Showing posts with label moral absolutes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moral absolutes. Show all posts

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Because Hell is Real: Reflections on Our Lord Establishing a Church

Last time I talked about God ultimately being in charge, so we could trust Him to protect the Church when things grew beyond our control. This time, I want to talk about the other side of that coin—the fact that God established a Church as the ordinary means of bringing His salvation to the world. Unlike Protestants and Orthodox, Catholics hold that Our Lord established His Church on the rock of St. Peter and his successors. We hold that God gave this Church under Peter, the Apostles, and their successors the authority to bind and loose. When the magisterium teaches, we are obligated to give assent—our full acceptance of that teaching.

Remember John 14:15. Loving Him is keeping His commandments. Remember Luke 10:16. Our Lord makes clear that rejecting His Church is rejecting Him. Remember Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18. What His Church binds/looses on Earth is bound/loosed in Heaven. Remember Matthew 18:17. Refusing to hear the Church is a very serious matter. Remember Matthew 7:21-23. If we do not keep His commandments, we will be barred from the Kingdom of Heaven.

I stress this because there is a temptation to separate Our Lord from Church teaching—a claim that Our Lord is merciful but the Church is focussed on “rules.” This temptation claims, “God doesn’t care about X.” It accuses the Church of Pharisaism. But what it tends to mean is, “The Church should not judge my sin.” Let’s be clear here. I’m not equating the Church with individuals who insist you do things according to their preferences, like vote for a certain candidate or you’re damned. I’m talking about the authority of the Pope, as well as the bishop and the priest who properly use their authority in communion with the Pope, to make known how we should live if we would be faithful to Christ, our Lord.

One cannot separate God from the Church, because the Church teaches with God’s authority. It is that simple. So if we dislike what the Church teaches on a subject, our issue is with God. Remember, if we accept the fact that God is in ultimate control, and that He has given the Church the authority to teach in His name, then we must accept what the Church teaches, trusting Him to protect His Church from error.

That doesn’t mean God retroactively turns falsehood into truth. It means God prevents the Church from teaching error. When the Church binds, saying a certain action is gravely sinful, then the person who knows this and freely chooses to do it, commits mortal sin. We do not appeal to God as if He were a higher court. Nor can we use the bad behavior of corrupt Churchmen or harsher methods of law enforcement in harsher times to justify disobedience. If we do, God will no doubt remind us of Matthew 23:2-3. Or as St. John Chrysostom commented on it, 

I mean, that lest any one should say, that because my teacher is bad, therefore am I become more remiss, He takes away even this pretext. So much at any rate did He establish their authority, although they were wicked men, as even after so heavy an accusation to say, “All whatsoever they command you to do, do.” For they speak not their own words, but God’s, what He appointed for laws by Moses.

 

John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 436.

When the Pope and bishops in communion with Him teach, they do not do so from their own authority, but God’s. If some members of the hierarchy behave unjustly, that does not absolve us from being faithful to the Church under the bishop of Rome. So, if we don’t like the fact that the Church teaches that abortion, contraception, divorce/remarriage, or homosexual acts are sinful, we have to remember that when we know the Church calls these things to be gravely sinful, yet we freely choose them, we sin against God, and don’t just “break a rule.”

But what about Pope Francis? But what about mercy? I answer, his stance is not contrary to the teaching about sin and Hell. His Year of Mercy presumes that we are sinners, and we are in need of forgiveness. But his Year of Mercy was not about dispensations permitting sin. They were about reminding us that now is the acceptable time of salvation, and making the Church available to bring God’s mercy to us. This meant if we would receive God’s mercy, we must repent. This isn’t a radical traditionalist screed. This is Our Lord, Himself telling us, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15).

Bishop Robert Barron points out the mistakes some make about the Holy Father:

A good deal of the confusion stems from a misinterpretation of Francis’s stress on mercy. In order to clear things up, a little theologizing is in order. It is not correct to say that God’s essential attribute is mercy. Rather, God’s essential attribute is love, since love is what obtains among the three divine persons from all eternity. Mercy is what love looks like when it turns toward the sinner. To say that mercy belongs to the very nature of God, therefore, would be to imply that sin exists within God himself, which is absurd.

Now this is important, for many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer mattered. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness. Or, to shift to one of the pope’s favorite metaphors, it is to be acutely conscious that one is wounded so severely that one requires not minor treatment but the emergency and radical attention provided in a hospital on the edge of a battlefield. Recall that when Francis was asked in a famous interview to describe himself, he responded, “a sinner.” Then he added, “who has been looked upon by the face of mercy.” That’s getting the relationship right. Remember as well that the teenage Jorge Mario Bergoglio came to a deep and life-changing relationship to Christ precisely through a particularly intense experience in the confessional. As many have indicated, Papa Francesco speaks of the devil more frequently than any of his predecessors of recent memory, and he doesn’t reduce the dark power to a vague abstraction or a harmless symbol. He understands Satan to be a real and very dangerous person.

Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 613-625). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.

Mercy is not about turning a blind eye to sin. Mercy is about sparing the person from the penalty justice demands. See, we deserve damnation for our sins. But God desires our salvation. So He sent His Son to save us. Yet, we can refuse to accept His mercy, and we do when we choose to do what God forbids. During our life on Earth, God gives us every chance to repent and accept His mercy. But if we refuse to do so, we will face His justice. When the Church teaches something is a grave sin, it’s not because she is obsessed with rules and power. it is because she is concerned for our souls, and wants to save us from the fires of Hell.

Remember that while Our Lord spoke of love and mercy, He also spoke of Hell:

13 "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. 14 How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

He’s the one who talked about casting sinners out into the darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). These are not contradictions or additions to Jesus’ message of love and mercy. They’re warnings about what happens if we reject His commandments. Neither God nor His Church are cruel or judgmental for warning about sin and Hell. They don’t make dire threats to cow us into submission. We’re warned about Hell because it is real and we can go there if we refuse to keep Our Lord’s commandments. 

What we need to remember about the difference between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) was not that the Tax Collector was a better person. It was the Tax Collector repented, while the Pharisee did not. But not all tax collectors repented—The publicani (tax collectors under contract) were recognized across the Roman Empire as a scourge because of their rapacious ways that bankrupted entire provinces to boost their profits. Likewise, not all Pharisees were unrepentant. Some became Christians, after all. 

The point is, God loves each one of us, and desires our salvation—but that call requires a response. If we demand the benefits, while refusing the call of Our Lord—Repent, and believe in the gospel—we show we do not love Him, regardless of how we profess it otherwise. Instead, we simply want cheap grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it:

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske et al., trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 44.

We should think of this when we’re inclined to accuse the Church of being in opposition to Christ. Our Lord established the Catholic Church to be His means of bringing His salvation to the whole world through the sacraments and teaching His way (cf. Matthew 28:19). It is true that as missionaries to the world, we must not be harsh. But as sinners in need of salvation, we must not demand that the Church change to suit us. If we do, we are spurning The Lord who desires to save us. If we spurn Him, and do not repent, we risk facing the reality of Hell.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Partisanship and Moral Obligation

can. 747 §1.† The Church, to which Christ the Lord has entrusted the deposit of faith so that with the assistance of the Holy Spirit it might protect the revealed truth reverently, examine it more closely, and proclaim and expound it faithfully, has the duty and innate right, independent of any human power whatsoever, to preach the gospel to all peoples, also using the means of social communication proper to it.

§2.† It belongs to the Church always and everywhere to announce moral principles, even about the social order, and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it.

 

 Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 245.

President Trump signed an executive order on blocking refugees from seven nations for a period of 120 days. Not surprisingly, this has set off a lot of political quarrels. The nations he blocked all have a Muslim majority population and Americans are concerned with refugees being brought here and performing terrorist acts. People argue over whether he has the right to do this (if I read US Code 1182 correctly, I suppose it is legal) and over the fact that other Presidents (Carter and Obama) have used the US Code to exclude certain nationalities from entering this country. Unsurprisingly, we see a case where each side justifies their own “tribe” and condemns their enemies even when it means they condemn what they once praised and vice versa.

At the same time, there is a religious debate going on over Trump’s action and whether it is moral. While the American bishops have generally condemned this action, other Catholics point to the fact that the Church recognizes the right of the state to regulate immigration policies, and the need for prudence to avoid causing real harm by overwhelming the system or letting in people with a hostile intent.

This is just one of the issues being fought. Catholics have concerns on how their nation is run, and belong to different political parties based on what they think is the best way to handle it. Since both those Catholics who favor a government action and those who oppose it point to words from the shepherds of the Church, how to we reconcile these claims?

The first thing we have to remember is, regardless of what the government can legally do, Catholics must not support an immoral action. If a government action goes against the dignity of the human person or the natural law of God’s design, then the Catholic must oppose it. For example, abortion is legal in America. But no Catholic can support it. If a President supports the use of torture, we must oppose him. If a Supreme Court ruling legalizes “same sex marriage,” we cannot accept such unions as a valid marriage.

So, Christians who are citizens of a nation must witness to the nation by living out and explaining their beliefs. We can’t just cite the convenient passages that seem to mirror our views. We must strive to know how to know, love and serve God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves. With each action we do, we have to ask whether we act out of love or out of self interest.

That means asking honestly. It’s easy to lie to ourselves and make excuses for what we wanted to do in the first place. But actually asking what Our Lord’s words mean and how the Church calls us to apply them? That’s hard. It can mean we have to set aside a comfortable ideology in order to do right. It’s hard, but it’s not an unreasonable command. If we love Our Lord, we will seek to do His will (John 14:15).

That means when the president does something we dislike, we have to ask ourselves whether we dislike it because it is morally wrong or because it goes against our political preferences. When the president does something we like, we have to ask whether we are in danger of liking something that is incompatible with our Catholic faith. In either case, we must set aside partisan preferences when they clash with the Catholic faith.

Yet, that’s what many people are not doing. Instead they’re bashing the bishops when they speak on the morality of Trump’s actions. They reduce moral concerns to political issues and get angry when the Church teaches in a certain way, as if they invented a teaching in response to Trump, rather than apply a long existing teaching to judge his actions.

When one reduces moral teaching to politics, they lose sight of the reason the Church criticizes the state. It’s not because the Pope or the bishops are left wing or right wing (they’re often accused of both). It’s because they’re concerned with the salvation of souls and warn the faithful that they must do something or must avoid another. If we write these warnings off as “partisan,” we’re ignoring danger to our salvation.

It’s not the purpose of the article to justify or condemn support of Trump. I just ask the reader to consider strongly who to listen to when the Pope and bishops say one thing, and the partisans say another.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Doing What is Right vs. Doing What We Want

The False Understanding of Conscience

The concept of conscience is often misrepresented. People think their feelings and preferences are conscience. So, if a person doesn’t see anything wrong with a behavior, he thinks he is “obeying" his conscience, when he follows his impulses. Then, when someone suggests that he is doing wrong, he gets angry and accuses the other person of pushing their beliefs on him and demands that people respect his “conscience.” Under this view of “conscience,” sociopaths and war criminals can appeal to it to justify their actions. Since society can’t survive under that way of behaving, people have turned to the government, expecting it to make laws mandating how we should behave. People who agree with what the government decrees, hail it as good. People who disagree accuse the government of violating rights.

This abuse of the term conscience is camouflage for partisan behavior. As a result, when Christians appeal to conscience in opposing those government mandates which contradict their moral obligations, people assume the Christians are trying to impose a partisan platform on others while refusing to play by the rules. They don’t understand how the Church can put their "feelings and preferences” above the “rights” to abortion, contraception and same sex “marriage.” This conflict exists because modern society does not understand what conscience is and hears the words of the Church but misses the true meaning. The Catechism describes conscience as follows:

1777 Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil.49 It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.

The True Understanding of Conscience

Far from being a feeling, conscience judges our actions as good or evil, warning us to do good and avoid evil, and judging us when we fail to live up to it. It may tell us to go against what our feelings and preferences urge us to do. Whether it is laying down one’s life in martyrdom because conscience tells us we cannot deny Our Lord, or acting against what our friends urge because we think they are wrong, conscience pushes us away from what we want in order to do what is right.

Once we understand this, what freedom of conscience requires from the state becomes clear. As Pope Leo XIII explained it in Libertas #30:

[T]hat every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands. This, indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God, which nobly maintains the dignity of man and is stronger than all violence or wrong—a liberty which the Church has always desired and held most dear.

 

Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 178.

Even if the government refuses to grant the freedom of conscience, we still have an obligation to do what is right in the eyes of God (see Acts 5:29). Many of the faithful have been martyred for making this choice. But I think we Western Christians have lost sight of this. Early saints often had a choice of denying Christ and living, or affirming belief in Him and dying for it. The faithful followed their conscience despite the heavy cost, and were faithful to God. That is something our feelings and preferences protest against.

Christians to the lionsThe price of obeying conscience can be high, but we’re called to follow it anyway . . .

But we must remember: conscience is not an infallible guide by itself. A person who never has the opportunity or the interest might believe evil things are good, or good things are evil. We must form our consciences according to truth. This goes along with our obligation to constantly seek out and follow the truth. Since we are Christians, we believe the truth centers on God. Since we’re Catholics, we believe that the Church teaches because God has given her the right and duty to teach. So Catholics, if we want to be faithful, have to look to the Church to form our conscience. If the Church condemns what we are okay with, that is a good sign that our conscience has gone wrong. In such a case we need to look to the Church to re-form our conscience and live rightly. If we choose to ignore this obligation, we choose wrong.

The Evasion of Conscience

Tragically, I have seen people argue that Church teaching violates conscience when it forbids certain acts as against Catholic belief. People accuse bishops of violating conscience when they condemn the evils one favored party endorses as a right or condemns the vicious customs of a nation. People protest that since they see other evils as worse, the bishops are coercing them into doing something they see wrong.

But the Church explicitly rejects that argument. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith wrote in 1990:

38. Finally, argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent. This is true, first of all, because conscience illumines the practical judgment about a decision to make, while here we are concerned with the truth of a doctrinal pronouncement. This is furthermore the case because while the theologian, like every believer, must follow his conscience, he is also obliged to form it. Conscience is not an independent and infallible faculty. It is an act of moral judgement regarding a responsible choice. A right conscience is one duly illumined by faith and by the objective moral law and it presupposes, as well, the uprightness of the will in the pursuit of the true good.


The right conscience of the Catholic theologian presumes not only faith in the Word of God whose riches he must explore, but also love for the Church from whom he receives his mission, and respect for her divinely assisted Magisterium. Setting up a supreme magisterium of conscience in opposition to the magisterium of the Church means adopting a principle of free examination incompatible with the economy of Revelation and its transmission in the Church and thus also with a correct understanding of theology and the role of the theologian. The propositions of faith are not the product of mere individual research and free criticism of the Word of God but constitute an ecclesial heritage. If there occur a separation from the Bishops who watch over and keep the apostolic tradition alive, it is the bond with Christ which is irreparably compromised.

 

 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (Donum Veritatis) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1990).

Since we believe that God gave His Church the right and duty to decide how to apply the timeless teachings in each generation, we cannot set up our ill-formed conscience as having more authority. Since the magisterium is the guardian of Sacred Scripture and Tradition, the bishops in union with the Pope, bind and loose in their own dioceses and we have the obligation to give our assent when they teach. (See Code of Canon Law #747-755)

If the bishop does not teach, then he is not demanding our assent and he is not violating conscience. If an individual bishop teaches error, his claims are not binding. But, in that case, the one who decides the proper interpretation of Church teaching is the present Pope and the bishops in communion with him—not the individual Catholic. Neither the radical traditionalist who scours over 16th century documents nor the modern dissenter who scours Vatican II documents can interpret Church teaching against the Church. 

As St. John Paul II pointed out when writing against the SSPX:

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, 1988.

If one is a Catholic, one can’t claim to be faithful while refusing to obey the magisterium. A Catholic badly educated in the faith might misinterpret what Church teaching means, but once the Church says “This is what we mean,” we can no longer insist on our interpretation against the shepherds who teach.

Conclusion: Obedience to the Church is not Legalism but Faith

The link of conscience and the teaching of the Church is serious business, and not a matter of legalism. Because we believe in God and believe Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church to carry out the Great Commission and teach the world in His ways (Matthew 28:18-20). We can’t say our preferences are better than the Church teachings. We believe that God bestows great graces through the Catholic Church, and with these graces, we have no excuses that a non-Catholic might have. As the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium [#14] teaches, “If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged."

If the Church were nothing more than a human institution, the demand of assent would be tyranny. But to those who believe the Catholic Church was established by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, we have faith that what she teaches in matters of faith and morals is backed by God’s authority. To rebel against those whom God gives authority is not a sign of sanctity. It’s a sign of pride.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

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

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

Introduction

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

The Common Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Qōrbān-ite Maneuver [†]

Balok puppetNo . . . not Corbomite Maneuver...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________

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

Friday, August 12, 2016

On Church Teaching, Voting, and Abortion

These are fundamental principles: No matter what the Christian does, even in the realm of temporal goods, he cannot ignore the super natural good. Rather, according to the dictates of Christian philosophy, he must order all things to the ultimate end, namely, the Highest Good. All his actions, insofar as they are morally either good or bad (that is to say, whether they agree or disagree with the natural and divine law), are subject to the judgment and judicial office of the Church. 

 

—St. Pius X, Singulari Quadam [#3]


 

Some men, indeed do not attack the truth wilfully, but work in heedless disregard of it. They act as though God had given us intellects for some purpose other than the pursuit and attainment of truth.

 

—St. John XXIII, Ad Petri Cathedram [#17]

Introduction

Are we willing to live as the Church teaches, regardless of the cost to ourselves? Or will we look at Church teaching to find loopholes that let us do as we will?

If we believe that the Catholic Church is the Church Our Lord created, then it follows that the Catholic Church teaches with His authority. So not listening to the teaching of the Church is not listening to God’s command. This is a reality which is easier to apply to somebody else than it is when we have to obey it ourselves. That’s why I think if we want to encourage people to listen to the Church in great matters, we should listen to the Church on small matters. I don’t mean that in a pharisaical sense of legalism. I mean it in the sense of practicing what we preach. If we grumble at the bishops over relatively minor matters, why should they listen when it comes to harder teachings of morality? In other words, we should live as the Church teaches, testifying that we obey her because we believe God is with her and protects her.

This would be easier if we weren’t affected by original sin. What we want and what God calls us to be are sometimes far apart. This is true in our personal life and social interactions with others. When we want something at odds with what the Church teaches, it’s easy to rationalize playing the Pharisee who uses the letter of the law to avoid the spirit that inconveniences us.

Living as the Church Teaches Means Learning What the Church Teaches

Since our Church has the right and responsibility in determining the right and wrong of our actions, we should seek to understand what she intends in her teachings, not what meaning we can wrest to our own benefit. When the Church teaches we cannot do X, we must not try to find loopholes to evade this command. That’s especially important in an election year. Politicians openly advocate things the Church calls evil. No political party is God’s party. Each fails in some way, and our task is to seek the true good and limit evil when we vote, and speak out when our elected officials choose evil.

The problem is, there are many possible ways to follow Church teaching in the temporal world and we can disagree with each other in some ways without violating Church teaching. There are also acts which violate Church teaching, but people appeal to a false sense of compassion that treats accepting the sin as if it were the same thing as forgiving the sinner. We must avoid condemning the person who obeys the Church but reaches a different plan on the best way to follow. We must also avoid treating disobedience as obedience.

On Abortion: Living as the Church Teaches in a Controversial Election Year

Take the obligation of defending life. The Church makes it clear that abortion is an unspeakable crime that kills an unborn child. No doubt some women are in dire straits and think this is their only choice. We’re called to help those women whether there are government programs or not. But whether or not there are government programs, that does not change the fact that abortion is incompatible with living as the Church teaches and we must oppose it even when we help those women in need.

Our actions in voting and in helping others must reflect the Church teaching that abortion is evil we must oppose. We may not be successful in reversing the legality in a particular four year cycle, but we have the obligation to at least try to limit it (see Evangelium Vitae #73 ¶3) and make it clear to others that, as Christians, we must oppose abortion as a moral evil. We can’t just hope a vote for a pro-abortion candidate will result in more liberal healthcare and a stronger economy so fewer will seek abortions. We must oppose unjust laws that promote it.

As I said earlier, this is easier to apply to others than to ourselves. The teaching of the Church in this area will affect some people more directly than others. If we must defend the good and oppose evil, we can’t support a pro-abortion candidate without a proportionate reason. This will be more of a hardship for a Catholic who supports that candidate or party for other reasons than it will be for one who disagrees with them. That doesn’t mean we must cast our vote for the other major party if they are loathsome to us. If one party supports intrinsic evil and our conscience will not let us support the other major party, we can choose a minor party or write-in to avoid violating what conscience forbids [†].

Living as the Church Teaches Means No Evasions

We can’t seek to evade the teaching of the Church by redefining the issue. That would be like the Pharisees declaring their property qorbon (see Mark 7:10-13) to avoid their obligation to care for their aging parents. For example, one popular tactic is to declare that neither candidate is pro-life, so we are free to choose the pro-abortion candidate on the basis of other issues. The problem is, one has to prove the assertion. We can’t just use it as a proof to justify what we want to do [§]. A Catholic may like the other unrelated policies of a pro-abortion party. A Catholic may loathe other unrelated policies of a party with a platform opposing abortion. But we have to look at the party platforms in terms of what intrinsic evils they support and how that compares to our obligation to live and witness as God commands.

As I mentioned earlier, Catholics who are faithful to the Church can prefer different ways of fulfilling her teachings without sin. Some believe that voting for government programs is part of the obligation of charity. Others believe that these policies cause more harm than help and look for other solutions. So long as neither Catholic is trying to evade their moral obligation, one Catholic does not sin by rejecting the other’s solution. So, to claim that a pro-abortion candidate is the only pro-life choice because he supports social policy that the Catholic hopes will raise the standard of living is false. Likewise, claiming the candidate who opposes abortion is not pro-life either because he opposes those social policies is false.

The reason this is false (though I have no doubt that many Catholics sincerely believe it) is it redefines the right to life to make it meaningless. If we’re talking about abortion, then the candidate’s stance on abortion is relevant. If we’re talking about social justice, then the candidate’s stance on social justice is relevant. But we can’t compare apples and oranges by comparing abortion and social justice and arguing who is lying about their position. 

Avoiding Misuse of the Term “Pro-Life”

That argument is a quagmire because the concept of being “Pro-Life” has become a slogan to support or target a candidate in relation to Church teaching. Depending on the political slant, Catholics interpret it broadly or narrowly, but always in their favor. It is more of a colloquial term. In Church documents, it does not appear before the pontificate of St. John Paul II and is usually used in Church documents to describe the defense of life from attack. To understand the term “Pro-life,” we first have to understand that the term appeared in describing the opposition to the “Culture of Death."

The Culture of Death is always described with reference to abortion and euthanasia. This ideology views some life as having less value than other life, and treating some people as less than human. The Church calls things like abortion, contraception, sterilization, population control, attacks on the structure of the family, and euthanasia part of the culture of death. One can say that the culture of death prizes the rights of the individual or small groups, or idolizes the whole nation at the expense of others.

In contrast, the Church presents the family as culture of life and the way to challenge the culture of death (see Centesimus Annus 39). This culture of life welcomes and supports life from conception to natural death. We must oppose the kind of individualism or ideology that puts the self or the nation above the family. Likewise, we must reject policies which either mandate these things or make them seem like the only choice for desperate people. So, yes, we do have to see whether a policy will leave a woman believing she has no choice but to have an abortion as part of being pro-life. If a government fails here, then we have the obligation to help them. We must be pro-life in this area even if the government is not. 

But where some Catholics go wrong is that their decision to vote for a pro-abortion candidate (for other reasons) seems to put limits on the Catholic Church emphatically condemning abortion as an unspeakable crime. They always manage to justify a vote for these candidates. What gets forgotten is a Catholic cannot support a candidate or party which defends abortion as a right unless they have a proportionate reason that outweighs the evil this party causes in supporting the culture of death. To do so simply contradicts our obligation to defend the family and all human life.

The Church on Unjust Laws

Which brings us to another obligation. The Apostles testified from the beginning that we must obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29) when men make laws that go against God. The Catechism tells us:

2242 The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men”:49 (1903; 2313; 450; 1901)

When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel.

If we know that a politician or party will abuse their authority and pass laws that violate God’s commands, do we not have the responsibility to block them from taking office by voting against them? If a political agenda is hell-bent on glorifying the culture of death and forcing our compliance (such as supporting abortion and contraception by our taxes), and we will have to refuse obedience, we need to ask why we don’t try to stop them before it gets to that point?

Conclusion

What makes the 2016 elections particularly hard is that both major candidates are loathsome in terms of supporting intrinsic evil in different ways, but one of them will be  President. That means a Catholic has to decide how to limit evil for the next four years. Since the Church has made clear that the right to life is the most fundamental right, and that things which violate that right are the worst in the eyes of God, we cannot vote in a way that gives an intrinsic evil free rein without a proportionate reason—something which is not an opinion or preference, but is opposing an objective evil that is more evil than abortion.

Each Catholic will have to decide what their conscience obliges them to do. This obligation means we must seek understanding on how Church teaching applies to voting this year. Eventually, each of us will have to give an account to God—who knows our hearts—on whether we truly sought to do His will or whether we sought to do our will.

Being a member of the laity, my writing on this blog can't compel obedience. All I can do is ask the reader to consider these moral obligations to seek the truth and follow it according to the teaching of the Church. I also ask that you, the reader, pray for this country that each of us may be open to hear God’s guidance in seeking His will.

 

________________________________

[†] We need to remember that a Catholic who votes for a minor party or write in because his conscience forbids him from voting for either major party is not voting for the other major party. In this case, the Catholic does not will the benefit to the other major party. He acts to avoid what seems to be sinful to him.

[§] That’s a logical fallacy called “Begging the Question."

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On Placing Church Teaching Above Partisan Interest

While some Catholics forget that Matthew 7:1-5 does not forbid speaking against evil, others forget that it does forbid—it forbids rash judgment in judging motives and writing people off as a lost cause. Some even go so far as forgetting both, judging people as judgmental because they speak about evil. Our Lord forbids us to make ourselves the standard for judging others. He warns us that God who judges will judge us with the same standard we use to judge others. Pharisees and hypocrites do not fare well in this system because they judge people harshly for things they do themselves. But He will deal with wrongdoing in His time, and we will answer for those people who we did not warn:

When I say to the wicked, “You wicked, you must die,” and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life. (Ezekiel 33:8–9).

That brings us to our problem. In this election year, Catholics are becoming pretty partisan in how they carry out this task. We’re focussing much more on the wrongdoing of those we disagree with, and not those we agree with. In some cases this involves Catholics who are equally faithful in keeping Church teaching but find different ways of being faithful—yet one group condemns the second group of being faithless. In other cases, Catholics only rebuke one side when there is wrongdoing by both—for example I have seen some Catholics rebuke one political faction of ignoring Church teaching, while ignoring the other side’s guilt in the same evil. They may believe both sides are wrong, but they only focus on the wrongdoing of one side and make excuses for the other.

After stating the problem, I see two common negative reactions. The first assumes I’m talking about “the other side.” The other assumes I’m talking about them and ignoring "the other side.” The results are self-righteousness and resentment respectively. But we have to look at this dispute openly. We have to ask whether we are discerning our behavior rightly and we have to ask if we are judging the behavior of others wrongly. That means we need to see if we are guilty of partisanship in how we see things.

Being partisan means prejudice in favor or opposition to a particular cause. So a partisan Catholic might point out the wrongdoing in something he opposes while ignoring it in something he approves of or in an ally of convenience. For example, condemning Candidate A for holding positions against Church teaching while not mentioning that Candidate B also holds positions against Church teaching could be partisan if the person was aware of this fact and deliberately hid it.

I want to make clear I’m not using the “he did it too” argument (tu quoque). A candidate or party that acts against God’s law does wrong. We have to make certain we’re not whitewashing one faction while smearing another. If X is wrong, we can’t condemn it when it benefits us and stay silent when it does’t. We’re supposed to promote good and oppose evil at all times, not just when it is convenient to a cause. I’ll admit it’s hard. When we recognize a candidate or party promoting evil, we want them stopped permanently if possible. If we see a tool to bring that about or if we fear a moral objection will harm their opponent, we may tolerate an unjust means to achieve it.

But that’s what we have to watch out for and avoid. Justice obliges us to give a person their due—which includes speaking truthfully. Sins against truth include rash judgment (assuming the worst in a person) and calumny (speaking falsely). So, if someone accuses a candidate about lying about his position on an issue, justice demands we prove our claim. If we assume the candidate must be lying that’s rash judgment. If we know the candidate’s not lying but we say he is, that’s calumny. So when we hear a charge like this, we have an obligation to verify it before repeating it.

I believe we have to be Catholics first and vote from our Catholic formation. We need to know what the Church teaches and why. If we don’t know, we need to find out. We can’t just decide for ourselves that “well it doesn’t bother me, so it must be OK.” But Scripture warns us “Sometimes a way seems right, but the end of it leads to death!” (Proverbs 14:12). We believe the Church is mother and teacher, and Our Lord commands us to obey her (Matthew 18:17-18, Luke 10:16). So we learn His will from her (Matthew 28:20). That means we not only keep the rules, but we follow out of the love for God and don't look for loopholes. As Vatican II taught:

[14] He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.

 

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

So we accept the special grace of God to live as He calls us, accepting His Church as a gift to guide us and form our conscience. This grace calls us away from legalism and indifferentism. It should guide us to live as He wants, not as we want. If we feel “called” to live as we want, that’s not grace.

Applying Church teaching to voting—where we make Church teaching the reality we live by—means we have to look at how our vote reflects what we believe. Our vote needs to promote good and oppose evil as best as we can manage. Since this election involves the worst choices, and one of those bad choices will be president in January 2017, we need to discern what each choice says about the importance we give Church teaching. If we vote in a way that treats a serious issue as a minor one, our witness will mislead people to think we don’t care. Unfortunately, many partisan Catholics do give that impression. We need to change our attitude in how we approach voting.

For example, let’s look at abortion. The Church teaches abortion is an unspeakable crime (Gaudium et Spes #51), and the right to life from conception is a fundamental right (see Christifideles Laici #38 and Evangelium Vitae #58). Since we’re called to make known how to follow Our Lord, our actions must show our opposition to abortion both in our private lives and in our response to laws and politicians who promote them. So, we can’t treat abortion as one issue among many. Nor can we argue this point away by saying X+Y+Z outweighs abortion.

I’m not saying that we can ignore other issues so long as we check the box on opposing abortion. That’s the first step among many moral decisions. But it is the first step, and without it, a person is not voting as a Catholic. There are other moral teachings we have to follow.

So if we have a candidate opposed to abortion but the candidate is wrong on other issues, then we have to make clear from the beginning we will oppose him on those issues, should he be elected, even if we do vote for him to limit evil.

But if we cast a vote for a pro-abortion candidate, we have a problem. We’re saying that we think some other issue is more important than abortion. So the person who witnesses our act can ask just how seriously we take Church teaching when the Church says the right to life from conception onwards is the fundamental human right. A Catholic might say “We intend to oppose him on this issue too, even if we vote for him to limit evil.” But people will ask:  Why does the Church believe differently than you on what is the fundamental human right? After all, If we believed as the Church did, we wouldn’t be voting for that person. We’d find another option like a third party vote or write in (if none of the major candidates were truly opposing abortion) to show our opposition. We would have to explain what possibly could be so evil that we would sacrifice opposing abortion to stop it? That has to be answered by the Church, not by our personal preferences—and it has to be an answer that will satisfy God.

That’s why we need to be clear on what the Church teaches and the reason for her teaching. We need to vote in a way that witnesses to our faithfulness, even if that means we vote differently than our personal and political preferences. In my opinion, the choices are so poor this time that we shouldn’t lightly jump to a choice. One candidate supports torture and unjust immigration policies and says he opposes abortion. One openly champions abortion and other intrinsic evils as a right. And if we vote for a third party (the two largest support abortion), we abdicate choosing one of the first two candidates to limit evil.

These are all negative effects associated with each choice. There is no choice free from these dilemmas. So keep that in mind, and vote as a Catholic, and not as a partisan supporting a party. If we lose sight of this principle, we’re voting to satisfy ourselves, not to serve God.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Church Authority and Political Agendas

When we profess our belief in the Catholic Church, we are professing that she is the Church Our Lord built on the rock of Peter and that she teaches on account of God’s authority, not the authority of human beings (See Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18 and Luke 10:16 for example). So when the Pope intends to teach the Church or the bishop intends to teach his diocese, we recognize that authority by giving assent. This authority goes beyond borders and social status, and guides us on how we must live to have eternal life.

On the other hand, when we look at politics, we are looking at a finite system of government that promotes the common good of the people living in a nation. The laws are good when they support moral goodness, and bad when they do not. A government can give people what they want even though it is evil, and as a result govern badly even if it is popular. Ideally, a good government should have laws that promotes virtue and opposes vice—though we do not believe law should suppress every vice (see HERE). Politics and civil government deal with temporary things. Their policies only last as long as the government does, and it is easy for nations to become corrupted over time with the shared values they profess.

When you stack the two side by side, it is clear that wise Catholics ought to put the teachings of the Church above the laws of government when the two are in conflict. That doesn’t mean disloyalty to our country. We’re called to be good citizens and promote the common good. But we’re not to put the political platforms of a government (a finite good) above the state of our souls. So when Catholic citizens vote, or when Catholic members of government create or enforce laws, they need to approach these things with our eternal end in mind. When they don’t—when they insist on supporting politicians or laws which go against God’s commands—they fail in their calling as Christians and they fail in their tasks as citizens or government officials.

We need to make a distinction here. I'm not talking about circumstances which leads a Catholic vote to limit evil in order to prevent some of harm a corrupted government causes until a time when we can reverse the evil done. I’m talking about Catholic voters and politicians who support what the Church condemns as evil, even if they claim to personally oppose it. They are not only doing harm to their souls and those of others, but they damage society as well. That’s why we must oppose things like legalizing abortion or redefining marriage so it becomes a sexual relationship instead of building the family as the basic unit of society cause this damage.

Catholic voters need to identify the politicians who support the evils that do the greatest harm to souls and to society itself and oppose them. It’s not a matter of preference like ice cream flavors. Some of these politicians may also support things we do like. It’s a matter of looking at things like a Catholic, seeing the good and the evil and using prudential judgment on how to promote the good and limit the evil.

There can be legitimate differences of opinion. When there are only good candidates, people can have different thoughts on the better one. When there are only bad candidates, people can disagree on who is the greater evil. But we have to use the moral teaching of the Church, not our political agendas, to make that judgment. That means we look to the Church under the leadership of the Pope and bishops in communion with him to guide us. We don’t pick and choose from these teachings to excuse what we were going to do anyway.

When we make decisions on how to vote, we need to ask ourselves if we are voting this way to follow Our Lord through the teaching of His Church, or whether we are voting this way to support a political agenda which is incompatible with our calling as Christians. How certain are we that Our Lord will not condemn us at the Final Judgment?

If we don’t like the answer, perhaps we should pray and study and see if we can find an answer before going ahead.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Determining Moral Acts in Politics

These are ugly times. Most Catholics know that the stakes are high in this election, but disagree on what to do about it. The problem is not that they disagree on what to do about it, but that many are savaging others for not reaching the same decision. For example, in my personal Facebook feed, I see some Catholics vehemently stating that voting for one candidate is the only way we can escape from more of the evil and harassment we received over the last eight years. Others are just as vocal in insisting this person is the worst choice. While some of my fellow Catholics are charitable in their disagreement over how to vote. Others hurl anathemas against each other, accusing each other of supporting the evils associated with the choice.

Part of the problem is the fact that all the candidates (Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Republican) who might get elected support an intrinsic evil that would disqualify them from consideration. As the USCCB teaches in their voting guide:

42. As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support. Yet if a candidate's position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.

 

 USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 2015

People can point to this list to say the other candidates don’t qualify and we can’t vote for them. The problem is, one of them is going to get elected, and we will be facing intrinsic evil. So we need to seek out what we must do when there are no good choices.

The first thing we need to do is distinguish between choosing to do evil and seeking to limit evil—a distinction some Catholics are losing sight of. Choosing to do evil means we choose to do something condemned as wrong by our Church. Limiting evil means trying to lessen the impact of an unavoidable evil. St. John Paul II gave us an example of the latter in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae:

[#73] A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations—particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation—there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

In his example, the Pope describes a lawmaker who cannot stop the evil of a law that supports abortion and points out that such a person can vote to limit the harm done by the law. This is not cooperating with evil. Unfortunately, some Catholics have lost sight of that in 2016. Determining the goodness of an act depends on three things:

  1. The action chosen
  2. The intended reason the person has for doing the action
  3. The circumstances that affect the action

Unless all three are good, we cannot call the action good. For example, if we choose a bad action, our intention cannot make the act good because the ends do not justify the means. Or if we do a good action like giving a snack to a child with a good intention, but the child has a peanut allergy and dies as a result, the end result is bad. Nine times out of ten, there might be nothing wrong with that act. But in this one case, it does matter and a serious evil resulted. The person may or may not be to blame for the circumstances depending on what they did know and what they reasonably could find out (“is it OK if I give your child peanuts?”).

In terms of voting, we have to assess the action we choose, the reason we choose to do it and whether the circumstances increases or decreases the harm done. The standard is not our relative preferences but the Church teaching on good and evil. Does our freely chosen act allow good or evil? Do we choose to do it for a good or evil end? Do the circumstances around our choice make things better or worse compared to our other choices?

This means we have to be clear on what the Church teaches about moral acts and apply them to candidates and party platforms. We have to be clear that we’re voting to defend the Catholic faith, trying to oppose evil or at least limit it if blocking it is impossible. We need to consider the consequences of our vote and stand ready to oppose the evils our candidate does support if he or she should get elected.

But we have to beware of the advice we receive. I have seen Catholics deny that we must oppose intrinsic evils passed into law or enshrined in a Supreme Court ruling. They take the words of Catholic saints out of context and argue that we can’t outlaw all sins (misusing St. Thomas Aquinas), so we don’t have to worry about politicians supporting things like the legality of abortion. But St. John Paul II called that out as garbage:

[38] The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

 

 John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

We need to remember it is the Church who interprets right and wrong. Not someone on Facebook or Twitter. The Pope and the bishops have this authority to tell us how to apply Church teaching. When someone argues a sin is not a sin, we know we cannot trust them. But when we follow the Church and do not evade what she says, we can reach different decisions in good faith. When this happens, judging these things as heresy or supporting evil is false.

If we’re not sure if a person has properly understood Church teaching, we can ask how they understand it. But if they do understand it properly, then we should remember what Archbishop Chaput offered as his opinion (which I happen to share):

One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false “right” to abortion. We sin if we support “pro-choice” candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so— that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions— as we someday will.

Finally, here’s the third question. What if Catholics face an election where both major candidates are “pro-choice”? What should they do then? Here’s the answer: They should remember that the “perfect” can easily become the enemy of the “good.”

The fact that no ideal or even normally acceptable candidate exists in an election does not absolve us from taking part in it. As Catholic citizens, we need to work for the greatest good. The purpose of cultivating a life of prayer, a relationship with Jesus Christ, and a love for the church is to grow as a Christian disciple— to become the kind of Catholic adult who can properly exercise conscience and good sense in exactly such circumstances. There isn’t one “right” answer here. Committed Catholics can make very different but equally valid choices: to vote for the major candidate who most closely fits the moral ideal, to vote for an acceptable third-party candidate who is unlikely to win, or to not vote at all. All of these choices can be legitimate. This is a matter for personal decision, not church policy.

The point we must never forget is this: We need to keep fighting for the sanctity of the human person, starting with the unborn child and extending throughout life. We abandon our vocation as Catholics if we give up; if we either drop out of political issues altogether or knuckle under to America’s growing callousness toward human dignity.

Chaput, Charles J. (2008-08-12). Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (pp. 229-231). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Our choice for president must reflect Church teaching, and not seek to explain it away. If others draw a different conclusion, but their choice also reflects Church teaching, we cannot condemn it. It is true some might distort what the Church says to justify voting wrongly. But in that case, we should remember that God will not let wrongdoing go unpunished. St. Paul’s warned the Galatians:

Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:7–9).

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Let's Talk Elections—More Specifically Let's Talk About Our Behavior in Them

I’ve said elsewhere I don’t want my blog to be a vehicle for my political opinions. I especially don’t want my blog to misrepresent my political opinions as being Catholic moral theology. While we’re forbidden certain actions, we can reach different decisions about how to best be faithful to Church teachings. We must avoid rationalizing the forbidden choices through pick-and-choose quoting Church teaching in order to justify what we were planning to do anyway. We have to apply Church teaching to every aspect of our lives, promoting good and opposing evil to the best of our ability. That includes our political preferences. When one candidate openly supports an evil condemned by the Church, we’re not supposed to support that candidate without a reason that outweighs the harm done. 

I don’t think I am violating my blog editorial policy by saying this election is particularly bleak for Catholics and other Christians seeking the right thing. In ordinary times any one of these candidates would disqualify themselves as the greater evil. This time, we’re going decide between two dismal choices. Donald Trump fails because of his violations of social justice teaching. The Democrats (at this time I can’t figure out who’s going to get the nomination though, at the time of my writing this, Hillary Clinton seems favored to win) fail because of their open support of moral evils. Some people enthusiastically support one of these candidates. Many are reluctantly choosing one on the basis of reducing the harm done to the nation. A few are championing a Third Party in general, write-in, or not voting at all. (My post on all these concerns is HERE). The problem with that movement is, while these people are clear on who they oppose, they cannot agree on who to support.

When we analyze these choices, we need to remember that the right to life takes top priority. We can’t take a number of lesser concerns and claim that, put together, they outweigh the right to life. St. John Paul II called support for these other concerns “false and illusory” (Christifideles Laici #38) without support for the right to life. But, when no credible candidate supports the right to life, we can vote to shrink the damage done by voting for the candidate we think is less extreme in their support for evil. We don’t support that candidate’s evil, and we have an obligation to oppose it. We can’t just wash our hands of it on Wednesday, November 9th and say “Not my problem."

That’s standard teaching on Catholic ethics in voting. People faithfully obeying Church teaching can reach different decisions on what their conscience will allow. The question we have to answer is, What defense will we offer at the last judgment for our vote? In other words, we will have to answer to God for our actions so we need to take our decision seriously.

What leaves me with election burnout are those Catholics who have embraced one of the choices—usually for reasons I find unconvincing—and go out of their way to condemn people who reach a different decision as being bad Catholics. Each of these factions will contrast the evils of the other choices with Church teaching, but when they compare their own choices with Catholic teaching, I find that reasoning shallow and, as a result, the accusation of being a bad Catholic for disagreeing with them to be offensive.

We all have the obligation between now and November of being open to new discoveries of truth that might impact how we need to vote. Truth is a key word here. Many throw unproven allegations—often based on what they think the words mean—across social media. We have the obligation to investigate them—NOT assume they must be true because we dislike this candidate—in light of our obligation to promote good and oppose evil. We may discover one candidate grows progressively worse than we thought, or we may discover allegations against a candidate are false. In these cases, we have to reevaluate our decision to see if it is still in keeping with Church teaching.

Certainly we can still hold opinions on the best way to vote, and we can debate each other about these opinions. That’s a good way to learn more about the consequences of our opinion and whether we still want to hold them. But we can’t commit rash judgment in doing so. Trump supporters and third party supporters (the biggest civil war I see between Catholics on social media[†]) can’t accuse each other of being bad Catholics when their consciences forbid them to vote the other way.

Dialogue is certainly welcome to help people reach the right decisions. But in doing so, we should keep in mind something said by GK Chesterton. “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.[*]” We must not condemn faithful Catholics who make a legitimate choice different from ours. Nor can we refuse considering if we somehow went wrong in our own reasoning.

If I was making a single point about what to watch out for, I’d say the danger is pride. Nobody wants to be in the wrong. Being a practicing Catholic means trying to live according God’s teaching and the teaching of His Church. So when someone says “I think that’s wrong,” anger is easy to come by. But even practicing Catholics are sinners. We don’t have the papal charism of infallibility. We can make mistakes. That’s why it’s important to constantly reevaluate our views and respond to differing views with patience and charity. If we don't, the results could be serious...

JW3

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[†] Generally speaking, I haven’t found Catholics who support Hillary Clinton and few who support Bernie Sanders because they openly support things as “rights” which the Church calls intrinsically evil (always evil regardless of intention or circumstance). I have met some third party supporters who would support Clinton or Sanders over Trump if they didn’t have a 3rd party to consider, because they believe Trump is lying about opposing abortion and/or fear Trump would cause great harm in nuclear or conventional war. “Abortion vs. World War III” is the common rhetoric used here.

[*] Chesterton said this in the context of providing reasons for why one is Catholic, and not coming across like an uninformed bigot. I think his words can apply to other disputes as well.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thoughts on Catholic Moral Teaching and Law

When people attack the Catholic Church and her teaching on morality, they point to laws in past eras that were brutal by our standards. They argue that these past laws show that the teaching that "X is a sin” caused brutal punishments. That presumes law and morality are the same, which is false. Not all sins are against the law, and sometimes law interferes with moral behavior. St. Thomas Aquinas makes this distinction:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and suchlike.

 

 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, STh., I-II q.96 a.2 resp. trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne,).

In other words, Not every sin was against the law in Christian societies. Morality distinguishes between right and wrong behavior. Morality tells what we must do or must not do regardless of what the law says. If theft is wrong, then we must not steal even if the law allows it. But while morality deals with what we must or must not do, law deals with what penalty we give when people violate morality in such a way that harms human society. Morality does not change over time, but laws can change over time.

Morality does not change from saying “X is good” to “X is wrong.” Theft was wrong a thousand years ago, is wrong today, and will be wrong a thousand years from now. Even so, law from a thousand years ago based on the morality that theft is wrong was different than the law today and the law based on that morality a thousand years from now will be different from the law today. We can and must adjust law when situations merit a gentler response, provided that gentler response is just.

For example, the use of the Death Penalty is not unjust by nature. But when society and technology advances to the point that the criminal can be safely contained without using it, then we can adjust the law so the death penalty is not easily applied. The change of the law does not mean Church teaching on the death penalty is wrong. It means we can adjust the law when the death penalty is not needed to protect the innocent from the criminal.

That’s assuming that the law is based on morality. Sometimes it comes from the vicious customs of a society. For example, slavery, lynching and segregation in the United States, Even though America began as a Christian nation, they adopted vicious customs which had been already condemned by the Church. For example, the Church condemned the reemergence of slavery in 1435—long before the Europeans encountered the New World. Despite this fact, unjust laws continued to treat blacks as property and even some Catholics in the United States owned slaves (just as how some Catholics support abortion today).

Often times, laws stayed in place from before a nation became Christian. Burning at the stake was a pagan Germanic practice. So were trials by ordeal. Catholics did not invent them. Should Christians have changed them? Yes. Do they show that some high ranking Catholics did wrong things? Yes. Do these things show that Catholics were worse than others? They absolutely do not! What they tell us is Christians can be as blind to cultural vices as everyone else.

When it comes to crafting or reforming law, we need to remember three things:

  1. We must be aware of objective right and wrong. 
  2. We must know which wrongs harm society.
  3. We must assess the proportionate penalty for doing wrongs that harm society.

The Church does these things. She teaches us what right and wrong are. She warns us of wrongs harming society. She also speaks out against laws that are unjustly harsh or lenient. Unfortunately today, just as in the past, some Catholics have not kept these things in mind and instead passed laws which fail one or more of these criteria. But what people overlook is that the Church also expands our moral knowledge. In applying it to new situations, the Church brings us to deeper understandings we did not have in past centuries.

We cannot create just laws by eliminating our Christian moral roots. We can only create them by being vigilant, studying why things are right or wrong and finding just ways of protecting society from harm.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Misreading Amoris Lætitia: When Catholics Don't Know that they Don't Know

Imagine this scenario. A doctor heading a prestigious medical association produces an official document involving health and dealing with helping people afflicted by difficult situations. In response, a group of people show up on the internet, denouncing this document, accusing him of incompetence, and claiming his article goes against all medical knowledge that preceded it. Would you accept the opinions of these people on their say so? Or would you look into their qualifications to comment on the matter before accepting their views over the head of the medical association?

What if you found out that these critics have been hostile to this doctor from the start, had no medical background, and constantly took his words out of context? What if you discovered these critics based their criticisms on the belief that they knew more about medicine than the head of this medical association? Could any sane person accept the words of these critics over the words of this doctor?

I believe we are witnessing this scenario in the Catholic Church today. A certain faction of Catholics are attacking the Holy Father (who has much more authority than the head of a medical association) on account of his efforts to explore the meaning of Christian marriage and his seeking solutions aimed at helping people who are in irregular marriages find reconciliation or, at the least, encourage them to take part in the life of the Church in ways they licitly can. This faction loves to pull out certain mined quotes from older Church documents, contrast them with Pope Francis, and argue the Pope is a heretic.

The problem with their tactic is, it displays lack of knowledge about the Church applying norms of moral theology to specific cases. The Pope is not introducing something new here. He is not calling for the change of moral norms. He is reminding pastors of the need to investigate each person or couple to see how their situations line up with the moral norms.

Catholic moral theology tells us that for a sin to be mortal, we need three things: Grave matter, full knowledge that it is sinful, and freely choosing to do it anyway. If one of those things is missing, then the sin is not mortal. That doesn’t mean there is no sin or there is no reason to change, and the Pope never claims there is no sin and does call on people to change! I think we have forgotten what a mortal sin is. If we remembered, his words would not shock us.

The Church does teach that sexual sins involve grave matter, and the Pope recognizes this. What he calls pastors to do is discover if the knowledge and will is present. If a couple in an irregular marriage was ignorant of Church teaching or their obligations, then they are not willfully choosing to do what is wrong. Yes, the wrong exists. But the Church is not a proctor only tasked with giving a pass/fail grade to couples’ marriage situations. The Church is obeying a call to go out, find the lost sheep, and bring them back to the fold. That’s not always easy [*]. But Pope Francis hasn’t just made something up. In fact, he brings up the Summa Theologica where St. Thomas Aquinas looks at the lack of knowledge in some people or cultures. I’ll quote a larger section of the article [†] he cites because I think it helps make the Holy Father’s point

The speculative reason, however, is differently situated in this matter, from the practical reason. For, since the speculative reason is busied chiefly with necessary things, which cannot be otherwise than they are, its proper conclusions, like the universal principles, contain the truth without fail. The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned: and consequently, although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects. Accordingly then in speculative matters truth is the same in all men, both as to principles and as to conclusions: although the truth is not known to all as regards the conclusions, but only as regards the principles which are called common notions. But in matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles: and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all.

 

 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).  I-II q.94 a.4 resp.

Applied to the Apostolic Exhortation, the fact that a marriage is irregular is not disputed. But defects in the knowledge of the people or culture involved may change the level of culpability, and the means of helping them may be different from other cases. Not because the Church is changing her rules, but because society has grown so ignorant of right and wrong that people enter morally wrong situations without knowing they are wrong. The result is, people who do not know this are accusing the Pope of inventing something which was, in fact, long known in the 13th century.

The whole thing is a case of Catholics not only not knowing the answer, but not knowing that they don’t know the answer. The problem is, people who do not know an answer but think they do are less wise than those who do not know and know that they do not know. Socrates put it this way:

“I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” (Apologia 21d)

 

 Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes Translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb., vol. 1 (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1966).

The person seeking the truth can find it, but only if they search for it. In this case, when we find something unfamiliar in the Pope’s words, we should strive to understand how the Pope means his words. We should not just assume that our preconceived notions as Americans match how the rest of the world thinks. We should not assume our degrees earned as laity qualifies us to match wits with the confessor trained to assess individual cases. I have personally watched pastors give insights into moral theology which went beyond what I learned to earn a Masters in the subject.

We cannot assume that our education or personal reading is adequate in any subject lets us interpret the new information we discover without study. When there are experts in a field, we should learn from them. In the case of the Catholic Church, these experts are the magisterium who decide how to best apply the timeless truths to today’s problems. Magisterium is a key word here. Yes, there are theologians, bloggers, and secular news agencies who distort Church teaching. Their false interpretations do not make the actual teachings of the Pope or bishops false. Our personal reading of Church documents from before Vatican II does not trump the magisterial authority to interpret these documents. In fact, when there is a conflict with official Church documents, we ought to assume our interpretation is wrong. Even in unofficial things like interviews and press conferences where our assent is not required, we ought to recognize the difference of language and culture can be a stumbling block.

I would sum up by saying we must not be overconfident in our own knowledge and skill in interpreting. We should know our limitations and know when we do not know something. When we learn of our ignorance, we must strive to learn from reliable teachers, not those we happen to agree with. In the case of the Catholic Church, the ultimate judges of what is in keeping with our faith are our Pope and the bishops in communion with him. Those who reject the magisterium are not qualified judges and cannot pass judgment on the magisterium.

If we do not know that, we cannot consider ourselves wise as Catholics.

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[*] For example, Priest-blogger Fr. Dwight Longenecker recently wrote an article (found HERE), giving us three pastoral cases of people in an irregular marriage. He tells us he knows the answers to these questions (I think they may be textbook cases) but does not tell us the answers. Why? Because he wants us to recognize how difficult cases can be, especially when we do not have the training to make these assessments.

[†] My translation is older and so slightly different than it appears in Amoris Lætitia ¶304, but the meaning is the same as what the Holy Father cites.