What are we to make of the factions who are utterly convinced that the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Lætitia is about letting people in sinful situations continue, only disagreeing over whether it is a good thing (the secular media and some liberal Catholics) or a bad thing (some conservative Catholics)? I’ve read the Exhortation myself and find it entirely consistent with Catholic moral teaching, including the task of determining culpability for a specific individual struggling with sin (Pre-Vatican II works call this casuistry but nowadays the term has received a pejorative meaning of rationalizing sin).
Determining personal guilt has always been a difficult assessment, and for a person who is suspicious of Church doctrinal “corruption” or scrupulous, the task of determining culpability can seem like promoting sin. It reminds me of a joke that goes like this:
Claiming a person chose wrong and chose so out of malice is a strong accusation. We must prove the accusation is true before we look for motives why the person acted in a certain way. If we don’t give proof, then our charge is not proven and all our speculation on motive is meaningless. This is why so many news articles and blogs aggravate me. People assume wrongdoing, then make wild accusations over why wrongdoing occurred. Here are some examples from the past week.
Struggling to Pull Defeat Out of the Jaws of Victory
The Vatican released Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Lætitia, today. From what I have read so far (about halfway through), it is an excellent document which explores the meaning of marriage and family before considering the cases of people at odds with the Church teaching. The secular media is remarkably subdued, mostly keeping quiet about it. The text contradicts the predictions or accusations made about “opening doors” to changed Church teaching. Even one of the most notorious anti-Francis Catholic blogs posted a relatively subdued article about this Exhortation.
In the 1888 encyclical Officio Sanctissimo, Pope Leo XIII encouraged Catholic participation in the legal system to change unjust laws. Part of this document asserts:
 Effectively the laws give Catholics an easy way of seeking to amend the condition and order of the State and to desire and will a constitution which, if not favourable and well-intentioned towards the Church, shall at least, as justice requires, be not harshly hostile. It would be unjust to accuse or blame any one amongst us who has recourse to such means, for those means, used by the enemies of Catholicity to obtain and to extort, as it were, from rulers laws inimical to civil and religious freedom, may surely be used by Catholics in an honourable manner for the interests of religion and in defence of the property, privileges, and right divinely granted to the Catholic Church, and that ought to be respected with all honour by rulers and subjects alike.
Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), 154.
I’m struck by differing assumptions compared to the American experience of the last few years. Courts strike down laws passed to defending moral rights, The government vetoes or ignores laws they swore to uphold (without suffering repercussions for dereliction of duty). In fact, executive orders and judicial diktats deny believers the right to promote laws benefiting the common good, and target them for refusing to accept the moral changes the political and cultural elites impose on society.
From the first century AD to the present, harassment and persecution of the Church by government or cultural elites have followed a pattern:
- Accuse the Church of obstinately clinging to an unpopular teaching out of hostility and bad will.
- Attack the Church, using a false accusation as justification for unjust treatment.
- Offer to relent if the Church will cede a part of the obedience owed to God to the state.
- When the Church refuses, increase the attacks and use that refusal as “proof” of unreasonableness of the Church and justification for continued mistreatment.
Sometimes these attacks have been overt, cruel and barbaric. Sometimes they masquerade as enforcement of an ordinarily good law but is misapplied. But regardless of how it is done [*], the State using these tactics is abusing its authority and often betraying the principles it was established under. In most circumstances, the Church in a region has two choices: To endure the persecution while trying to convert the persecutor or to capitulate to the State and consent to doing evil or having evil done in her name. The goal of the state is to force the second option. The call of the Christian is to choose the first option.
I have encountered some hostility between Catholics who debate over whether to vote for a major party, third party, write in or not vote in the 2016 elections [†]. Since all of the candidates seem flawed in a major way in this election, I’m not going to attack their decision as sinful when it is obvious they are seeking to apply the Catholic teaching and their conscience [*] to what is a bad situation. But I do think some of the arguments given for voting their way are flawed and need to be rethought. Rethinking may cause some to change their minds and may cause some to develop better reasons for their positions. My hope is that my fellow Catholics will practice constant discernment of the issue between now and November so they might make the best choice as Catholics on how to vote.
The major dispute over choosing the major party vs. the third party is over who is the worse evil. Some insist there is absolutely a greater evil in the choice between the two major parties. Others claim they are both equally wrong. Those who hold there is a greater evil between the two choices point out that a third party vote is essentially a vote for the party they ordinarily oppose. Those who deny that one is worse than the other essentially say that they refuse to vote for a candidate they see as promoting evil, and since they think the two are the same, they will not vote for either one.
Christianity, believing God exists and that we must always seek to know, love and serve Him, sometimes finds itself at odds with a society which embraces values which reject what God commands. When that happens, we discover that the one unforgivable sin in society is choosing to obey God rather than men. I’m of the view that this happens because people don’t like to be told they are wrong in how they choose to live. If someone should dare to be a living witness to the fact that the values embraced by society are wrong, the society wants to silence that witness.
I believe Christianity receives this hostility because it is denouncing the idols of society. Sometimes those idols are literal, like the Roman Empire. Sometimes those idols are false ideas and values that deceive people into doing evil and calling it good. Either way, societies react badly when the Church says “I will not burn incense at your altar.” However, while some individuals may compromise, the Church herself cannot, and neither can the members who seek to be faithful to Our Lord. The Church is not called to conform to the world, but to lead it away from idolatry to the truth of God.
In 1881, in the midst of attacks of the nation-states on the Catholic Church, Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1878-1903) issued the encyclical Diuturnum on the authority of civil governments. In it, he lays down the source and the scope of that authority. Far from being an anarchistic document or demanding the establishment of a theocracy, Pope Leo XIII indicated that a legitimate government with legitimate laws has the right to be obeyed. However, that government does not have absolute authority over every aspect of life. There are paths which a government might be tempted to take but, if they make that decision, their authority vanishes. His encyclical, Diuturnum, says:
I think it is time for another edition of Quick Quips because there are a number of problematic behaviors appearing that are incompatible with our Catholic faith that Catholics seem to be in danger of adopting.
Justice Requires Us To Act Justly Even if Others Act Unjustly
In Plato’s Republic, there is a discussion about justice. One of the guests (Simonides) discusses the nature of justice when it comes to giving a person his due and describes it as “it is that which renders benefits and harms to friends and enemies.” (Republic, 332D). During the course of the discussion, Socrates demolishes this assumption, pointing out that justice is about doing right to a person, regardless of whether the person is a friend or an enemy. That shouldn’t be a surprise to the Christian. We believe our Lord told us:
There is no doubt that this election is going to be a difficult one for people who are appalled by the statements made by our major candidates. They are asking questions along the lines of “who can I vote for in a good conscience?” Unfortunately, these people are often being accused of bad faith to the point of not caring about the issues the accuser finds important. Confusing the issue is the fact that some people are supporting candidates for reasons contrary to Catholic teaching or are supporting a candidate for reasons which seem superficial and flippant. It is easy to confuse people in the first category with people in the second. Another problem is that some confuse questioning one candidate with supporting another. This results in many people feeling on the defensive over having their orthodoxy challenged while also believing that people with different views are not orthodox Catholics. It’s a vicious circle.
I think that a passage from a book written by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in 2008 is especially relevant here.
I recently discovered the writings of the “Forgotten Pope,” Pope John Paul I, who reigned for just over a month in 1978 before dying. While his body of work was very small, I find he had some insightful things to say. For example, in an audience on September 20th, 1978, he told this story of a personal experience:
Some one will say: what if I am a poor sinner? I reply to him as I replied to an unknown lady, who had confessed to me many years ago. She was discouraged because, she said, she had a stormy life morally. “May I ask you”, I said. “how old you are?”
—“Thirty-five! But you can live for another forty or fifty and do a great deal of good. So, repentant as you are, instead of thinking of the past, project yourself into the future and renew your life. with God’s help.”
John Paul I, Audiences of Pope John Paul I (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013).