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

Thursday, March 4, 2021

It’s Iimi! Problematic Assumptions (Part II)

Paula wants to continue the discussion from the Symposium. Her concerns cover a number of different approaches. But Iimi-tan points out that the assumptions of malice used against the Church are false. Dialogue to understand what the other side really believes is important to make the truth known.

Part III of this series can be found HERE

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, January 21, 2017

Reflections on how Papal Critics can go Wrong


I had a profitable discussion with one of my followers last week. The concern—probably shared by many Catholics—is, what is one to do when a Catholic one respects is at odds with the Pope. Are we to write them all off as schismatic, ignorant, or acting out of bad will? My answer is, No we can’t make a blanket assumption that a respected Catholic who disagrees with the Pope is to be automatically pigeonholed into the category of dissenter or gross ignorance. 

However, that doesn’t make them right either. Regardless of intention, they have gone wrong in their interpretation. They are (knowingly or not) claiming the Pope is supporting or even teaching error in such a way that their accusations contradict previous Church teaching on the authority of the Pope and his protection from error. The problem is, these categories are based in an either-or fallacy. They assume that Pope Francis is contradicting previous Church teaching (unproven) and that therefore either he or his predecessors must be wrong.

I deny that accusation is true. However, it is helpful to look at some of the mindsets of his foes and see how they fall into error. This is by no means a comprehensive list. But it does describe the attitudes I encounter most often on the internet.

In writing this article, I’d like to make clear that I am not accusing any specific member of the clergy or any specific Catholic writer of belonging to these groups. If you look at these groups and think, “Oh, he’s accusing X of this,” then you miss the point. I hope to point out problematic views and leave the judgment of people to their confessors.

Confusing an Agenda with Church Teaching

One category which usually seems to get it wrong are the agenda driven people who believe that the Church needs to follow an agenda or else she is in the wrong. This group views a Pope or bishop favorably only if he happens to agree with how this person thinks it should be done. Often they assume that refusal to do it this way is either a sign of moral laxity (if they want it more rigid) or of moral rigidity (if they want more laxity). So St. John Paul II was accused of rigidity by those who wanted a change to Church teaching on sexual morality. Pope Francis is accused of laxity by those who think the Pope should “crack down” on sin. In other words, this category of people is not limited to one ideology. Conservative Catholics in this group let “conservative” influence their Catholic faith. Liberal Catholics let “liberal” influence “Catholic.” Both are wrong because their Catholic faith should influence their ideology. It’s not just political agendas. It can also involve being either a modernist (willing to compromise the faith to get along with the world) or a radical traditionalist (assuming a change in discipline is a change in teaching).

Many of these people are sincere and can’t imagine how one can be faithfully Catholic without holding to their views. From this they believe that anyone who doesn’t support their perspective is acting against God and what the Church is supposed to be. The problem is, their views are often colored by a certain political or cultural bent, while the Church recognizes that one can favor different ways to carry out Church teaching without being “unfaithful.” 

Focussing on One Part, Missing Another

A second category involves Catholics who focus on one aspect of Church teaching, but miss another. Perhaps they are truly unaware of the other aspects. Perhaps they think they don’t apply. Or (if any of them do act from bad will) perhaps even suppressing mention of something that weakens their argument.

One example of this is the argument that Our Lord condemned adultery. Therefore any consideration of the Eucharist for the divorced/remarried is considered a contradiction of Church teaching. They have all sorts of arguments as to why the Church teaching about intrinsic evil cannot be violated. The problem is, nobody (except, perhaps, certain Agenda Driven Catholics) argues that it can be. Those who think the Church might be able to find cases where one can legitimately distribute the Eucharist to a divorced/remarried person is not denying Our Lord’s words. They’re asking questions about impediments that might limit culpability, such as knowledge and consent.

Church teaching can be very nuanced. It starts with the basic concept, X is intrinsically evil, and then focusses on the circumstances of the person that does X. In some cases, the person is guilty of freely choosing the evil with full knowledge. In other cases, the person who does X may have started in ignorance of Church teaching and has formed a compulsive habit that is very hard for them to break away from. Obviously, the confessor would need to treat the first case differently from the second case.

The person in this category goes wrong by assuming that a merciful approach to the second case is a denial of the intrinsic evil in general. That doesn’t make him ignorant of Church teaching. Such a person might simply be so accustomed to defending the Church teaching from those who reject it, that they begin to lose sight of the conditions that change culpability.

Pointing to Consequences, Without Considering What Really Causes Them

Some Catholics are (rightly) concerned by those who wrongly think the Church can change her doctrinal or moral teachings from saying, “X is true,” to “X is false.” They see how some seize onto whatever statement is made by the Church and use it to claim that they’re not dissenting against the Church. They are correct in believing this has to be opposed. But they are scandalized when Church does not issue a stinging public rebuke or excommunicate these people. Some even go so far as to say that the Pope or bishops must secretly support such behavior or they would have acted publicly and the behavior would have stopped.

The problem with this category is it assumes things as true that need to be proven. For example, it assumes that any action must be public, and must be in the form of a rebuke. It ignores the possibility of quietly contacting the person. It ignores the possibility of ongoing dialogue where the Church has not written the person off. In other words, the individual assumes he knows the whole story, but does not.

The Scandalized

Church history is ugly because the members are sinners, like everyone else. Of course we’re all called to cooperate with God’s grace and strive to do good and reject evil. But every one of us does fall. The category of people I call the scandalized are those who are shocked and horrified by the sins of the members of the magisterium, believing this to be a sign of error, some going so far as to label it heresy or apostasy.

Such people need to remember our belief that God protects His Church from error does not mean that those who lead the Church will never sin, nor make errors of judgment in non-teaching actions. For example, St. John Paul II appointed some bishops that had many of us wondering “Why?” There’s a difference between teaching (which is protected) and administering (which is not).

John paul ii kisses koranRegrettable, but not heretical (The Obstinate Denial of Truth)

So, when the Pope teaches, we’re bound to give assent to his teachings, trusting God to protect him from leading the Church astray. But when he governs the Vatican City, gives a homily or a press conference, or other actions, he’s not protected. What this means is, just because a Pope may do something regrettable when acting as a man or as a ruler, it does not follow that he teaches error.

The Mythic View of the Church

People in this category tend to have a myth about a time when the faith was practiced perfectly. They believe that the Church needs to go back to that time, rejecting what they see as a deviation. So some Catholics think Vatican II destroyed the Church, and we need to turn back the clock to before if the Church is to be saved. Other Catholics view Our Lord as a “nice guy” teacher who taught love, and rules of sexual morality “contradict” Jesus’ teachings. Both are a denial of the belief that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Church.

What the first group has to realize is that there was never a time when the Church was perfect. There were always problems. The problems after Vatican II had origins before Vatican II. The second group has to realize that Our Lord did teach on keeping the commandments and warned us about Hell.  Both need to remember He did give the Church authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and promised to protect His Church (Matthew 16:18, 28:20). The Church has never changed teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin,” but she has changed how to approach sinners and has taken a deeper look into what makes an action a sin. These are not betrayals of past teaching.

The Wrathful Catholics 

Some Catholics have just bought into the idea that the Pope intends to change or destroy the Church. With this assumption, everything that sounds different to them is assumed to be “proof” of the accusation. So they read the Pope’s words with this viewpoint and find malice. At best, this is Rash Judgment. At worst, it is Calumny. The difference is whether they make a false assumption about his intentions or intend to discredit him.

I find these Catholics to be perpetually angry. It may be because they lament the wrongdoing in the Church and are frustrated with the lack of progress in eliminating it. It may be they belong to one of the groups above, and it leads them to think the Pope must support what they oppose. Or they may be influenced by other wrathful Catholics who repeat their accusations over and over. But to assume that the Pope intends evil for the Church is something that corrupts one’s faith in God and the authority He gave the Catholic Church.

Conclusion: The First Two Steps to a Remedy

All of these categories have something in common—a belief that the Pope is in the wrong.  That belief is dangerous because it assumes that while the Pope can err, the individual judging him is not mistaken in his interpretation of the Pope. But each of these categories shows they do make an error in interpreting the Pope, past Church teaching, or both.

The first step is recognizing one can misinterpret Scripture, the current Pope, and past Church teaching—seeing conflict where there is none. Once one realizes they can make a mistake, he or she can begin considering whether they have made a mistake. The next step is realizing that God protects His Church. History shows there have been morally bad popes. There have been Popes who personally held to an error. But no Pope has ever taught error. 

Once we recognize these things, we have to realize that if we think the current Pope is teaching error, we have to consider it more probable that we have misinterpreted him—not because of our being “ultramontane” (a common slur against the Pope’s defenders), or putting too much trust in his personal talents, but because God established the Church on the rock of Peter and promised the gates of hell would not prevail against it. So, if there is a difference between what we think the Pope says and what we think the Church teaches, we need to consider the possibility that we have gone wrong, whether by misreading, or focussing on the wrong issue, or assuming Church teaching limits more than it does.

If we can start by asking “Have I gotten the issue wrong?” then perhaps we can learn. But if we refuse to ask that question, we will not learn, and we will needlessly be in opposition to Our Lord and His Church while thinking of ourselves as defenders.

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.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Do They Speak the Truth?

Truth is saying of what is, that it is and of saying what is not, that it is not. In other words, truth points to reality and we should strive to live according to truth because we should strive to live according to reality. Since we are finite beings with imperfect knowledge, we have to constantly reassess what we think is true, discarding what turns out to be false and amending ourselves when our earlier grasp of the truth turns out to be inadequate. If someone makes a claim, but we do not know whether it is true or false, we need to find out before accepting or rejecting it—we can’t just rely on their say so.

Crystal ball(Some people, despite their claims, are not reliable sources of truth)

When you read that, it seems obvious. But human fallibility makes it difficult. Some people are liars. Some mistakenly think a falsehood is true. Sometimes people misinterpret the message and think their reasoning about these misinterpretations are truth. It is true we can’t assume that the person who speaks falsely is malicious, but just because a person says something does not make it true.

This realization is especially important when people say things that impact how we view the world. Just because an anti-Catholic attacks membership in the Church because they claim we do not follow Scripture, or just because a radical traditionalist attacks what the Pope says today on grounds that he “contradicts” what earlier Popes had to say does not make their claims true. If one wants to refute a worldview, they have to show that they accurately understand what the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Church holds compared with what others claim she holds. The brilliant 19th century work A Manual of Catholic Theology tells us:

The heirs of the Apostles have the right and duty to prescribe, promulgate, and maintain at all times and in behalf of the whole Church the teaching of the Apostles and of the Church in former ages; to impose and to enforce it as a doctrinal law binding upon all; and to give authoritative decisions on points obscure, controverted, or denied. In this capacity the Church acts as regulator of the Faith, and these doctrinal laws, together with the act of imposing them, are called the Rule of Faith. All the members of the Church are bound to submit their judgment in matters of Faith to this rule, and thus by practising the "obedience of Faith" to prove themselves living members of the one kingdom of Divine truth.

Scheeben, Matthias Joseph (2015-03-26). A MANUAL OF CATHOLIC THEOLOGY: Based on Dogmatik (Complete in Two Volumes) (Kindle Locations 1412-1416). Lex De Leon Publishing. Kindle Edition.

So, if the anti-Catholic, the radical traditionalist, the modernist dissenter or other person tries to attack part of the Catholic faith with the intention of changing our view of reality, the first question is, whose interpretation of Church teaching do we trust to be most accurate?

  1. The individual who accuses the Church of saying X?
  2. Or the Church under the authority of the present Pope and bishops in communion with him?

Hint: The answer is #2. Even if one rejects the authority of the Catholic Church as having the authority to teach, it is common sense to ask a person whether we have understood them, not to assume that our interpretation is error-free. If we’ve misunderstood what the Church has said, the end result of our reasoning is going to be worthless. But people don’t try to find this out.

For example, anti-Catholics make all sorts of assertions about what we believe and pull out Bible verses to “contradict” us. But they never ask whether they have understood us accurately or whether they have misapplied Scripture on the rare occasion when they do understand us rightly. Radical traditionalists assume that a difference in tone from one era to the next “proves” a change in teaching.  But the question to ask is whether the Church today is really condoning what she used to call sinful or whether she is merely speaking about changed tactics or changed circumstances while still holding to the underlying belief.

So, before we accept their claims as true and try to live according to them, we have to see if they are true. Does the Church teach the same as what her critics allege she teaches? But we can’t just rely on someone’s claim that there is a conflict (an ipse dixit fallacy). We have to seek out an expert who can speak with authority on the subject. Who is that expert? The heirs to the Apostles, the Pope and bishops in communion with him. Catholics believe that as successors to the Apostles, they share in the authority Our Lord gave His disciples. So, if an individual's interpretation of Scripture or a Church teaching does not match what the magisterium today teaches, then we know the individual does not speak the truth. 

Once we realize that, we will recognize them as false teachers. Even if they are sincere, they do not speak the truth about what the Church teaches and what they claim against her cannot be trusted.

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. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Deadliest (Logical) Error

If I had to choose the greatest error of reasoning that leads people to false conclusions and accompanying troubles, it would be the set of fallacies that make the assumption that certain things were true when they actually need to be proven. Sometimes, this is deliberately done, when someone engages in sophistry to justify a position and make opponents look bad. But many times, this is done simply because an individual assumes that there is a link between two things that does not actually exist. In fact, an assumption is something that is accepted as true, but without proof.

I think it’s a shame that the West has forgotten the Christian and Classical writings she was once based on, because—despite the propaganda which is determined to make the ancient and medieval times seem primitive and ignorant—they knew many things about reality that we have forgotten. Take Aristotle. He wrote over 2366 years ago about how people make this error.

Now begging the question […] may be done by assuming what is in question at once; it is also possible to make a transition to [40] other things which would naturally be proved through the [65a] thesis proposed, and demonstrate it through them, e.g. if A should be proved through B, and B through C, though it was natural that C should be proved through A: for it turns out that those who reason thus are proving A by means of itself. This is what those persons do who suppose [5] that they are constructing parallel straight lines: for they fail to see that they are assuming facts which it is impossible to demonstrate unless the parallels exist. So it turns out that those who reason thus merely say a particular thing is, if it is: in this way everything will be self-evident. But that is impossible.


[Aristotle, “Analytica Priora,”  64.2.30–65.1.9 in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. A. J. Jenkinson, vol. 1 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1928).]

In other words, people make an assumption that the existence of certain incidents prove the point they want to make, but those incidents are all interpreted by the assumption that belief is true. when the accuracy of the claim is being questioned in the first place. One common example of this error is the canard that the only reason that can explain opposition to “same sex marriage” is “homophobia” and the only reason for opposition to contraceptives is a “misogynistic” attitude from bishops—and if they weren’t celibate, then teaching would be different. If one were to actually seek out what the Church taught, they would see that her motives are not the motives people claim she holds them for.

But this argument fails to examine the basis of Church teaching, that the existence of every Catholic teaching that says that the sexual act is only validly practiced in the marriage between one man and one woman where the openness to life is not violated and the spouse is not reduced to an object of pleasure. The Catholic teaching on the substance of the marital act rejects contraception, fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, rape, etc., because she teaches “This is what sex is for, and practices which reject this view cannot be done.” One can choose to accept or reject the Catholic teaching, of course, but to reject such teaching on the grounds of “homophobia” or “misogyny” are false grounds—because we deny that we hold our teachings for these motives.

Another common attack against the Church is based on the belief that the Church holds a teaching because of the political leaning of the men who are bishops and the Pope. Thus political liberals attack the bishops of being the “Republican Party at prayer,” on the grounds that opposition to abortion and “same sex marriage” are “conservative” positions. At the same time, political conservatives attack the Pope and bishops for speaking out on social justice issues like immigration, economic justice and ecology. The Pope is called a liberal, a Marxist, a Modernist, or a naïf who is “falling for” liberal propaganda.

But the premise is what needs to be proven—that opposition to sexual immorality or abortion is “conservative” and social justice is “liberal.” If the Pope or bishops have a motive which has nothing to do with American political categories, then the accusation has no basis. Again, every case cited which “proves” the Church is politically motivated is actually assuming the claim which has to be proven.

What is overlooked is the fact that the Church operates from the motive that she believes herself called to preach the Gospel to all nations, baptizing and teaching people to keep God’s commandments. She has been teaching these things long before Republicans, Democrats or Marxists ever existed. Try reading St. John Chrysostom on the obligation to the poor, for example. He lived over 1500 years ago and taught about the Church teaching in such a way which would be unpopular to some Americans today. Likewise, the Church Fathers who spoke about sexual immorality and abortion that was as widespread as the practices today. The motive was not to persuade members of the Roman Empire to “vote Republican.” It was to persuade individuals to repent and believe in the Gospel.

Ultimately, the attacks against the teaching of the Church tend towards making assumptions about the motives and intentions about the people who implement them. The individual who opposes these teachings alleges bad will, but never considers the possibility that there could be another option. Sure, we can get a member of the Church who does dissent and claims to teach “truth” in opposition to the magisterium, but it is wrong to assume that unfamiliar behavior is willful disobedience. We need to consider other options—of misunderstanding on our part, of a lack of information, of a mistake in judgment etc. 

If we refuse to consider whether the assumptions we make are true, we run the risk of going very far astray from our faith, making a shipwreck while considering ourselves to be sailing smoothly.