With the first primaries yet to be held, I’m seeing Catholics debating the worst case scenarios and what should be the best response if certain candidates get nominated. I try not to use this blog for discussion on the merits of candidates, so I don’t plan to discuss why I favor candidate X or deplore candidate Y. That kind of approach tends to turn a discussion into a partisan debate that obscures the Catholic teaching itself. Also, since some people come to this blog to seek an explanation of what the Church holds, I don’t want to give someone the impression that my personal views on what candidate is best/worst is Church teaching.
The reason I write this is that I am seeing three views thrown around where those who promote them give the impression that their view is the only one compatible with Catholic teaching. Now it is not wrong that people who sincerely seek to follow Church teaching reach different views on what is the best (or least odious) way to vote given the candidate choices. The problem that I see is that some of these arguments seem to overlook the consequences of their decision. What I hope this article will do is to encourage people to consider the consequences of their choice in seeking to make the best decision out of those available, by pointing out some of the pitfalls of each decision that one needs to consider.
This isn’t a book review of the Pope’s new book The Name of God Is Mercy. Rather it is a reflection on some of the points that really struck home with me and the ideas they raised in me, leading me to say, “This is amazing!” Admittedly, a large portion of the book does fall under that description, so if I wanted to quote all the excerpts that impressed me, I’d probably be posting the entire text.
Let’s just say right off that many people have wronged Pope Francis. Both those who hope he will “decriminalize” their favorite sin and those who fear he will abandon Church teaching have wronged him. The reason I say this is because the book recognizes a link that the Church has long taught: To receive mercy requires us to be sorry for our sins. That is a theme running through the book. Once a person understands this basic concept, it becomes clear that the panic within the Church over the Pope’s words and actions are wildly inaccurate. He’s not looking for ways to bring people who are at odds with the Church to Communion without a need to repent. He’s looking for ways to encourage such people to get right with God through the Church. In other words, people have spent the past 3 years rejoicing or panicking over something he never intended and missed the point of what he was calling people to.
In modern times, Christianity has a problem with people who choose not to follow the people who are the appointed leaders. They believe that when the Church differs with them, the personal preference is to be heeded, not the Church. Such an attitude is understandable when we deal with Non-Catholics who do not believe that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ, or non-Christians and non-religious people denying Christianity altogether. The point of Christianity is that it professes to have revelation from God, and that people who have been entrusted with the authority of applying that revelation have their teaching backed by this revelation. So a person who does not believe Christianity possesses any such revelation, it stands to reason that they won’t follow the teachings of that Church.
However, when it comes to Christianity, which professes to believe in the God of the Old Testament and believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, this faith necessarily presupposes that God has given us realization—through the Law, the Prophets and finally through His Son. When the Christian falls afoul of the commandments in some way, the fact is he or she is behaving in a way which God has revealed to us to be counter to the way He wants us to live. Furthermore, when God has revealed that authority has been given to certain human beings to bind and to loose (Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18) for the purpose of bring the message of salvation and teaching His commandments so that people may live as He commands (Matthew 28:19-20 and Revelation 22:11), then obedience to that human authority is a part of being faithful to that revelation of God.
Regular readers of mine probably know my favorite quotation of Aristotle, his definition of truth by heart, but it’s time to cite it again:
To say that what is is not, or that what is not is, is false; but to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true; and therefore also he who says that a thing is or is not will say either what is true or what is false.
Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, Translated by Hugh Tredennick. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989).
What brings up this citation this time is my seeing a growing number of people on the internet willing to impute motives to people based on their own interpretation of the quoted words, without concern as to whether the author intends those interpretations or not. It’s an important thing to keep in mind. If we want to speak truthfully about a person, we must make sure that our interpretation of his or her words are what the author intends before we praise or criticize the author/speaker in question. If we don’t do this, then we speak falsely about the person and our criticism is either wrong or, if it’s right, it’s only right by coincidence.
There is a rhetorical question out there, derived from the military, which goes: Is this the hill you want to die on? The meaning of the question was “Is this objective worth the cost?” (i.e. is this objective worth dying over?). The question has a wider usage now, but the basic meaning is the same: Is this fight worth the effort? It’s certainly a question we need to ask ourselves, keeping in mind the ultimate goals of our life on Earth. It’s especially worth asking ourselves as we seek to understand whether a task is a part of our life as a Christian or a distraction from it.
The world is full of disputes, and the Christian has to determine whether a dispute is one about his Christian values or about one’s preferences over how they would like things to be. When it comes to the former, the Christian of course needs to take a stand for his beliefs. But if it does not concern the Christian values dieectfy or actually reflects a worldly or aesthetic concern, then the Christian needs to consider well the importance—or lack thereof—when it comes to making a dispute over it. They especially need to consider this well when they are willing to indict those who disagree with their views.
When it comes to moral obligation members of the Church can suddenly become very pharisaical in the sense of setting aside God’s commandment and the teaching of His Church in favor of their own thoughts on how things should be done. We see people trotting out fragments of what Popes, Councils and Saints have said on a subject and using those fragments to justify their behavior against what the Church actually teaches. The result is that we see some people arguing that a Church teaching concerning rare circumstances like the Pauline Privilege justifies divorce and remarriage in the case of a Sacramental marriage, or that the Church teaching on Double Effect and hysterectomies and ectopic pregnancies justifies sterilization and abortion. When the Church responds to that argument with an emphatic “No,” people accuse the Church of hypocrisy, contradiction, and double standards.
Or (so people won’t think this error is only committed by people on the political “Left”), we can see people scandalized when it appears that the Church has said for the longest time that people must abstain from meat on Fridays and now they don’t, or that the Mass must be celebrated in Latin, but now it doesn’t. They accuse the Church of “changing” her teachings and falling into error.
Basically, people see the Church as “changing her teachings” in one area and either demand (or fear) that this means the Church can change her teaching in any other area.
But nowhere do we see people actually seek to understand why the Church offers X as a general teaching and then appears to say “not-X” when it comes to certain cases.
On one of the Catholic news sites out there, I was involved in a debate with another reader about the issue of divorce and remarriage. This individual argued that the Church, in confirming that remarriage after divorce (as opposed to receiving an annulment first) is morally wrong, was ignoring the words of Our Lord concerning the parable of the lost sheep. In other words, this individual was asserting that to show mercy to the divorced and remarried, the Church had to stop teaching their actions were sinful and needed to admit them to Communion.
This kind of thinking confuses mercy with tolerating a lack of restraint, and misses the point of what mercy is. It seeks to assuage the conscience of the sinner by telling him or her that their actions are not even sins at all. The Church is accused of being merciless because she will not change herself when people demand that she stop saying things are sins. The reason she will not is because she cannot contradict God’s commands without being faithless to God. When God commands that we do X or avoid Y, the Church cannot permit us to avoid doing X or permit us to do Y. As Our Lord said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The loss of loved-ones is especially difficult at the holidays for believers and non-believers alike. But what if, assisted by our faith, we re-conceptualize the way we look at missing those who have gone to God before us? What if we can turn our grief into joy?
At times everyone fears what the truth might require…that accepting the truth might ask us to give up more than we want to give. This is especially the case when we have staked our claim on a position that is being challenged. If we follow the truth, and truth tells us that something we held important is actually not true, then we have to admit that we were in error. That is hard to do. Nobody wants to admit they were wrong—especially when they have to admit that their opponent might have been in the right all the time. That’s a hard situation to reconcile, and probably why many find it difficult to go from non-Christian to Christian, and from non-Catholic to Catholic. (Read some of the conversion stories out there and see how hard it was for some of them to come across to our Faith. Some of us who were already here as a part of the Catholic Christian faith either forget or never knew the difficulty of the conversion from error to truth and to admit that what they defended as truth was actually falsehood.
So why is it, when it comes to the Catholic faith which we profess to be the true Church, do we fear when the Church teaching challenges us? Why do Catholics get angry when the Pope speaks in a way which challenges our comfortable behaviors? When we’re reminded about teachings that challenge our political preferences? If we profess to believe in God, and that the Church binds and looses with the authority given to her by Our Lord, why do we fear to have our flawed understanding changed? Is it because we fear that the Church is falling into error? Or is it because we fear the consequences of having to admit we followed the faith incorrectly at times?
In other words, it’s a question of whether we are trusting in God or trusting in ourselves.
I’m noticing that there is a growth in a troubling trend on the internet. Some Catholics, whether on Facebook, blogs or comments on articles, have begun to elevate their rhetoric over personal preferences on policy to the point that they accuse other Catholics who question whether that policy is good or prudent of supporting evil or otherwise being a bad Catholic. I call this troubling because of the fact that the Church does allow us some leeway in determining how best to promote a Church teaching or oppose an evil.
Distinguishing Between Church Teaching and Personal Preference
Let’s clarify something first. When the teaching authority of the Church says that we must do X or must never do Y, then to refuse to do X or to choose to do Y is morally wrong. Moreover, to encourage others to disobey the Church on either issue would be causing scandal. Therefore, in our advocacy for a thing or our opposition to a thing, we absolutely cannot contradict Church teaching. If we oppose Church teaching, we do evil. That’s indisputable when it comes to our moral obligation.
But when two people agree that the Church teaching must be followed, but disagree with each other on the ways and means to sincerely and most effectively carry out the Church teaching, then it is unjust of Person 1 to accuse Person 2 of not being faithful to Church teaching. Person 2 can disagree with the prudence or philosophy of Person 1’s position without denying the truth of the Church teaching.