Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Monday, January 23, 2023

It’s Iimi! Better Call Paul

Iimi tries to find the proper balance between when to speak out and when to draw boundaries. While Fr. Gabe’s talk at Youth Group seems to offer solace, it will be tested when Najiyah asks questions aimed at “reverting” Kismetta to Islam. 


Will Iimi be able to defend Kismetta’s newfound beliefs while avoiding being overloaded?


Preliminary notes:

While not planned (I work about a month in advance in writing these comics), the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul falls on January 25th, so things lined up nicely for this comic.


Outside of a brief mention in Issue 107, I never really dealt with the Muslim objections to St. Paul. The reason was that the arguments used were so weak I assumed they were strawmen arguments. But further research showed that they are indeed seen as “refutations” of Christianity. 


The general assumption among Muslims in these arguments is that because our Scriptures do not say the same thing as the Quran, they must have been corrupted. Paul is a common suspect. The Council of Nicaea is another.


Since Kismetta is in the process of converting, it made sense to have Najiyah raise these points in hopes of “saving” Kismetta.


The Exhortation (Christus Vivit) that Fr. Gabe read can be found HERE.

Post-Comic Notes:

Dhu alshier al’azraq is Arabic and roughly translates as “blue-haired one.”


For those unfamiliar with the Pop culture reference, the title and the cover are a parody of the TV series, “Better Call Saul.”

Saturday, November 9, 2019

They Aren’t Remembering History. Will They Repeat It?

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it§.

—George Santayana, The Life of Reason, volume I

I’ve been reading different Patristic Church histories lately. I find accounts from Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Rufinius, Theodoret, etc. fascinating in describing how the various schisms tried to impose their errors (if they were heretical) or rigorism (if they were schisms) on the Church. 

What made them successful in the short term was how they controlled the narrative and had the ear of important people. They selectively miscited the writings of those with authority in the Church, portraying the Popes and bishops as rejecting “authentic” teaching and falsely accusing them of all sorts of vile crimes. Idolatry, supporting heresy, debauchery, etc. The heretical and schismatic groups tried to get the Popes and bishops deposed from their positions. But in the long term, the orthodox Catholic position triumphed.

When they finally lost in the battle for the Church as a whole, they declared that the Church itself was wrong and broke communion with the successor of Peter and insisted that they were the faithful remnant. Montanism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, etc., were some of the heretical movements that rose from clinging from things the Church condemned. But there were other movements that rose from those who accepted the same beliefs as the Catholic Church but falsely claimed something the Church taught something that she did not* or claimed that the Church approach of mercy to sinners was allowing sin. Groups like the Novatians and Donatists fell into this category.

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

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

—St. John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei 

I find that the modern attacks on the Pope and bishops is tragically similar to the attacks in the first centuries of the Church. Many of those hostile to the Pope like to think of themselves as being like St. Athanasius against the Arians or St. Paul opposing St. Peter. But they act more like Hippolytus, Novatian or Donatus, assuming that a position of mercy from the Pope must be a position of laxity or actual sympathy towards error.

While certain critics might think that Santayana’s comment on history justifies their stance, actually they fit what he warned against. They don’t understand the history and development of the Church. Instead they rely on perpetually new interpretations of a fixed moment in the Church that they consider ideal, assume was always the case, and remain ignorant of the actual development and struggle to defend the faith. Being ignorant about this development, they assume deviation from their ideal is error even if it’s orthodox Catholic teaching.

Because they fail to remember history, they cannot see the direction the Church has gone in and how she has changed discipline and custom but left doctrine intact. If certain critics will not remember this history, they might wind up repeating the tragedies that led to error and schism.


(§) This is the context of the oft paraphrased quote.

(*) Men like Photius, Michael Celularius, Luther, and Calvin also used false accusations to justify breaking with the Church.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Repeating the Tragedy

I will take one more instance. A man is converted to the Catholic Church from his admiration of its religious system, and his disgust with Protestantism. That admiration remains; but, after a time, he leaves his new faith, perhaps returns to his old. The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church’s infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines “which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught,” whereas it really meant “whatever the Church then or at any future time should teach.” Thus, he never had the indispensable and elementary faith of a Catholic, and was simply no subject for reception into the fold of the Church. This being the case, when the Immaculate Conception is defined, he feels that it is something more than he bargained for when he became a Catholic, and accordingly he gives up his religious profession. The world will say that he has lost his certitude of the divinity of the Catholic Faith, but he never had it.

—Saint John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid to a Grammar of Assent, p. 240

The continuing aftermath of the Amazon Synod serves as a reminder that there is a certain hazard that orbits around the Church despite the endless attempts to eliminate it over the past two millennia. 

That hazard is the belief that the Church can fall into error but the critic cannot. Whether the rejection of the Church is rooted in heresy based on how the critic reads Scripture, or whether it is simply a schism based on the interpretation of the discipline of the Church, the fact remains that the critic has effectively made himself a “Pope” who insists on his own view of the Church while rejecting the authority of the real one. The result is we see people repeating the same errors over and over, convinced that the falsehoods they were told are true. The result is a repeated tragedy.

Repeating the Logical Errors

Those critics who do make a shipwreck of their faith this way deny that they are doing so because they define heresy and/or schism in an overly limited manner. Since they do not believe what Tertullian, Sabellius, Arius, Nestorius, Berengarius, Wycliffe, Luther, etc. etc. believe, they reason that—because they don’t hold the same errors—they are not guilty of what those infamous individuals did. But that’s the logical logical fallacy of  Denying the Antecedent. Just because one does not break with the Church over the same grounds as those people did does not mean that they are not in error. Consider this:
  • If I am in Los Angeles, I am in California.
  • I am not in Los Angeles.
  • Therefore I am not in California.
Contrary to what the media might think, there is more to California than Los Angeles. Likewise, contrary to what the Pope bashers might think, there is more to heresy and schism than the errors of those listed above. 

Repeating the Canonical Errors

The Church defines things like heresy and schism in light of what they reject. Canon 751 reads:

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

So, if one refuses to submit to the Pope on a matter involving his office (teaching, governing), such a person is committing a schismatic act, whether they formally reject the Papacy as a whole or just a specific act. Moreover, this is not limited to the ex cathedra teachings of the Pope. The ordinary teachings of the Pope are also binding. Canon 752 says:

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

This canon bases itself on past Church teaching, including: Pius IX Syllabus of Errors #22, Humani Generis #20, Lumen Gentium #25. It’s also found in Vatican I and Unam Sanctam. So, the Catholic dissenters who try to reject the Pope and claim that those who insist on obedience are Ultramontanist, or Papolators* are actually the ones in error. If they refuse submission, they are behaving in a schismatic manner. If they deny that submission is not required at all, that is a heretical position. As Canon 331 reminds us:

can. 331 The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

Since these critics insist that they—not the Pope—are faithful Catholics, they invent counterfeit theology that they claim exempts them from obeying this Pope or this Council, saying that their “errors” prove that these statements cannot be binding. For example, they take one of the theological opinions of St. Robert Bellarmine§ that if a Pope becomes a manifest heretic, he stops being Pope. That effectively means that, should the Pope happen to join the Foursquare Gospel Church, he’s effectively renounced his office by leaving the Catholic Church. But the Pope’s  critics conflate it with three positions that the Saint actually rejected: that the Church can depose him. However there no procedure for deposing a Pope (canon 1404), and the idea that one can appeal to a Council against the Pope is the heresy of Conciliarism. Indeed, canon law says (canon 1372):  A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.

Repeating the Theological and Historical Errors

Since there’s no canonical process that allows for any body in the Church to accuse, judge, or depose a sitting Pope. So, some try to point to certain morally bad Popes to argue that because they existed, it means that the current Pope can also be a bad Pope. The critics like to imagine themselves as following St. Paul in opposing Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) by opposing Pope Francis for “teaching error.” But while St. Peter and the bad Popes had personal moral failings, the critics claim that the fact that a Pope can be morally bad also means he can teach error (a non sequitur fallacy) and when he does, he must be opposed. 

The problem is: neither Scripture nor Church history can justify that position. Our Lord taught that the moral failings do not take away the authority to teach (cf. Matthew 23:2-3). Church history shows that a morally bad Pope does not justify rebellion. Remember the Popes leading morally bad lives did not justify the Protestant Reformation. Luther had obligations to obey the Pope, his bishop and his religious superiors. He believed they erred and that he was not obligated to obey them. If a Pope can err—and must be opposed if we think he does—when teaching in the ordinary magisterium, then we have no way of saying Luther was wrong to refuse obedience.

This is why I say that the Pope bashers are like Luther: not because I think they have the same theology. But because I think they share the same attitude towards the Church authority which they disagree with. Since that the critics are often vehemently denouncing everything they dislike in the Church as “Protestant,” it is ironic that they duplicate Luther’s treatment of disliked Church Teaching.

Some even go so far as to misapply the term “antipope.” The term is properly used to distinguish one who is falsely set up to be Pope against the real Pope. There are several in Church history, all set up by those who opposed the election or the policies of the actual Pope. 

In the current iteration, some critics claim that Benedict XVI was forced out of office, and Pope Francis was installed by his enemies as an antipope. Under this argument, whatever Pope Francis does is invalid. The problem is, there is no basis for the claim. Using a form of the No True Scotsman fallacy, whatever Benedict XVI said affirming his renouncing of his office and recognition of Pope Francis is deemed to be “coerced.” It’s a sedevacantist claim which is about as silly as St. Paul VI being a “Prisoner under the Vatican while a imposter took his place.”

Repeating the Factual Errors

When I read the writings of those who broke away from the Catholic Church, they all make false claims about the Catholic Church which purport to show that the Church “fell into error” and had to be opposed. For example, men like St. Hippolytus (who died reconciled to the Church) and Novatian, Luther and Calvin, Lefebvre, etc., treated abuses as intended policy under the Popes they disliked, took Scripture and Church Fathers out of context, misrepresented the real intent of the teaching etc. Unfortunately, modern critics do the same. 

For example, Luther miscited Church Councils and Augustine in order to portray a “break” between the past teaching and the teaching of his time. Calvin treated the veneration of religious imagery as idolatry. They contrasted their views of what they thought the Church should be with their portrayal of certain problems in the Church. What they left out was answering the question, “Is this portrayal actually true?”

Likewise, we saw in the Synod on the Family and are seeing in the Synod on the Amazon, critics portraying the words and actions of the Synod in as negative a light as possible and contrasting that portrayal with their own claims of what past Councils and teachings of the Church said. They insisted their interpretation of events were indisputable fact even though a large number of Catholics were disputing their claims.

Take the so-called Pachamama image. The term was given to an object that—by all accounts of those who brought it—had no religious significance at all. The name stuck and was adopted by the secular media. Critics of the Pope used the popularized label as “proof” that it was an idol (Begging the Question fallacy) and when the Pope referred to it using that popularized label, critics seized on that as “proof” that he was “promoting paganism” despite the fact that the Pope said there was no intent to worship and that the Vatican pointed out that the Pope’s use of the term Pachamama was common usage and not technical descriptions.

Repeating the Rash Judgment

The response of the critics was very much a violation of the Church teaching on false witness^. As the Catechism points out:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

When critics do not give a favorable interpretation of what the Pope says; when they do not accept his statements that give a Christian intent in his words and acts, they are judging rashly if they assume and calumniating if they do know his intent but say something contrary to it.

At this point, someone might ask me, “How do you know you’re not the one misinterpreting the Pope.” I would reply that, based on the transcripts that report the Pope’s words in full, what he says shows that he very much believes in God, the Catholic Church and its teachings. I would view any claim that he intends syncretistic or heretical meaning with the same level of disbelief that I would have if someone told me that Elizabeth Warren was in favor of a laissez faire approach to healthcare. That is to say, it is entirely out of character. But many Catholics do not read his writings, but instead rely on brief quotes in articles—which might be drastically out of context. When one reads something by Pope Francis, you need to read the whole thing to understand the point he makes.


As always, I don’t write to point fingers at and condemn specific individuals. Rather, I wish to show how certain attitudes of hostility against the Pope have no basis in terms of logic, Church teaching, theology, history, or avoiding false witness. If one wants to avoid falling into error, he or she needs to avoid those accusations and tactics that lead people to dissent while thinking they are the faithful ones. 

As St. John Henry Newman pointed out, those who lost faith in the infallibility of the Church—forgetting that God protects His Church from binding us to obey error—have failed to grasp what the Church is and who is in charge. If we do not want to trick ourselves out of the Church, we must cling fast to the Church, trusting that God will always protect the Church from teaching error.

If we refuse to do that, if we think that the Church which does not go where we desire is a Church that errs, then we will be deceived into rejecting what God has made necessary. And, if we reject that Church, we will be rejecting Our Lord who established it (Luke 10:16).


(*) My personal favorite was when one Pope basher called me a “Papist,” which is a term used by anti-Catholic Protestants against faithful Catholics. A Freudian slip perhaps?

(§) I wrote about this HERE. The Saint’s book is available on Kindle if you don’t want to take my word for it. But briefly: there are five positions that he considers. Three he rejects (all involving the claim that the Church can depose the Pope). Two he accepts. Those latter two are: 1. That the Pope cannot be a heretic (I hold this view). 2. That the Pope only stops being Pope if he is a manifest heretic.

(†) Interestingly enough, there has been an editing war going on with Wikipedia’s entry. If the reports are accurately reported, critics of the Pope are editing the article to portray the image as Pachamama and to make it seem that the Pope was implementing the worship of a vile idol.

(^) One priest I know on Facebook pointed out it is also Rash Judgment of the indigenous peoples to assume their actions were idolatrous. I think he makes a good point.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

On the Wrong Side of (Church) History

One of the conceits I see is the view that the individual Catholic is in the same place as Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, while the Americans bishops are in the place of the English bishops at the time of Henry VIII breaking away from the Catholic Church [§]. This view holds that, in both cases, the bishops were cowardly and went along with an evil, rather than speak out against it. Therefore, they are in the “right” to reject them.

This view is both bad history and bad theology. We forget that, in every age where rejection of the Church arose, there was corruption that led people to think that rejection was justified. But the saints never accepted the idea that sin and corruption justified dissent.

(St. Francis of Assisi)

These individuals today justify disobedience to a Pope based on what they want the Church to be. The problem is: Saints, like More and Fisher, refused to use the bad behavior of a Pope as an excuse to disobey the authority of the Church. In other words, these modern critics (sincere or not) are closer to the those 16th century English who rejected the authority of Rome than they are to Sts. More and Fisher who said the authority of the Church rested with the Pope, even in bad times.

The Church today certainly has serious problems to deal with. We look at the abuse scandal and are shocked: At least some of the bishops seemed willing to sweep problems under the carpet. The 1917 Code of Canon Law seems to have been based on a naive assumption that all parties would be acting out of good will. Even if the numbers were statistically small, it was a problem that grew to cause great harm to the victims and their families and great mistrust towards the Church that is supposed to be Mother and Teacher. We also see the scandal of Catholic politicians who openly defy Church teaching on issues like abortion (some going so far as to express support for infanticide) and same sex “marriage,” and the response of some bishops seems to be “tsk.” People want to know why the wicked seem to get away with wrongdoing without repercussions [#]. People see this and argue we’re in an unprecedented crisis.

The problem with that reasoning is it forgets that the Church has had problems in every age. During the midst of each crisis, the Church looks like it is losing to the attacks against her. Sometimes, in the midst of these crises, bishops behave scandalously or ineffectually. During the midst of the 4th century, it looked like Arianism was going to win. During the 16th century, it looked like the Church would collapse under the dual attacks of corruption within and Protestantism without.

Reforms and opposing attacks were never instantaneous. Defeating Arianism took two ecumenical councils and a lot of struggle against a state that wanted them to win. Martin Luther began his work in about 1517. The Council of Trent didn’t begin until 1545, and wasn’t concluded until 1563. Implementation took over a hundred years.

I don’t say this to be complacent or triumphalistic. Yes, God protects His Church from teaching error. But we have our own role to play in defending and protecting the Church. What I am saying is that we must not assume that the Church is permanently broken and that we are therefore excused from the submission of intellect and will to the Church that Christ requires of us.

We can’t wait passively for God to send us saints to reform the Church. We’re called to be those saints. But we have to remember this: there was never a saint that refused obedience to the Church under the headship of the Pope. Regardless of the crises within the Church, even when they involved Popes behaving badly, the saints gave obedience to the Successor of Peter.  If we won’t do that, we’re not part of the solution...

...we’re part of the problem.


[§] This is not an article about Protestantism. It’s an article about people who inaccurately invoke the rise of Protestantism, equating it with the leadership of the Church today.

[#] The short answer is, canon 1398 is only aimed at people committing an act of abortion. But people do want to know actions are being taken.

Monday, February 20, 2017

It Didn't Start With Francis

While I don’t particularly like the song, it’s practically mandatory 
to show this video in a post like this


One common trend in social media is a number of Catholics claiming that things were wonderful under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the opposition against Popes only arose in reaction to the things Pope Francis did. From their comments on social media, I can identify three groups:

  1. There are a lot of Catholics who were not aware of the controversy in those pre-Internet/Smartphone times
  2. There are a lot of recent converts out there who missed the attacks against previous Popes, and are encountering something they never were aware of.
  3. Some Catholics have conveniently “forgotten" their hostility to previous Popes

I will leave it to God to judge whether anyone is in category three, but I think the first two probably explains a lot of it.

Before the internet, the only way to get information was either to rely on the media, or order encyclicals from either Daughters of St. Paul or the publishing company of the American bishops (I can’t even recall what it was called back then). On one hand, Catholics had to wait until the document was published in the country. On the other hand, so did reporters, and they would usually call a local pastor to get commentary for their news articles. So things were slower back then. There were still attacks, of course.

We Forget How and Why the Rebellion Happened…

No, it didn’t start with Francis, and it didn’t start with Vatican II.

We forget that the priests and religious who caused problems after Vatican II were ordained before Vatican II. We forget some of them were highly respected. Fr. Schillebeeckx, for example, was a highly respected moral theologian, whose early manuals are still cited by orthodox Catholics because of their quality. We forget some of them were highly respected by the bishops who would later find them problematic. We forget that some who were later honored by St. John Paul II were viewed with suspicion by the Holy Office, (St. Padre Pio, Benedict XVI), and some of them were silenced.

We forget that a generation rose up and rejected authority, political and religious. Nations that were not Catholic, or even Christian, had unrest. We forget the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the mistrust of government, and the hostility to unjust laws (like segregation) influenced a generation. Unfortunately, they didn’t stop at opposing injustice. A large portion of a generation began to think the state and the Church were to blame for these things by their very existence. When the state enforced the law, when the Church insisted some behaviors were morally evil, this was “fascism.” Never mind they were using this epithet against a generation that opposed fascism.

We also forget the dramatic change that came in 1968 (not 1965). Everybody was expecting the Catholic Church to “change her teaching” on contraception. Because they misunderstood how the Church worked, they assumed that because the majority report (going beyond their authority of investigating whether the Pill was contraception) urged a change in teaching, that it was a guaranteed thing. So when Blessed Paul VI reinforced the traditional Catholic teaching, many were angry. They irrationally felt betrayed over the Church “betraying” them in something she never promised and would never do.

Because we forget this, I think we are unable to understand the scope of what the Church faced, and what a monumental task it was to repair. Theologians were called to get back in line with the Church, and when they didn’t, several were suspended from teaching theology.

We Forget the Rebellion from the Right Happened at the Same Time

We also forget that certain Catholics, trying to remain faithful, became embittered with the inadequate response from the bishops. Committing a post hoc fallacy, they assumed that because the unrest followed Vatican II, the unrest was caused by Vatican II. So they began to agitate for reversing the Council. The SSPX rose at this time. When the bishops, and later the Pope, began to crack down on their abuses, they refused the obedience which was a keystone to the pre-conciliar teaching that they professed to support. Archbishop Lefebvre was suspended by Blessed Paul VI for illicitly ordaining priests against a direct order not to, and was excommunicated by St. John Paul II for consecrating bishops against a direct order not to.

What people forget is the SSPX and those who sympathized with them hated Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II for their actions taken. These people constantly gave their actions a negative twist, accusing them of heresy and modernism[†]. Even some who were not part of the SSPX blamed the Holy Father for not cracking down on the dissenters they disagreed with, while saying that the defeat of that faction should take priority[¶], but he was ignoring them to punish the SSPX and others.

Between Scylla and Charybdis with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI

This resulted in the Pope being hated by both sides, each accusing the Popes of favoring the other side. Cries of “Why don’t you punish them for X?” appeared in religious newspapers, magazines and others. It was assumed that the continued existence of a faction without a public censure was “proof” that the Pope identified with this side. When St. John Paul II wrote about social justice, he was accused of identifying with socialism. When he wrote on abortion, he was accused of being right wing.

Generally speaking, vocal factions in the Church argued that whatever he did against them was proof of being political or heresy[§], while what he did that they agreed with was “too little too late.” They certainly confused Catholics trying to be faithful. With so much smoke, people wondered if there was fire. Catholics trending towards liberalism began to believe the accusations that the Pope was cold hearted and insensitive. Those trending towards conservatism began to believe the accusations that he was weak on dissent and was sympathetic, uncaring, or ignorant of what was going on in the Church.

The Rise of the Internet and the Smartphone

We also forget that knowledge (or misinformation) of and criticism about Papal actions grew with technology. The Printing Press was invented in 1440. The Telegraph was invented in the 1830s. The Fax Machine was invented in 1846. The telephone was invented in 1876. The radio was invented in 1894 (Vatican Radio began in 1931). With each step, it was easier and faster to distribute news, and the Church was able to distribute her documents more widely and quickly. But everything still depended on hard copy (except for the relatively few items on microfilm and microfiche). If a copy was not available in bookstore or library, you had to either drive long distances or do without[Ω].

The media depended on experts to interpret what the Church said, and that depended on some ludicrous situations. When it was announced that the Pope was releasing a new encyclical, the media wondered if this meant the Church was finally changing her teaching on contraception, abortion, and women’s ordination[√]. Then they would call local pastors and bishops and be disabused of their notions.

The next phase of communications emerged when Internet was commercialized in 1995. Over the next 20 years, more information would get onto the internet, but so would misinformation. In addition, more people would be given an audience[ø]. This also meant the critics of the Pope would be able to increase their reach. Then in the late 2000s, the Smartphone combined the internet with instant access without having to be at a computer, allowing the individual to be instantly informed about things happening around the world.

Unfortunately, a chain is as strong as its weakest link, and, when it comes to news on the Church, that weakest link was the media that believed that someday the Church would have to change her teaching. These reporters, with their religious illiteracy, did not understand the nuances of moral theology or how the Church taught. For example, when Benedict XVI gave a book length interview with Peter Seewald in 2010, he gave a hypothetical example of a gay prostitute with AIDS to illustrate how a person might begin to think about an issue in terms of morals. But the media thought the Church had finally changed!

It wasn’t the first time. In 2006, his lecture in Regensburg was wrongly portrayed as a denunciation of Islam, and his Caritas in Veritate (2009) was portrayed as a movement towards liberalism in terms of economic policy. Reporters and their editors thought that the world would eventually change the Church, and viewed each unfamiliar concept as a change towards their politics.

This led to a new situation. The Church would speak, the media would misrepresent, and Catholic critics would blame the Pope for the confusion. Never mind that the media never once stopped to confirm their information. Never mind that they’ve been consistently wrong, and the actual documents or transcripts show Popes did not say what they were alleged to say when taken in context.

Getting From There To Here

So, what we have here is a set of attitudes from different factions that contribute to confusion:

  1. A rebellion against the authority of the Church when it goes against a faction
  2. A belief that the Church has to change or revert to avoid error
  3. A belief or fear that this change is imminent
  4. A tendency to make hostile interpretations of actions as having sympathy or support for the other side (believed to be in error)
  5. A religiously illiterate media that does not understand the depth and nuance of Church teaching
  6. Blaming the Pope for those misinterpretations.
  7. Increasingly rapid communications from people responsible for the above problems
Put these factors together and we have instantaneous response to the actions of the Pope which are affected with the biases of the person responding. It’s the same actions, but it happens faster now than it did in previous pontificates and reaches a far larger audience.

And Now, Here We Are

This is why I must shake my head in sadness and disbelief when I encounter Catholics who say, “Things were never this way before Pope Francis.” They certainly did happen back then. But before the Smartphone (which only took off in the later years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI), before the Internet (which arrived only during the pontificate of St. John Paul II), things were much slower and some errors could be refuted before they spread too far. 

But now, with the internet and the smartphone, a wild rumor can spread around the world before the Vatican Press Office can respond[π]. If a reporter wrongly thinks the quote,“Who am I to judge?” means the Pope is going to change Church teaching on homosexuality, there’s not much the Church can do to stop the misinformation from happening. She can only offer a correction and encourage people to listen to what was made in context.

This is the situation Pope Francis inherited.

  1. A rebellion from day one when radical traditionalists called his election “a disaster.” 
  2. Some hoping and some fearing change to Church teaching.
  3. A belief that this change would happen.
  4. A hostile interpretation as heretical overshadowing everything he said or did
  5. A religiously illiterate media quoting out of context, and predicting he would change Church teaching on homosexuality, abortion, contraception, etc. and hostile factions believing it.
  6. Blaming the Pope for those out of context quotes. 
  7. An instantaneous communication misrepresenting what Pope Francis said and did. 
It is these factors that lead to confusion in the Church. It has been true since the rebellion of the 1960s, and continues today, aided by improved communications of error. We didn’t hear as much about this confusion from his predecessors because the internet and the smartphone came relatively late to the game. 
There will always be some incidents where a Pope doesn’t act as we think a Pope should act. Since, a Pope is a sinner in need of salvation like the rest of us, it is possible a Pope will do something regrettable. But this catastrophic view of the Church we have today shows a lack of knowledge of problems we’ve always had. Blessed John Henry Newman, for example, had to defend Pope Pius IX from those who received faulty understanding about what he said as reported by an ignorant media.

We need to avoid the argument from ignorance fallacy. Just because someone is not aware of the controversies involving the predecessors of Pope Francis does not mean these controversies did not exist. They most certainly did—but they had a much more limited reach than today. We should keep this in mind, and not assume that because this is the first time we’re noticing it, that this is the first time it happened. Once we clear out this misinterpretation, we can see the real issues clearly and perhaps come to a better attitude in dealing with them.


[†] Prior to Benedict XVI’s motu proprio on the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, they made the same attacks against him.
[¶] When these critics were questioned about the censures given, it was never enough. They believed the Holy Father should have excommunicated them, even though that was not the established penalty.
[§] For example, the picture of St. John Paul II kissing the Qur’an, and the Meeting in Assisi were portrayed as “proof” that he was a heretic.
[Ω] As a personal anecdote, in 1992, doing my senior thesis for my B.A degree, defending the Church against the charge of “sympathy to the Nazis,” I had no access to Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge or Pius XII’s Summi Pontificatus which denounced the Nazis, and was unable to use them (I still got an A, even though my thesis advisor was overtly hostile to the position I took). Nowadays, anyone can do a Google search and get the full text
[√] These were the big three the media obsessed over during this era. They really seemed to believe that a change was possible, which should have served as a warning to how incompetently they would deal with Pope Francis. 
[ø] For example, without the internet, I am sure that I would not be able to reach the audience I have with my blog The expense of publishing would have made it literally impossible.  
[π] If the Vatican News Service would lock the reporters on the plane until the full transcript of a press conference was released to the public, I’d be all for it. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Reflections on Dark Church History

I’ve been reading The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen (I figured it would be good to root out any triumphalism in me to read it during Lent, but I started early). It’s a book that came highly recommended as being as unbiased, and not taking part in the Church bashing. But it still shows a grim picture of an ugly time. Ugly times, where ugly things were done—and some of them in the name of religion. These are things that can’t be justified. But we can try to understand how they happened then—changing what needs to be changed on one hand while avoiding any post hoc arguments that claim that Catholic belief in itself caused the actions that were wrong.


President Obama managed to offend most of Christianity when he equated the actions of ISIS today with the actions of Christianity over 500 years ago—treating the abuses as if they were main purposes of the actions. Christians were right to be offended by this overly broad statement. However, one thing I have noticed about the response to Obama’s words is that some of my fellow Catholics seem to go in the opposite extreme. Instead of saying that the abuses were the norm, some of my fellow Catholics try to deny or downplay the fact that these abuses did exist. Such behavior is, of course, scandalous when it comes to our witness to non-Catholics. It looks like we’re belittling the suffering that was caused or behaving like the modern Holocaust deniers. 

I don’t write this in a sense of “You Catholic bloggers need to be more like me.” God knows I have been in the same boat at times, looking for excuses that exonerates Catholics. It’s one of the things where belief in the Mark of the Church as Holy is mistakenly understood as meaning that the members of the Church were impeccable (without sin). But that’s a battle we don’t have to fight. The Church is holy because of Christ, not because a certain percentage of her followers are saints, and if she falls below that quota, she will cease to be holy. This is shown in The Prayers of Forgiveness that St. John Paul II offered on May 12, 2000. It’s humbling to read, and sometimes it’s easy to say, “But what about—?"

I think another reason for defensiveness is that we fear that if something wrong was done by leaders of the Church, it will be a refutation of the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error. But I think this fear is misplaced. Not all magisterial decrees are taught as infallible doctrine, and some decrees (such as laws governing the Papal States prior to 1878) do not fall under such teaching at all. Christ’s promises about the Gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church weren’t aimed at the temporal governing of a territory or a political action, even if done from a religious motive. The Popes of the time had the authority to do these things, but we don’t have to treat them as doctrine. So we don’t have to try to defend the Jewish ghettoes in Europe or the like. Admitting these were wrong is not a denial of the Church’s holiness or infallibility.

With that said, I think we need to remember that to have a good act, we need three things:

  1. The act itself must be good.
  2. The motive for doing the act must be good.
  3. The circumstances surrounding the act must be good.

If one or more of these things is missing, the act is not good—even if the intention was to do good.

In addition, even if the Church decree for something was good in itself—meeting these three conditions—it doesn’t mean it will be executed well (no pun intended). Yes, the Crusades were intended as a defensive action. Yes, the inquisitions were intended to find out subversive actions done to undermine the faith, but that doesn’t mean that the people who took part in them were all saints and that all the actions done were right or done for the right reasons. People, being sinners, can corrupt anything. It is tragic that members of the Church were quick to cooperate with (and sometimes encourage) the state in things where they should have been the ones saying “slow down."

So let’s not try to deny the anti-semitism in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition or the evil actions done in the Crusades. Let’s not deny that the Summa Theologica has some cringeworthy ideas (like the treatment of heretics in Summa Theologica II-II q.10 a.8 resp.)

Of course at the same time, let’s not look at the evils done and say that the Church needs to abandon her teachings. Yes, evils were done in the name of the Church—and some of them by people highly placed in the Church. But people who act out of hatred or greed or other vices and exploit the Church in doing so are not a sign that the Church teaching “X is wrong,” is the cause for Christians mistreating people solely because they are part of group X. There are some misguided Catholics out there who point to the Crusades as if they are a good idea for today in response to ISIS. But the Catholic teaching that the existence of Christ’s Church "subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (Lumen Gentium 8), is not the cause of certain Catholics behaving in a bigoted manner towards non-Catholics, just like believing marriage can only be between one man and one woman is not the cause of mistreating people with same sex attraction.

And let’s also get rid of the idea that the people in Europe from the 12th-17th centuries could and should have thought like 21st century Americans. What we have in society today is based on the development of Christian thought and the stabilization of society. The idea of a pluralistic society (as opposed to an empire with subjected peoples) did not exist yet. It was developed during this time. Political society evolved from the decrees of the ruler to being a more constitutional view of how to treat people—a view formed by Christian ethics.

I think Pope emeritus Benedict XVI had a good point which can be derived from when he was writing about “dark passages” in the Bible and how to understand them:

God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. (Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini 42)

Even now, with the fullness of revelation in Christ being given us [that is—no further divine revelation], humanity can come up with new ways to be barbaric and cruel, and, in response, the Church needs to determine what is the best way to apply what we believe to these situations (for example, nuclear weapons required us to consider new aspects in the concept of “just war”). For example, the Church did not have much to say on slavery before it reemerged in the 15th century, because it was largely dying away in Christian Europe. But when the Azores were conquered, and slaves were taken, the Pope at the time (Eugene IV) certainly had something to say on the matter in the Papal Bulls Creator Omnium and Sicut Dudem. Sometimes it takes an abuse to exist before a response can be given, and sometimes it can take awhile before people recognize that a thing is an abuse. Remember, we believe the Popes are infallible when it comes to avoiding teaching error as binding—it doesn’t mean they are omnipotent (all knowing) understanding that wrongdoing is happening or grasping the significance of it. Sometimes, scandal has happened when the Church has been silent over something when it should have spoken out. But we have to distinguish these things before assigning blame to the Church.

Understanding where blame goes is that first step that needs to be discerned. The individual who decides on his own to commit an evil act and tries to justify it by pointing to Church teaching cannot be justified if his interpretation of Church teaching goes against the Church understanding. The state that enforces laws that the Church calls unjust is going against Church teaching. In these cases, it cannot be said that the Church is to blame for the actions of the individual or the State. It’s only when individual or the state is properly obeying (as opposed to misinterpreting) the Church in doing wrong, or when the Church is knowingly silent instead of speaking out that the Church herself can be said to be to blame. These things did happen of course—St. John Paul II did see the need to apologize for actions done in the name of the Church. But ultimately, we need to discern first, neither defending the indefensible nor condemning that which was not wrong.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Thoughts on the Portrayal of Catholicism in Fiction


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

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

Trying to Draw ALL out of SOME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can show this is bad reasoning:

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem of False and Distorted History

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

Basically, the form of the accusation is:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: What Is To Be Done?

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

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

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

But the question remains… Is it true?

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

Monday, August 19, 2013

Tablet Thoughts: Evil Catholic History?


One of the common attacks against Christianity and Catholicism in particular is to point to the savagery of history. The question asked is, "If Catholicism is God's Church, Why did they do [X]?"

[X] being supporting slavery or torture or some other kind of behavior which leaves us appalled in the 21st century.

The problem with these accusations is they tend to presume that Catholicism itself was the cause of the barbarism and to move towards an enlightened society is to move against Catholicism.

But the fact that these were societal practices that Catholics of a region happened to follow, it does not mean that Catholicism taught it as a doctrine to be practiced. Nor does it mean it was exclusive to Catholicism.

When Catholics object to attacks on past history, it is not because we deny they happened or want to whitewash them. Rather we object to the attempts to tie them exclusively to Catholicism and to distort the facts inventing motives we deny and increasing what happened by orders of magnitude.

The Whig Theory of History

Part of the problem is there is a certain view of history that holds that history is a story of progress. Things are constantly improving over time. People become more free over time. They become more civilized over time. Movements may arise to move people backwards, and they must be opposed.

Under such a view, Protestantism is an improvement over Catholicism. The Enlightenment is an improvement over Protestantism and so on.  Moreover, the Renaissance was superior to the Middle Ages and the Modern Era superior to the Renaissance (and vastly superior to the Middle Ages).

It's a flawed view of history which assumes that if social conditions a hundred years ago were worse than today, a thousand years ago, they must have been even worse still.

The view also presumes that because a society advances in technology, it must be advanced socially and morally. But just because government is becoming more centralized and law enforcement is getting better technology, crime is easier contain, that doesn't mean the society is better or safer.

A Catholic View of History

A more Catholic approach to history would recognize that every society is made up of human beings -- each one of them a child of God and each one of them a sinner. Each such society is flawed and practices certain vicious customs that go against the will of God -- even if the society has Christian roots.

What follows from this observation is that with two societies, a hundred years apart, it does not follow that the newer society must be superior to the older.

Instead each society has its own vices and injustices. Medieval society might have been wrong to view heresy as a capital crime, but remember, it was 20th century society that featured governments willing and able to commit mass genocide. It recognizes that at times barbarism replaces civilized society and that barbarism can have effects that far outlast the government that implements them (such as trials by ordeal existing in Europe long after pagan Germanic tribes fell out of power).

Also, this view can recognize that societies can embrace new evils which the older societies rejected. Ultimately this view rejects the notion of Progress as always moving forward... it recognizes societies can slip backwards and become worse, even as technology improves.

An Example of the Difference

For example, let's consider the 13th and 19th centuries. Under the Whig view of history, we would assume the 19th century was superior to the 13th, having overcome certain behaviour we find offensive today.

But, there was a major difference between the West of the 19th century and the West of the 13th century -- in the 13th century, slavery was almost unknown,  while it was a major factor in the 19th century (it was largely accepted in 1800 as normal). If slavery is an evil, it follows that a society that embraces it is worse than one which does not.

Surprised? But it's true. Slavery faded out of existence as Europe moved from a pagan society to a Christian one. When it existed, it was as penal labor as punishment for a crime.

Indeed, when slavery began to appear again when the Portuguese began taking captives in the Canary Islands for slaves. In 1435, Pope Eugene IV, in the document Sicum Dudut, condemned slavery and the slave trade, ordering the excommunication of those who did not free the slaves they took.

Church Teaching and Society's Practice is not Always the Same

The reader might object at this point, "But slavery didn't end!" Yes, you are right, sadly. People did ignore Church teaching on the subject...

...just as they ignore the Church today on subjects like abortion. It would be just as ridiculous to say that Christianity was the cause of the practice of abortion because of the number of Christians who practice it as  as it would be to say Christianity was the cause of slavery in the West because of thr numbers of Christians who practiced it.

That is: we can find Papal documents condemning slavery and abortion,  but we can't find the documents permitting them. So it isn't reasonable to accuse the Church of being pro-slavery, is it?

Sinful Catholics vs. Catholic Teaching

What's important to remember is that while the Church can insist people follow Church Teaching, they can't actually make them live by it. Some may be overt in their disobedience. Others may live hypocritically. Some may struggle to do right and fall short. Others may contemptuously ignore what they disagree with.

These sinners can be the average member of the laity or may be someone in authority. What's more, they are everyone in the Church except Jesus Christ (who is God) and His mother (preserved by a special grace).

So when it comes to condemning the Church herself, it is only reasonable if evil is done because the Church commanded it on matters of faith as a whole.  NOT because a member of the Church (even a Pope) behaved wrongly.

Now I know (I've encountered it personally) some object that this a No True Scotsman fallacy, claiming we deny that any inconvenient facts of history are "truly Catholic." But the point is, there is a difference between the teachings of faith and morals taught by the Church and the law enforcement of the Middle Ages. The former is protected from error. The latter is not. So a short sighted Pope, a corrupt Pope or a Pope who was not a good administrator could then govern the Papal States in a way that causes us to cringe today. Or even a good Pope of a different time could make an error of judgment in governing the Papal States that did not involve the teaching authority of the Church.

And if  this can happen with a Pope, how much less can we indict the whole Church on account of a bishop or priest (they lack universal authority) who does wrong.

Torture and Burning and High Body Counts

An anti-Catholic once made a rhetorical appeal to me, asking if I could think of anything worse than being burnt at the stake. My reply was, "Yes, being hung, drawn and quartered. " An English punishment often applied to Catholic priests and not actually abolished until 1870 (though they lessened some of the barbarism beginning in the 18th century).

Anti-Catholics like to bring up torture and burning at the stake. For them, it's the ultimate example of how evil we are. Basically, if we somehow got back in power, we'd be bringing back forced conversions (even though the Church does condemn those). Many assume we introduced these things to Europe.

Now I don't plan on doing a tu quoque argument or try to argue that it was acceptable in the past. While it is true that past society did practice these things and were accustomed to think of them as normal, that belief didn't make them right.

But we do need to realize that these things were not caused by Christianity. They came from Germanic tribes when they conquered areas of the decaying Roman empire. They stayed around far longer than the societies that introduced them did.

I'm not trying to pass the blame on to the pagans either. Rather I am pointing out again that every society acquires vicious customs which the locals come to think of as normal but is in fact wrong.  Abortion today is widely accepted, but still evil and barbaric.

That's why the internet wars on body counts are useless. The arguments assume one society or ideology has a monopoly on barbarism and cause the cruelty. But actually, what we're seeing is they have the common denominator of being human societies which embraced evil and expedience. Not because they were Catholic or Protestant societies.

Did men of religion accept them as normal when they should not have? Yes, even men with authority did. But that was a corruption of their religious obligations and not an example of religion corrupting men.


The important thing to remember in all of this is to distinguish between what Christ commands and what sinful people do. We need to distinguish between what the Church teaches us to do and how some individuals failed to follow.

At every Mass, the Church (and every individual at Mass) prays:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,

through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault

As Catholics, we recognize that we are all sinners in need of salvation. But let's be sure we distinguish between the Church as the bride of Christ carrying out the Great Commission and the sinners within the Church causing scandal.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Most Famous Pope Who Never Lived: Debunked Myth of Pope Joan to be a Movie

Source: Pope Joan film sparks Roman Catholic Church row - Telegraph

So, the long debunked myth of "Pope Joan" is to be made into a movie, it seems.  The claim is that sometime during the 9th or 10th century, a woman disguised herself as a man and rose up in the ranks of the Church hierarchy, becoming Pope and eventually discovered when she gave birth while travelling through the streets of Rome.

The List of Popes as Counter-Evidence

The problem is, despite claims to the contrary, the popes of this time period were known:

There were a few brief interregnums (897-898, 928-929, 935-936, 964-965, 972-973, 984-985).  Could we say she was Pope during one of these times?  No.  Reading JND Kelly (an Anglican) in his work, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, we see the dates were of a short duration.

  • The interregnum of 897-898 was from the death of Theodore II in November to the election of John IX in January
  • The Interregnum of 928-929 seems to be a matter of a few days (Kelly indicates that actually there was no interregnum between Leo VI and Stephen VII)
  • The interregnum of 935-936 was from the death of John XI in December 935 to the election of Leo VII in January 936
  • The interregnum of 964-965 involved an emperor exiling Benedict V in 964.  When Benedict V died in 965, John XIII was elected.  There was no room for a Pope Joan in this time.  Benedict V was the lawful pope at this time.
  • The interregnum of 972-973 was from September 962 (Pope John XII) until January 973 (Benedict VI)
  • The interregnum of 984-985 was the first one in this period which can be called "extended" lasting from August 984 (John XIV) to August 985 (John XV).  During this time, there was an antipope who had imprisoned and starved Pope John XIV to death.  The election of a new Pope could not take place until the antipope (so-called Boniface VII) died.

So as we can see, there were no periods of known gaps between popes which we cannot account for.

The Claims of when "Pope Joan" existed can not be verified

The documents from which dates are given when "Pope Joan" was supposed to have reigned, have one problem: We know the history and the Popes when she was supposed to reign.  The work The Chronicles of Popes and Emperors by Martin of Troppau (died 1297) claims that Pope Joan, as "John Anglicus" succeeded Leo IV (died 855) and reigned 2 years, 7 months, 4 days.  This would mean her reign would be approximately 855-858.

There is a problem however.  The successor to Leo IV was Benedict II, who was known to be elected on September 29th 855.  During part of his reign, he was imprisoned by the antipope Anastasius for about six months in 855.  We have historical mentioning of him in the supposed period where "Joan" was supposed to reign.  So the problem is: No space for a "Pope Joan" reigning 2 and a half years.

Another source, The Universal Chronicle of Metz, by Jean de Mailly written between 1240 and 1250, asserts "Joan reigned after Bl. Victor III (died Sept 16,1087).  There was a seven month interregnum between his death and the election of Bl. Urban II (March 12, 1088).  During that interregnum, we had the interference of antipope Clement III.  So again, we can account for the history of this time.

Other claims were for AD 915 (covered by the reign of Pope John XIV (AD 914-928)), and AD 1100 (the reign of Paschal II from 1099-1118)

So again… no room for a "Pope Joan."

The Appeals to Vague History, Irrelevant Authority and Arguments from Silence

Because the actual documents cite dates which can be disproved, one of the popular claims is that it happened sometime when there are scanty records.  The Telegraph claims she was "elected pontiff in 853, after the death of Pope Leo IV."  However, this date was when St. Leo IV was Pope, and we know St. Leo IV died on July 17, 855, while his successor Benedict III became Pope on Sept 29, 855.

The Telegraph goes on to say: "But proponents of the story point out that papal records are almost non-existent in the 10th and 11th centuries and that even male popes are barely documented."  "Barely" is a weasel word.  It means we may not know much about the Popes in these years, but we do know they existed and when.

It is also interesting to note that the Telegraph speaks of the 10th and 11th centuries, when the allegation of Pope Joan was cited as being in the 9th century by the same article.

The Telegraph claims: The Catholic Church has long argued that Pope Joan is not mentioned in any contemporary records and that the whole tale is a fantasy, cooked up by scheming Protestants.

No, that is not true.  Nor is it the Catholic teaching.  As I pointed out above, we know of records from the 13th century… which predated Protestantism by a bit over 200 years.  No, what the Church says about Protestantism and the legend of Pope Joan was that it was commonly invoked as a "proof" against the Papacy (See Patrick Madrid's article on why the claim would not disprove the papacy). 

Indeed, it was Protestant David Blondel (1590-1655) who debunked the story.

It is unfortunate that there was a lot of false accusations slung from both sides during the Reformation, but let's not add to them.  Now if only the Telegraph would remember this…

The Telegraph article goes on to say:

"Joan's absence from contemporary church records is only to be expected. The Roman clergymen of the day, appalled by the great deception visited upon them, would have gone to great lengths to bury all written reports of the embarrassing episode," argues the American writer Donna Woolfolk Cross, on whose novel, 'Pope Joan', the film is based

This would be an Argument from Silence fallacy.  Yes it could happen that records could be destroyed.  It could also be the case that said records never existed.  If one wants to claim records were destroyed, let us see the evidence for the claim.

(For the record, Donna Woolfolk Cross holds a BA in English and an MA in Literature and writing.  She is an author, not a historian.  She cannot be appealed to as an expert… that would be the fallacy of irrelevant authority.)

The Telegraph article holds an embarrassing contradiction as well.  Another 'expert' says:

"The Dark Ages really were the dark ages," said Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald and the author of 'The She-Pope: a quest for the truth behind the mystery of Pope Joan'.

"There is absolutely no certainty about who the popes of the ninth century were. We have to rely instead on medieval chronicles, written hundreds of years later."

So, which was it?  Were records burnt or merely written 300 years later?  Why can I look up every Pope on the list in the 9th century and find information on them?

(For the record, Stanford was required to resign from the Catholic Herald in 1992 on account of his collaboration with Kate Saunders on the wretched book Catholics and Sex which rejected the Church teaching on contraception.  He is a journalist, not a Historian, and has no qualifications to speak on the subject as an expert).

The Problem With the Whole Claim

We have history of the times which do account for the Popes.  We have no reports from these times that a Pope Joan actually existed.  These records of Pope Joan did not appear until the 13th century.  To give you an example of how big a difference in time this was, it would be like saying accounts first appearing in 2010 would be considered proof of events taking place in the 1600s. 

The thing about historical documents and events is we can assess them from other documents who make reference to them.  If contemporary documents mention these things we can be relatively certain that the document or event in question was known in this time.  If there is no mention, the possibilities are:

  1. People were not aware of the event or document during that time
  2. The event did not happen or the book did not exist at that time
  3. Something happened to the documents which mentioned these things

#1 could be true of people who were completely unknown or documents which were written and fell into obscurity without attracting attention.  #2 is a reasonable conclusion, though to avoid the argument from silence we generally say "there is no evidence in favor of this claim" instead of "this never happened."  #3 would require some sort of reference to some sort of event which could explain the loss.

For example, we do know of Patristic works making reference to the writings of certain saints which no longer exist.  We do know that during the reign of Diocletian (244-311), many Christian writings were destroyed, and some other destruction of writings took place in earlier persecutions.  In these cases, we know what the titles were, and occasionally we have some fragments cited quoted by other patristic writers.  However, we can't speculate with any accuracy as to what documents which we don't even know existed might have said.

This is the problem with the "Dark Age" records being "destroyed" as a defense of the Pope Joan myth.  What destruction?  What document?  What author?

In fact, to claim "the documents must have been destroyed" is nothing more than admission that there is no documentary evidence available to evaluate.  It is speculation that such documents existed, let alone what they might have said.

If we claim that a story is true, and base the claim on a purported lack of evidence against the story, the purported lack of evidence says nothing in favor of the story.  The question is, what evidence does one have to support the claim?


The Pope Joan myth argues that at some undocumented time between the 9th and 11th centuries, there was a woman Pope named Joan.  It can't produce a history, a reign or any evidence which is not refuted by known history.

In other words, there is no history in the Pope Joan story, and real history which needs to be explained away before it could be taken seriously.  So why all the interest in the story now?  Cui bono?  Like the upcoming Hypatia movie, the whole thing smells of an agenda.  The Church hates women, hates sex, hates science, hates… well fill in your own word.  It's been done to death.  At any rate, the movies are not being made to present a historical story, but to bash the Church as an enemy of a favored ideology.

The current movie project is based on a work of fiction by an author who has no background in history, using sources which are secondary to create an allegation that there was a Pope who was a woman for the purpose of arguing that the Church is wrong in its teachings (See the Madrid article referenced above as to why this doesn't work).

There's only one thing the movie lacks however: Facts.