Tell me if this sounds familiar…
Pope Francis has a press conference on a plane trip. The religiously illiterate media, which generally disagrees with Catholic teaching, rushes to get a scoop on something he says and gets it wrong, reporting that the Church is changing her teaching. Catholics read this religiously illiterate news report and assume it is true. They either get excited or get angry over the news. The Catholic apologists begin researching the issue and discovers the media reports are garbage, providing information to the actual translations of the transcripts. The media and the excited Catholics ignore these and continue to repeat the misrepresentation. The angry Catholics claim that the apologists are blind Pope worshippers “explaining away” the actual words of the Pope. Repeat the next time the Pope makes a trip.
When it comes to the Catholic Church in the pontificate of Pope Francis, there are two vocal factions that tend to drown out everyone else. One faction is those people who desperately want the Church to change things from saying “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” The other side is convinced the Pope is a menace out to give the first faction everything they want. Basically both factions look at Vatican II. The faction that wants to change things thinks that Vatican II didn’t change enough and needs to go further. The faction that mistrusts the Pope thinks Vatican II has gone too far and needs to be rolled back.
During every election season, we have to watch certain Catholic voters try to justify their intent to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, saying that the Church actually permits their action. So inevitably, people will march out the the words of then Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2004 memorandum on the issue of politicians and whether or not they could receive the Eucharist. The final section of this document, in brackets, addresses the issue of the Catholic that votes for the politician who supports abortion and euthanasia. The words in question are:
[N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.]
The problem is, people are giving this paragraph an interpretation without even knowing what the terms in question actually mean. Instead, they treat it as if the then cardinal meant that it was OK to do what they feel like doing. But that is not what the terminology means. There are three categories to consider:
- Material Cooperation (as opposed to formal cooperation)
- Remote Action (as opposed to direct action)
- Proportionate Reason
Before I begin, let me just say that in writing this article, I don’t intend to defend or promote any specific candidate or their position. Indeed, I hope to write something that would remain true if it was read fifty years from now. My concern is that many people who are using this argument seem to be unaware of the fact that it can be used to attack other positions as well. Thus the Catholic who uses it to attack a political view they dislike may find himself “hoisted by their own petard” when someone uses the same argument against a moral teaching of the Church. Then this person would end up looking like they support a double standard.
To avoid such problems, we need to be consistent and ethical in how we speak out or blog against something we oppose on moral grounds. If we behave inconsistently, somebody will notice and even if they don’t call us out, they will notice and assume we behave hypocritically.
One of the common attacks that happen when Catholics debate the current slate of people campaigning for nomination is an ad hominem attack. An ad hominem [literally meaning “to the person”] happens where, instead of refuting an argument, the person attacks the individual who makes the argument. There are many different ways one can attack the person who argues, but they all are guilty of the same thing—attacking the individual does not actually refute what was said, even if it succeeds in makes the person look foolish.
If running against men has wearied you,
how will you race against horses?
And if you are safe only on a level stretch,
what will you do in the jungle of the Jordan? [Jeremiah 12:5]
I sometimes think that an election year means that everybody’s IQ suddenly drops 10-20%. People start tolerating behavior in their favored candidates that they would scream in outrage if their opponents used the same tactic. Insults replace reasoned discourse and discerning the truth takes a back seat to making sure “your guy” wins. I find that I really start to feel burned out with all this going on. I feel disgusted when the candidates who stand in opposition to what I stand for attempt to attack all I hold important by grossly distorting it. I feel dismay when I see my co-religionists use the same tactics, making the faith look like a partisan affair. And I grow extremely discouraged when I see people who share my faith say that a candidate who explicitly calls good what the Church condemns being touted as the “most Catholic” candidate. Sometimes I just find myself thinking…
So the Pope made a change in the Holy Thursday rite of Washing of Feet and both Progressive and Traditionalist Catholics tend to see it as a harbinger of change in the Church. They only disagree over whether it is a good or a bad thing. I think the assumption that this signifies change to areas of doctrine is false. I think that people are forgetting a few things, and forgetting these things lead to bad conclusions.
The point I would make is that when Our Lord acts, there is a great deal of depth to His actions. It would be foolish of us to limit the meaning of His actions to only one aspect. So the Church can decide to emphasize one aspect of this depth of meaning at one time in her history and another aspect at a different time. In doing this, the Church is not contradicting the other aspects of meaning.
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.