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).
It’s no secret that factions try to hijack Church teaching to either try to give their political platform credibility (if they are similar) or to discredit the Church (if they are opposed). For example, the Church teaching on caring for the poor is hijacked into either equating this teaching as a mandate to vote for a party platform or to indicate that the Church is being biased and therefore should not be heeded.
In America, both parties use both tactics, and some members of the faithful who want to promote a politcal cause will misquote Church teaching a way that makes it appear as if the Church is changing…either to praise the party or discredit the Church by accusing them of “becoming political.”
For people who get caught in it, this is nearly an airtight trap. It leads one to either think that fidelity to one political faction is fidelity to the Church, or to claim that they are being faithful to Our Lord or the earlier Church over the Church today.
One thing to always keep in mind is the extent of Papal authority. By this I mean we neither downplay an actual authoritative statement of the Pope or elevate something which is merely a private opinion of the Pope. Popes can speak about the issues of the world where they are not theologically binding and were never intended to be seen as a teaching in the first place. There are many examples of this in recent times. For example, St. John Paul II and his Crossing the Threshold of Hope, or the unfortunate kissing of the Qur’an. Or Benedict XVI and his Jesus of Nazareth, the (unfortunate) comment about the “male Prostitute with AIDS” in Light of the World and his misunderstood Regensburg Lecture. And yes, Pope Francis and his brilliant The Name of God is Mercy, and his controversial news conferences and interviews. I could go back further and discuss the laws of the old Papal States or the Vatican policies with different nations through history. Some of those laws and policies are embarrassing when viewed today. But they weren’t magisterial teaching and an error there does not make the Pope a fraud or heretic.
I say again, whether these things are properly understood or misunderstood, they are not any part of the teaching authority of the Church, and must not be used to judge a Pope’s fidelity to the Catholic faith, even if a he should commit a gaffe or carry out an unwise policy.
hem as old teachings and point out how some teachings have changed from the past. People argue that If the Church changed teaching X, she can also change her teachings on contraception or divorce/remarriage. On the other side of the coin, when it comes to actions of the Church that people wanted to remain as they were, the common tactic is to appeal to the old writings and argue that they are irreformable and attempts to make changes are heretical.
These two attitudes demonstrate the truth of the adage, “A little knowledge is dangerous.” In both cases, the proponents cite a portion of a Church document with the intent to demonstrate that the Church has changed with the purpose of undermining the authority of the Church. The only difference between the two is that one cites it with the intention to alter other teachings (claiming that the Church’s refusal to change is unjustified) while the other cites it with the intention to reject changes they dislike.
I believe both groups display a lack of understanding about the Church and how she teaches. The fact is, when the Church teaches something is to be done or not done, we need to discern the moral absolutes that the Church holds always and the elements of what the Church mandates as how to follow the Church teaching when facing certain evils of a particular time.
The thing that troubles me during this election season is seeing how many of us seem to be willing to set aside aside the obligation to discern the right and wrong of an issue. Instead our discernment involves stopping at the point where we find a justification for something we planned to do anyway or else we give only a superficial analysis and ends up overlooking things of importance that might have led us to a different conclusion. In writing this, I don’t intend to make myself the judge of how a specific individual formed their conscience. I only ask that people avoid being careless or otherwise flippant about their moral responsibilities when it comes to voting.
St. Thomas Aquinas once described the purpose of law this way:
Hence this is the first precept of law, that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided. All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II q.94 a.2 resp).
The determination of good and evil is not a moral calculus where you decide to give a certain weight to some issues and a lesser weight to other issues. That kind of thinking usually ends up going in the direction the individual tends wants it to go in the first place. That’s rationalization used as a smoke screen because we tend to weigh issues according to our preferences, and not as they stand in God’s eyes.
It seems like it is once again time for Catholics and other detractors of the Pope to bear witness through example to the old Latin saying: Parvus error in initio magnus erit in fine (Small error in beginning, large error in the end). When people begin with a faulty assumption, and use that faulty assumption as the basis of their entire argument, you wind up with an unsupported claim. That’s just logic here. If the premises are false or the structure of the argument is unsound, then the conclusion cannot be proven. If it’s true, it’s true solely by coincidence, not reasoning.
And We Should Accept Your View Because…?
With every press conference we have, we can be sure that a subset of the Catholic laity will stretch the meaning of the word “faithful” beyond recognition by condemning the Pope. Certain individuals and groups have taken it upon themselves to go over the words of the Pope, comparing their interpretation of his words with their interpretations of what the Church said in the past and making a conclusion that the Pope is a heretic. Of course the ones who are judging him are also the ones making the accusation. What’s left unasked by these people is this: Why should we accept their assessment of the Pope or prior Church teaching as correct?