Showing posts with label assumption. Show all posts
Showing posts with label assumption. Show all posts

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Assumptions: Winding Up in the Ditch (Luke 6:39)

When it comes to hostility or suspicion towards the Church, regardless of what side it comes from, it is rooted in assumptions, not fact. People assume they understand what the Catholic Church holds, or assume they understand the words of a member of the Church that they oppose. Such people assume that not seeing other possible meanings means there are none. They assume that the Church/Pope/Council must be in error if they don’t match what the critics think should be. But, what they fail to consider is whether their own understanding about what should be is correct. For example, if Martin Luther was wrong (and I believe he was) about what God intended the Church to be, then the way he went around attempting reforms was fatally flawed, even if he meant well.

I believe the same is the case with the modernist Catholic who believes Church teaching on things that are intrinsically evil can be changed and the radical traditionalist who believes that the Pope is a heretic. They start with the assumption that what they think about God and what His Church should be is true, and assume that, if the Church is not what they think it should be, the Church has “fallen into error.” But, as with my above example with Luther, if the critic’s conception of what the Church should be is false, then their ideas are also fatally flawed.

These critics do not have to be malicious. They can be quite sincere. But if they are mistaken, unwilling to consider the possibility of being in error, they will be like the blind guides Our Lord warned against. They will lead the other blind man into a pit (Luke 6:39). Not because they wish to do harm, but because they wrongly think they know the way when they need help themselves.

I find that when it comes to disputes of this kind, we don’t have two errors. We have one: but the people in error simply disagree over whether that mistaken view they think true is a good thing or a bad thing. If the view is mistaken, then these people are worked up over nothing. I believe that the case of Vatican II and Pope Francis illustrate this point. Some Catholics wrongly believe that the Council intended to change everything, but Popes Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI “betrayed” the Council. Others believe that the Council not only intended but did change everything, and blame Popes Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI for helping aid the “destruction” of the Church [†].

Needless to say, they can’t both be right. But they overlook the possibility that neither can be right. Since both believe that Vatican II was a radical break, both are in error if Vatican II was not a radical break. Since both believe Pope Francis intends to change Church teaching, both are in error if he does not intend to change Church teaching. The assumption is that these things are so, but that assumption is the point that has to be proven. We cannot conclude that the conclusions drawn from those assumptions are true when they are unproven.

But instead of proof, we get fallacious arguments. For example, “Well, if the Council didn’t mean that, why did this rebellion happen?” That’s the point to be investigated, to see why and how it happened. Invoking Vatican II as the cause of rebellion is meaningless if it never intended what people claim. The point is, it is not what people think the meaning is. It is what the intended meaning is. If people are wrong about the intended meaning, their conclusion is wrong too.

The point of all this is, if we place ourselves in opposition to the Church, and assume we are in the right, we will go wrong. The Church is given the task of preaching the kingdom to the world, and is given the promise of Our Lord’s protection. To accuse the Church of teaching error is to deny Our Lord’s power to keep the promise, and I find that blasphemous. That’s the case if the accuser is saying the Church is wrong on sexual morality, or if the accuser is saying the Church is wrong on Vatican II.

The only way we can avoid winding up falling into the ditch is to stop assuming we are a better guide to salvation than the Church. This means we stop assuming we know better than those chosen to shepherd on how to interpret what the Church has always taught and how to apply it in our own age. The Church has been given this task, and the Church has been given the protection to carry it out. Following any source in opposition to the Church is to follow a blind guide.

It really is that straightforward.



[†] Oh yes, people forget it, but these critics savaged Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI just as much as they savaged Pope Francis.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

False Interpretations and Unspoken Assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

When a Little Knowledge is Dangerous

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

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

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

The Case of Usury

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cases of Denouncing Recent Teaching from the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, October 30, 2015

Quick Quips—Our Perceptions and God's

Once again, it’s time for Quick Quips where I offer short reflections that I can’t really drag out into a full blog entry.

Does “Everybody” Know Anything at All?


  • Everybody knows that the Church is turning Protestant—except the actual Protestants…
  • Everybody knows that the Church is turning Liberal—except the actual Liberals…
  • Everybody knows that the Church is turning Conservative—except the actual Conservatives…
  • Everybody knows that the Church is turning Modernist—except the actual Modernists…
  • Everybody knows that the Church is turning Traditionalist—except the actual Traditionalists…

Basically everybody attributes to the Church a position that they associate with their foes, but those foes disagree with the accusation that the Church has embraced their own views. So maybe instead of assuming that the Church is siding with their foes, maybe everybody should consider the possibility that the Church is not changing for the worse—but rather is just calling for each one of us to change and turn to Our Lord...

Reflections on Psalm 95

Psalm 95 is the Psalm used most often in the opening (Invitatory) of the Liturgy of the Hours. It basically puts us in our place before God. It can be easy to sometimes pray it on autopilot if you have it memorized. At other times, things catch my attention. Today, what caught my attention was:

Today, listen to the voice of the Lord:
Do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness,
when at Meriba and Massah they challenged me and provoked me,
Although they had seen all of my works.

Forty years I endured that generation.
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray
and they do not know my ways.
”So I swore in my anger,
“They shall not enter into my rest.”

I thought about how they challenged and provoked God even though they had seen His works—they did so by finding alternate solutions. They wanted a golden calf, they wanted to go back to Egypt, they wanted a new leader. They wanted the most gain at the least cost. So when God called on them to follow His commands, they were looking for alternate solutions that let them put the most comfort or the least pain compared to what God was guiding them to.

It makes me wonder. Are we perhaps acting like the Hebrews when we complain about the direction of the Church? Why can’t we compromise? Why can’t we go back to the way things were? Why can’t we have a different leader? If we are, perhaps we need to think about what God does with those who grumble. Now God loves us unconditionally, irrevocably as the Pope said in a beautiful homily today, but sometimes He has cause to act sternly with us.


There are always problems with individuals in the Church and, if we’re wise, we’ll realize we’re among the individuals causing problems. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as the role models that the Church should follow if it wants to be right and start thinking about how we stand before Him, and whether we are really any better than the Hebrews in the Exodus or the Pharisees confronting Our Lord. Let us not grow stubborn. Let us not convince ourselves that our preferences are better than God’s call.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Filling In the Blanks—Wrongly

There is a story that a priest told in a homily once when I attended Franciscan University of Steubenville. Since I cannot find the exact text (though I understand the priest has published a book of his stories), I will try to retell it from memory:

It was the Championship game and the home team was down by six points. It was the Fourth Quarter, Second and Ten, and there was a minute on the clock. The coach told the quarterback, “Get the ball to Jones! He’ll get the touchdown.” The team went into the huddle, then lined up to play. To the horror of the coach, the quarterback didn’t throw the ball to Jones, but did a handoff to another player. The player was stopped for a loss of yardage. Angry, the coach signaled again telling the quarterback to get the ball to Jones. The quarterback started to say something, but the coach waved him back on the field.

Again, the team went into a huddle and then lined up. But the quarterback did not throw the ball to Jones, but to another player. He made up a little of the lost yardage, but not enough. It was now Fourth and Eight and the coach had to decide what to do. Once more he told the quarterback, “Give the ball to Jones!” The quarterback started to speak, but the Coach ordered him back on the field again, telling him not to argue.

Once more the team went into the huddle and lined up on the field. Once more the quarterback did not give the ball to Jones, but to yet another player. The opposing team stopped him cold and the game was over.

Furious, the coach stormed out to the field and confronted the quarterback. “I told you to get the ball to Jones! Why did you ignore me?"

The quarterback looked at the coach and said, “I did tell Jones to take the ball, every time. But he refused to take it."

If the coach had bothered to let the quarterback explain himself, he might have found a new strategy. But in assuming he knew all the facts, he jumped to the wrong conclusion and blamed the wrong man for what happened. One might say that the moral is to investigate thoroughly and don’t merely assume you know all the facts based on what you see.


It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum. From what I see, it also seems true to say that people abhor a vacuum. When relies solely on what they see, and don’t consider the possibility that they have insufficient facts from which to judge, there is a tendency to try to connect those facts based on what one thinks. The problem is, if our knowledge is incomplete, the odds are we will fill in those blanks wrongly, drawing a connection which should not be drawn. This can happen in all areas of life, but in some areas it can lead to some serious errors.

Here’s a secular example. The Obama administration is going to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Mt. Denali, which is the native name for that mountain. Now, I dislike Obama’s politics and how he tends to do things in a heavy-handed arbitrary manner, that seems to be imposing a political agenda that often attacks the Catholic Church.

So, it is easier for me to assume this was yet another one of these actions. But reading the accounts, I learned that this stemmed from a request which began 40 years ago and is supported by the Alaskans themselves, apparently across party lines. In other words, it is easy filling in the blanks to assume this was some sort of politically motivated stunt, when it actually seems to be somebody finally getting around to taking care of a long standing request. But the easy way is the wrong way. One is still free to disagree if they choose, but the facts require the person to stop repeating accusations of political motivations and political correctness. 

Assuming We Know Things About the Church When We Do Not

That seems to be the problem today when it comes to writing about the Church. Whether it is the secular media which is effectively religiously illiterate, the uninformed anti-Catholic, or whether it is the Catholic blogger railing against what they see as wrong in the Church, the fact remains: If you don’t know all the facts, the odds are you’re going to come to a wrong conclusion. Basically, it works this way:

  • Some claim is made concerning the Church, that the observer dislikes.
  • The observer fills in the blanks based on their own biases.
  • The observer draws a conclusion that interprets the fact by their bias.

So, we see the religiously illiterate media hear the Pope say something that sounds different, apply their biases about what they think they know about the Church, and conclude (wrongly) that the Church is changing her teaching. We see the anti-Catholic observe a Catholic behavior without understanding it, apply their biases (that the Catholic Church is evil) and ascribe bad will to the behavior. We see it when the Church teaches on an area the observer is unfamiliar with, the observer applies his biases about the Church being filled with “modernists,” and interprets the teaching as “proof” of the infiltration of modernists.

In all of these cases, the observer has assumed his or her biases are true, and never investigates them. Then when they encounter something unfamiliar, they create a perverted interpretation of the event and treat that interpretation as if it were the truth. Thus we see things like “The Church will change her teaching on marriage,” (whether said in hope or fear) despite the fact that Pope Francis has been just as solid as his predecessors on the subject. We see Pope Francis labelled as Marxist, when he said nothing that was not already said by St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We see Laudato Si labelled as a “global warming document.”

None of those allegations are true: They come about by using one’s bias to interpret the facts and confusing the interpretation for fact. Atheists and anti-Catholics make the same mistake as traditionalist and modernist Catholics, and we see the Church simultaneously being accused of being too spiritual, being too worldly, being too liberal or being too conservative. When American Catholics are simultaneously calling American bishops as being Pro-Democrat and Pro-Republican, that’s a good sign that the problem is with the one interpreting the Church teachings, not the Church which is teaching.

Avoiding the Error

Since all people are called to seek out the truth, and live according to it, we cannot be satisfied with what we think we know about something. Ultimately we need to root out our assumptions, not use them to fill in the blanks. Otherwise, we run afoul of the proper understanding of the warning of Matthew 7:1 and risk committing rash judgment. So how do we remedy this?

It seems to me that when we come to an unfamiliar situation, we have to ask ourselves whether we really understand something, or whether we just think we do. We have to look for an answer and not assume that because we don’t know an answer, it means there isn’t one. When the behavior of a bishop or a priest seems problematic, the first question is, do we have all the facts? If we do not, we do wrong in assuming bad will.

Second, we have to assess who are the main players. Remember the story I tried to retell above: The twist at the end was that the quarterback wasn’t to blame. Jones was, and the coach shared part of the blame for not finding out what was really going on. How many times does the Pope or a bishop or a priest get blamed for something that he did not say or do, but someone thought he said or did (“Who am I to judge,” taken out of context was one of the most shameful of these).

Finally, we must not speak before we know the truth. A blogger who hits the “Post” button before assessing whether perhaps there is a side he or she didn’t consider is doing wrong, taking part in misleading others. If we cannot establish that the motivation is bad will (as opposed to thinking it is bad will on account of our biases being used to interpret actions), we must not say that the motivation is bad will.

God forbade us to bear false witness. But false witness is not only a deliberate lie. We can also bear false witness by spreading falsehood without verifying if it is true. We risk doing this when we fill in these blanks. Now, each individual must look into their own heart and see if they are guilty of this, knowing God is their judge. All I would ask is, if an individual should find this mindset present, that he or she reconsider their approach.