Contrary to his critics’ claims, the Pope has not denied that divorce and remarriage is never permissible as long as the legitimate spouse lives. What he calls for is that confessors assess the knowledge and circumstances of each person, in this situation. Contrary to the claims of anti-Francis Catholics, the Pope is not seeking to legitimize divorce/remarriage. He is seeking to restore each person to a right relationship with God and His Church. If [§] it turns out that a Catholic in this situation lacks the conditions that make a mortal sin [∞], then the confessor can encourage the reception of the Eucharist while also guiding the sinner to turn away from sin and return to God. He is not a “liberal” or a “modernist” when he properly applies this.

Is it possible that a confessor can act wrongly, or err in their assessment? Yes, because we are all sinners. But the wrongful action of some confessors or some bishops does not mean that the Pope promotes or supports those things. 

Example—Knowing that differences exist in other nations.

Another thing that people may not know that the situation in Western Europe and the United States is not universal. For example, during the Year of Mercy, the Pope declared that all priests would be granted the facility to absolve abortion [¶]. This did not affect the United States, where the bishops already gave their priests the facility to act in their name, but it did affect other parts of the world. In interviews and press conferences, the Pope has discussed all sorts of different abuses and obstacles to marriage that we in the West have never experienced, but people in other countries have to deal with.

Likewise, things we take for granted, like tribunals, do not exist in some Catholic countries. An open and shut annulment case might take 90 days in the US, but might take years in another country. Other countries might have vicious customs that discourage seeking annulment. In such cases, people might feel trapped into doing things that the Church teaches is wrong. As I pointed out above, this does not change the fact that what they do is wrong. But it might (and might ≠ must) mean that some (and some ≠ all) cases involve reduced culpability. If we do not know these things, we run into the danger of thinking the entire world is like the US, and that his actions are nothing more than laxity. But this is false.

Blind Guides who do not know that they do not know.

4. The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, "comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".(5)

 

But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.(6)

 

 John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei 

So far, I have talked about people who are unaware of differences, or what the Pope actually said, and simply assume conditions are the same everywhere in the Church. But there is another group of Catholics who are truly dangerous to souls. These are the Catholics who, out of ignorance, assume that differences between their own misunderstanding and what the Pope says to be “proof” that the Pope is in error. They stir up confusion, and then argue that the existence of that confusion is the fault of the Pope they attack. 

This group of Catholics seem intimidating because they pull quotes from obscure Church documents the average Catholic has never heard of. But they sound knowledgable, and the average Catholic, insecure in their own knowledge, thinks their inability to think of a response means it must be true. It is important to remember that their behavior is like the anti-Catholic who distorts a Catholic teaching, and then cites a Bible verse they claim “contradicts” it. But the issue is not the Bible verse, but whether they use it properly. Likewise, the anti-Francis Catholic who cites a quote from Church teaching and contrasts it with something the Pope says has always either misquoted or taken the quote out of context. Often they have never actually read these documents, though they may try to feign otherwise. They often get isolated quotes from websites that argue the Church today is in error. Once countered, they ignore that argument and move on to the next [∑] or ignore that refutation.

For example, when they cite St. Robert Bellarmine on a “heretic Pope,” they make it sound like this is an official Church document. It is not. It is one opinion he lists in a work defending the authority of the Pope (I discuss this HERE). They often misrepresent history of the Church, making it sound like we have had openly heretical Popes in the past, and Pope Francis is merely one more of them. But this too is false. We have three Popes who may have privately held error [£], but never taught it. Since Pope Francis is teaching, if he taught error, it would mean that what the Church believes about being protected from teaching error in faith and morals was false. And once we see that, we realize we can never know if the Church was not in error.

What the average Catholic needs to know about not knowing in this case is, the issue in question is not the Bible or Church documents. It is their interpretation of the documents that are being judged. The authority to interpret how the timeless truths of the Church are applied in each time period fall to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. One judges the dissenter’s claims by how they line up with what the Pope and bishops in communion with him say. When the Pope teaches, even when that teaching is not ex cathedra, it must be obeyed:

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

 

Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 236.

So, even if you are an average Catholic who has not had the opportunity or time to study all the tomes the Church has produced, here is something important to know—you cannot have authentic Catholic faith in opposition to the Pope and bishops of this generation. Once you know that, you know that despite all the quotes they may produce, these dissenters have no authority to defy the Church today in the name of being faithful to what they think the Church meant in the past. 

Conclusion

To tie all this together, we need to avoid being like the politician who neither knew the truth nor knew he did not know it. We need to know our limitations and if we do not know something, we must recognize this lack and try to learn the truth. You wouldn’t trust a person who claimed to read a medical textbook and rejecting the findings of the AMA to do surgery on you. You shouldn’t trust a person who claimed to read Church documents and rejected the Pope and bishops guide you spiritually either.

We do have a Church, established by God. God promises to protect this Church. In this Church we have a guide to show us how to live. But the dissenter—whether he says the Church is too strict or too lax—is no guide. He is simply someone who does not know of his own ignorance. If you know you do not know, but know the dissenter does not know either and does not know they are ignorant, you are not as bad off as he is.

But knowing is better than not knowing. So it is always good for Catholics, regardless of their state in life and education, to learn more of their faith—always with the Church, and never apart from it.

_______________________

[†] Briefly explained: Just because a person doesn’t know of a reason disproving their position, it doesn’t prove there isn’t one.

[§] What critics forget is the possibility of a diocese investigating and finding zero cases that meet the Pope’s criteria. That’s why I, unlike some Catholics, don’t see Archbishop Chaput’s statement that he’s not changing diocesan policies to be a rejection of the Pope. If a diocese already does these things the Pope calls for, there’s no need to change.

[∞] Intrinsic evil, full knowledge, deliberate consent

[¶] Normally only the bishop, and those priests he permits, can absolve in this case.

[∑] My favorite “war story” of this type was the anti-Francis Catholic who cited one of the sessions of the Council of Trent to try claiming that after Vatican II, the Church was in error. Unfortunately for him, I had read the sessions of Trent (it’s amazing how much of a Catholic library one can acquire electronically) and cited another portion of that same session that contradicted his interpretation. His response was he didn’t have time to “reread” that document. But if he had read it at all, it was quite clear.

[£] Liberius, Honorius I, John XXII. Of these: Liberius’ error is widely debated; Honorius I probably held error but never said anything public; John XXII offered an opinion on a subject not yet defined—and was only defined by his successor.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Reflections on Regaining a Proper Sense of Ecclesiology

In opposition to the teaching of the Church, I see multiple factions. While these factions oppose each other on what is right, they are united in one way—the belief that the Church has taught error in maintaining a doctrine or changing a discipline while they are in the right. Some think the Church has erred on her teaching on contraception or homosexual acts. Others think she has erred on making changes to the Mass. But these groups don’t consider the possibility that they have gone wrong. They think everybody else has erred, even going so far as to imply that the Pope is a heretic. To such factions, the Church will remain in the wrong until she changes to suit their preferences.

This has never been the way of the saints. Yes, some saints were reformers and, yes, the Church has needed reform. But these saints all respected the binding authority of the Church to teach and to command obedience. That’s something we lost. For a time it was easy to attribute this disobedience to one faction—the rebellion against the authority of the Church involved matters of sexual morality. Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI were attacked as if their affirmation of Church teaching was the invention of petty rules which went against God’s love.

But it wasn’t the only rebellion. While it wasn’t as widely noted, other Catholics opposed Catholic social teaching. They called this a political platform disguised as a Church teaching, or merely an opinion of the Pope. Still others alleged that the Church outright erred in changing disciplines, confusing them with doctrines. Whether political left or right; whether traditionalist or modernist these groups broke with the faith—knowingly or not—that God protects His Church. By breaking with this belief, some Catholics turned things on their heads. Instead of the Church being both mother and teacher, she was now seen as needing guidance. The general assumption was, “If the Church wasn’t in error, she wouldn’t be doing these things.”

To set things aright, we need to go back to the idea that God protects His Church under the headship of the present Pope and the bishops in communion with him. That doesn’t mean we can’t have bad popes or heretical bishops [†]. It means that God prevents the Church from teaching error when we are bound to obey…and we are indeed bound to obey when the magisterium teaches.

Scripturally, we follow a chain of reasoning. We can begin with John 14:15 and Matthew 7:21-23. If we profess to love God, we must keep His commandments. From there, Matthew 16:18 shows us that Our Lord intends to establish a Church with Peter as the rock He builds on. Matthew 16:19, 18:18, and John 20:22-23 show that Our Lord gave this Church His authority to bind and loose. Matthew 28:19 shows that the Church mission is to baptize and to teach them His ways. Matthew 28:20 shows that He will be with His Church always. This mission and authority will not end before the end of the age (i.e., the end of the world). Once we recognize this, Luke 10:16 and Matthew 18:17 show us that obeying His Church is mandatory and disobedience is fatal. To reject the Church teaching is to reject Christ.

Theology justifying dissent comes from the fact that human beings are sinners, and the Pope and bishops are human beings. Therefore the Pope and bishops are sinners. This is true, and we’ve had some sad examples of that through history. But the personal behavior of men who are Popes and bishops do not change the protection God gives His Church. So morally bad Popes like Benedict IX or John XII, theologically bad Popes as some claim for Liberius and Honorius I, and confused Popes like John XXII, do not disprove this protection because these Popes did not teach error as truth binding on the faithful. Yes, some did wrong and some believed wrong. But God prevented them from teaching wrong.

John paul ii kisses koran

That doesn’t mean the Pope is inerrant in his personal behavior. There are times when Popes do regrettable things. St. John Paul II kissed a Quran, which led some to accuse him of religious indifferentism. Benedict XVI invoked the image of a “gay prostitute with AIDS” that led people to think he was giving permission to use condoms.  Then there was the embarrassing case of Assisi in 1986, where Buddhists set up an image on a tabernacle. These things did cause scandal—but what the Popes intended and what the critics/exploiters assumed were vastly different.

Nor does it mean we’re bound to obey a bishop who teaches contrary to the Church in communion with the Pope. Sadly, some bishops have taught error. But they had no authority to do so. In those cases, it was by turning to the Bishop of Rome and following his teaching that people stayed out of error. Church historians are divided over whether Popes Liberius and Honorius I held heresy privately. But these historians are unanimous in stating the Popes in question did not teach error publicly.

This is why it is false to claim that the past bad behavior or mistakes of Popes “proves” Popes can publicly teach heresy. St. Peter withdrew from eating with gentile Christians, and St. Paul rebuked him for it, but there was no teaching of error involved.

With this understanding, we see that Catholics who claim that the Church has been in error ever since X are actually undermining the authority of the parts of the Church they want to defend. If the Pope can teach error on Laudato Si, why not on Humanae Vitae—or vice versa? How can one appeal to Familiaris Consortio while rejecting Amoris Lætitia (again, or vice versa) when both teach with the same level of authority? If Blessed Paul VI erred in establishing the Missal of 1970, then how do we know St. Pius V didn’t err when he established the Missal of 1570?

In all of these cases, the Popes exercised their authority as the Vicar of Christ, binding or loosing as needed to help people follow the teachings Our Lord handed on to His Apostles and their successors. When they bound something, we were required to give assent. When they loosed something, we could not call them faithless to Our Lord. 

Our Lord’s words in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 require us to recognize His protection. If He did not protect the Church, then we would be in the situation where God would bind us to obey the Church in being disobedient to Him—which is absurd. But there is the choice. Either we accept that God will bind error and loose truth in Heaven if the Church does so, or we accept that God will guide those shepherds in the Church from teaching error. In the latter case, we trust the Church because we have faith in God.

I think we who profess to be faithful Catholics will have to show it by our lifestyle. If we want Catholics to be obedient to the Church on matters they find difficult, like sexual morality and social justice, then we have to be faithful in lesser matters. As Our Lord said:

10 The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. 11 If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12 If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? (Luke 16:10–12).

Once we remember that Our Lord established the Church and gave her the authority to teach in His name, then obedience is a necessity for our own salvation and is also a witness to others. If we pick and choose when to obey and when to disobey, the witness we give is that one can pick and choose what to practice and what to reject. But when people follow that example, and are told to depart from Him (Matthew 7:23), we will have to face the judgment of the One who said in Luke 17:1-2, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur.  It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”

But we can’t contrast loving God with obeying the Church. Because Our Lord made clear that obeying Him means keeping His commandments, and keeping His commandments means hearing the Church.

This is the base of ecclesiology we need to remember.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Everybody is Sure They Are Right, Even If They're Not

Introduction

One of the stranger items I have in my Verbum library is the address of a Presbyterian minister made during the Civil War. In it, he urges young men to take up arms against a threat, saying:

In the first place we must shake off all apathy, and become fully alive to the magnitude of the crisis. We must look the danger in the face, and comprehend the real grandeur of the issue. We shall not exert ourselves until we are sensible of the need of effort. As long as we cherish a vague hope that help may come from abroad, or that there is something in our past history, or the genins of our institutions, to protect us from overthrow, we are hugging a fatal delusion to our bosoms.

 

James Henley Thornwell, Our Danger and Our Duty (Columbia, SC: Southern Guardian, 1862), 5–6.

The words he used could have been used today speaking about a crisis in the Church or about the state of our nation. But no, Thornwell was a clergyman who believed slavery was justified and was writing to encourage people to fight for the Confederate States. What we have is a case of a Christian minister who was entirely convinced his cause was just and needing to be defended, but in retrospect, we know that his cause was unjust and needing to be opposed. In other words, Thornwell’s perception was not reality, no matter how sincere he might have been.

The Problem May Be Closer Than We Think…

Nobody wants to be compared with an apologist for slavery of course, and such a comparison is not my intent. But there do seem to be similar attitudes of self-assured assessments of situations. Lately everyone seems to know what is wrong with the Church—that which goes against how the critic thinks the Church should be acting and teaching. However, those tasked with leading the Church never get consulted on if this perception is actually correct. Everybody assumes Our Lord agrees with them, but when the Pope or the bishops in communion with him object to a view, or propose a different way of handling a situation, people assume these shepherds are acting “contrary” to Church teaching or even God Himself. So liberal Catholics accuse St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI of “betraying the Council” or Jesus’ teachings on love and judgment. Meanwhile, conservative Catholics accuse Pope Francis of “betraying past councils” or Jesus’ teachings on obedience.

What they don’t ask is whether their division against the Pope and bishops is a sign of their own error. They appeal to the “true Church,” but that Church is nothing more than their own interpretations and preferences. They give obedience to the actual Church only to the point that they happen to agree. When they don’t, the Pope or the bishop is “betraying” Our Lord and the Church.

Personal Sin and Bad Decisions are not Signs of Teaching Error…

That’s not to say that the Pope and bishops are impeccable (a common straw man fallacy). They are human beings like the rest of us. They can sin and make bad decisions like the rest of us. But the difference between them and us is that they, as successors to the apostles, are tasked with leading the Church: The Pope as the visible head of the entire Church; the bishop (when in communion with the Pope) as the head of the diocese. When the Pope teaches, or when the bishop teaches in line with the Pope, we are required to give assent.

can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.

can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.

 

 Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247–248.

That’s pretty cut and dried. If God requires us to obey the Church (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16), then we have to choose. Neither Scripture nor Church teaching allow us to disobey the Pope when he binds or looses. So, we can either trust God to protect His Church from teaching error, or we can hold the absurdity that God requires us to obey error and disregard truth if the Pope decrees it.

The Common Challenges Don’t Work… 

Critics try to evade this by pointing to some of our less illustrious popes, Liberius, Honorius I, and John XXII. The problem with citing them is they made no attempt to teach error as Pope. They certainly made no demand that the Church embrace their views. Historians dispute over whether Liberius and Honorius even privately held heresy, or whether this was the propaganda of their enemies. In the case of John XXII, the matter under discussion was not yet defined.

To put the case of John XXII in context, a hypothetical example would be if the Pope preached one way or the other on whether Our Lady died before she was assumed into Heaven, and then some members of the Church discussed it with him and convinced him the other way was better. Since whether Our Lady died before her Assumption has not been defined one way or the other, the Pope in this example would not be in error—even if a later Pope should define it differently [†].

But, unlike the above Popes, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis did teach. Even if they did not teach ex cathedra, their teachings are binding (see canon 752 above). So these comparisons are false analogies. If his critics are right (Pro tip—they’re not), then we have a contradiction. We must give assent to these teachings, but, according to his critics, he can teach error in these things we have to give assent to! It’s absurd, but that’s what logically follows from trying to reconcile authentic Church teaching with the claims of anti-Francis Catholics!

To Be On God’s Side, We Have to Be in Accord With the Magisterium

Both Scripture and Church teaching have consistently taught that, while we do not emulate the bad behavior of some Popes or bishops, we do have to give assent when they teach. There’s never been a case where a member of the Church has been right in rejecting the magisterium. Rejecting that authority is not something new in Church history, but in the past we called it what it was—heresy and schism. Now, certain Catholics use the special pleading fallacy to refuse applying this teaching to themselves. When those they disagree with dissent from the Church, they accuse them of faithlessness. But when it comes to their own dissent, they justify it as behaving rightly—ignoring the fact that those they condemn also justify themselves.

Not all of the magisterial issues involve faith and morals. Nor is our obedience limited to those areas. As the Vatican I document Pastor Æternus points out:

[Chapter III] Hence We teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a sovereignty of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatsoever rite and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world; so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme Pastor, through the preservation of unity, both of communion and of profession of the same faith, with the Roman Pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and of salvation. 

 

Vincent McNabb, ed., The Decrees of the Vatican Council (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907), 40.

So when a Pope decides certain changes need to be made for the discipline and governance of the Church, the Pope does have the authority to make these decisions, and we do not have the right to reject them. Do we have the right to make our concerns known? Yes, but respectfully (Canon 212 §3). I would argue that today’s behavior is anything but respectful. 

not Bend the Magisterium to Our Preferences

In addition, we have to beware selective citation of Scripture and Church teaching to condemn those we dislike while ignoring those parts which indict us. Regardless of the topic, some Catholics cite only those parts of Scripture to support themselves and discredit those who take a different view. The problem is, people often confuse either-or with both-and. 

It’s like this: There are some areas where the Church teaches, “X is a grave sin.” In such cases, no faithful Catholic can say, “X is not a sin,” or, “X doesn’t matter.” So the Catholic who supports abortion rights or the use of torture goes against Catholic teaching. However, not all issues involve contradictions. There is the possibility of two Catholics accepting Catholic teaching but preferring different ways of carrying it out—especially when society is so dismal that the probable options are both deeply flawed. Provided that they are not feigning obedience, it is possible for them to reach different conclusions on how to best be faithful, and in that case it is unjust for one to accuse the other of being faithless. However, ultimately it is the Pope or bishop who has the final say as to whether one or both of the conclusions are false.

Conclusion

In each of the examples above, people refused to consider whether they might be wrong, or whether they misunderstood the teaching which led them to error. While I certainly pray no Catholic would be as wrong as James Henley Thornwell was about his defense of slavery and the Confederate States, each one of us does have to constantly ask whether we are in error—especially when we find ourselves at odds with the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with Him.

Our faith is that God protects His Church from error. Yet nowadays, people from all factions assume the magisterium must be wrong when there is a conflict, arguing that these shepherds must be in error. That is a practice contrary to our professed faith. If we would avoid the “loss of faith and of salvation” (as the First Vatican Council put it), we must start considering whether it is more plausible that we err when we dissent. We must ask whether we really know, or only think we know.

After all, if we only think we know, and never bother to learn, that is vincible ignorance—which is not an excuse for doing wrong.

 

_____________________

[†] People forget that St. Thomas Aquinas held some opinions on unresolved issues (such as on the Immaculate Conception) which the Church later defined differently after his death. We do not consider him a heretic because of those views, because he did not take an obstinate stance against the Church. He merely offered his opinion on something yet undefined.

Friday, August 5, 2016

This Has to Stop: The Shipwreck of the Anti-Francis Mindset

I m With Him

Introduction

As things progress, it seems more people are getting swept up in doubting the faithfulness of Pope Francis as a Catholic. Some are willing to attack him openly as a menace spewing error and the Church is only protected because he’s not speaking infallibly. Others let doubts fester, gnawing at them so they give more credibility to his critics than to the Pope himself. I believe the greatest threat to the Church is not an ideology, but an attitude—the attitude that whatever doesn’t match what we think the Church should be is wrong. A person doesn’t have to be a leftist or a radical traditionalist to have this attitude—this attitude existed long before our modern political system or Vatican II. It just takes a suspicion with whatever feels different and a refusal to think one's perception might be wrong. 

The result is, whenever the Pope speaks or writes, some Catholics attack him as a promoter of error and cause an increasing number of their fellows to question his leadership of the Church. These are rotten fruits and should speak to the source (see Matthew 7:16-17), but they succeed because they claim the Pope himself is responsible for this confusion when in fact the attacks depend on interpretation. When challenged on their misrepresentation, their tactic is falsely accusing the defenders of believing everything the Pope says is infallible. 

The Non-Binding Personal Opinion

Catholics who want to avoid falling into this trap need to be aware of what the Church teaching on the authority of the Pope means. The key difference here is whether the Pope intends to teach as Pope or whether he does not. When he intends to teach, we must give assent—even if his teaching is not given ex cathedra. But he doesn’t always teach when he speaks. As the 1915 Manual of Apologetics puts it:

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

 

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

We dot have to accept his opinions on a matter as teaching. That’s where one of the biggest areas of dispute comes into play. Until recently, Popes did not have interviews. St. John Paul II started the process rolling in Crossing the Threshold of Hope where he published the answers to planned questions after plans for an interview fell through. Meanwhile, Cardinal Ratzinger gave book length interviews and writing theological works, which he carried over to when he became Pope. While these works gave insight into their thinking, these were not teachings which bound the faithful.

This practice continued under Pope Francis. He engages in press conferences and interviews. These are not ways where the Church teaches in a binding way. So, they are not binding and they are not infallible. Because of that, some people argue that what he said can be in error and, when it disagrees with their views, they claim that it is in error.

That’s misleading. It is true that when the Pope does not use his office to teach the Church, he doesn’t make use of the charism of infallibility. But the fact that the Pope is not speaking infallibly does not mean he is spewing error any more than it means Cardinals Burke or Sarah spread error when they speak. The Pope still has his training, his personal wisdom and other graces given by God and we ought to give him a hearing based on these things. After all, Scripture tells us in Leviticus 19:32, “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the old, and fear your God. I am the LORD."

A person who properly understands what the Pope intends to say and properly understands Church teaching can respectfully disagree on his non binding opinion with no problem. But, if someone wants to do more than disagree—if he has the arrogance to rebuke the Pope for being wrong about the faith—then he has his work cut out for him. Why? Because that’s no longer a question of opinions. It now involves a person claiming the knowledge to judge the Pope’s knowledge of and fidelity to Church teaching.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Such a person has to show he properly grasps the topic under debate. He has to show he has full knowledge of what the Church teaches on the subject. He has to show he has properly understood what the Pope intends to say. It’s like a tripod. If the person doesn’t have all three legs of knowledge, the claim collapses. When one looks at every accusation made in the last three years, it is clear that the critics never had all three. Critics show they misunderstand topics when they get outraged over “Who am I to judge” and “Rabbit Catholics” having no idea what the focus was. They show they misunderstand Church teaching when they get “evangelize” and “proselytize” confused with each other. They show they don’t understand his words when they think his objection to the term “Islamic violence” is a denial of the motives of ISIS.

But instead of learning what the Pope means through the transcripts and his other words and writings on the topic, they rely on others who interpret fragments of his interviews and press conferences (badly), whether the secular media or Catholic blogs critical of the Pope and draw quotes from these sources, assuming they interpreted it rightly. They repeat soundbites, but when questioned, they act surprised to learn that the Pope said things differently than they heard.

The danger of all this is, undermining trust in the Pope is becoming a chain reaction. When someone falsely reports that the Pope teaches error, he influences others who look to him to explain the faith. So, if the religiously-illiterate media influences Catholic sites, and Catholic sites influence their followers, you get an increased circle of suspicious Catholics. As this number grows and the people repeating the falsehood grows, even Catholics defending the Pope begin to wonder if they missed something.

Then, if these defenders should misinterpret the Pope, the number of earlier incidents suddenly become “proof” that the critics were “right.” They get swept up in thinking the Pope is bad for the Church. They might not think the Pope is a heretic, but they no longer trust him. Then the former defender begins influencing people who trusted him and the circle of error expands again.

Denying Actual Authority

What makes this a danger is that when people start treating his words as suspect in his private opinions, it’s only a matter of time before they start questioning him when he leads the Church. They start questioning his actual teachings, where we must give religious assent (Canon #752) and looking for excuses not to obey. For example, Laudato Si’ (#15) tells us, "It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.” In other words, he intends to teach in a way that requires assent. Yet, despite that, people argue his teaching is not binding. Some claim he is teaching error. Others, not willing to go so far, argue since he is speaking on science, what he says does not bind. But he’s not teaching on science. He’s teaching on our moral obligations to consider how our use of the planet harms others.

The irony is people who once defended his predecessor, Blessed Paul VI, now use the same arguments they formerly debunked to attack Pope Francis. If it was dissent against Pope Paul VI, it’s dissent now. If it was sinful then, it’s sinful now. But, just like it was almost 50 years ago, people assume they know better than the Church when it comes to things they don’t want to hear.

Because they don’t trust God to protect the Pope from teaching error when we must give assent, they justify their disobedience as obedience to a higher “truth” that allows them to ignore the authority of the Pope. Because they assume the Pope is not trustworthy, they assume anything he says that doesn’t square with their understanding, it’s “proof” the Pope is wrong.

The Shipwreck of Faith and How to Avert It

Shipwreck

This is how you make a shipwreck of faith. One puts confidence in themselves and the claims of critics, but not in the Pope. By assuming that the Pope's non-infallible opinions must be full of error and never questioning whether he has fallen into error in understanding, the critic begins treating binding teaching as false opinion and commit rash judgment.

So how do we stop this shipwreck? The first step is realizing that God protects His Church from error, and that He built His Church on the rock of Peter (Matthew 16:18). He’s protected it since Pentecost in AD 33. Second, we must realize our own limitations in knowledge and holiness. As human beings we have finite knowledge and sinful inclinations. These two things easily lead us astray if we do not give assent to the magisterium. Once we trust God and recognize our own weaknesses, we stop assuming the Pope is some kind of idiot and start seeking knowledge.

No, that’s not making the Pope into an impeccable being who can never do wrong. We’re merely acknowledging that we can be wrong, and what sounds odd to us might just be a hole in our knowledge or understanding.