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).
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.
People who know me know that I like Aristotle’s definition of truth. It is a simple definition and it lays out parameters for understanding the reality of what is said:
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. (Metaphysics 1011b.20–39)
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).
So, when we speak, what we say either corresponds to reality or it does not. Unfortunately, society today does not seem to care for discovering what corresponds with reality. Rather many people prefer an interpretation of events that justifies themselves and puts those they agree with in a bad light. The result of this mindset is the fact that people will only listen to what makes them comfortable and seek to reject what makes them uncomfortable. But if what makes them comfortable is false, then their sources are harmful in seeking out the truth and living in accordance with it.
So, I saw on a blog the other day where the author was citing an authority for a moral issue. In this case the author was citing the SSPX and said that the SSPX was “for real about Church discipline” and he was willing to listen to them. On the other hand, the author has no respect for the teaching authority of the current Pope and the bishops. When someone called the author out of this, asking about the contradiction of the SSPX being disobedient, the author replied that the SSPX followed all pre-conciliar teachings and disciplines. To which the reply was “except obedience to the Pope.”
Now I’m not naming the blog or linking to the article in question, because the point of this article is not about condemning a person or article or website. Rather, watching this exchange, I found myself reflecting on the common epithet “Cafeteria Catholicism” and what distinguishes Cafeteria Catholicism from other people who find themselves running afoul of the Church. Are all of us Cafeteria Catholics on account of our sins? Or does the term reflect a specific mindset?
After the Paris attacks, proposals for resettling Syrian refugees have become widely debated. On one side, we see people arguing that the risk of terrorist infiltration means we cannot allow anybody into our country, and asking why Muslim countries can’t take them in. On the other side, we see people arguing that we have an obligation to help these people regardless of those risks of infiltration. Unfortunately, these debates are polarizing and tend to demonize their opponents. Those who stress security portray the other side as advocating a blind throwing open of the doors. Those who advocate helping refugees portray the other side as “being afraid of widows and three year old orphans” or being the party of Herod (no lie. I actually saw a Catholic blogger make that charge).
This is actually the Either-Or fallacy which assumes the two extremes are the only possibilities and the position which is contrary to the support view is very bad. The fallacy overlooks the possibility that there can be three or more possible actions to take and that their opponents don’t actually hold the position attributed to them (the Straw man fallacy). Some of these debates can be quite uncharitable…
Our society is bombarded by grotesque images of war, starvation and torture; it is almost immune to the most horrific scenes flashing across the media. Sometimes humour, warmth and humanity gets the point across.
With this thought in my mind, I have created a few pro-life memes which centre on the power of prayer and the love of Mary our mother for the unborn. rather than horror. Let us celebrate the miracle of life and birth.
What’s most tiresome about the attacks against the Holy Father is that they essentially make an unsubstantiated accusation of the Pope seeking to change Church teaching to embrace error. What this boils down to, however, is that the critics are claiming that they have a proper understanding of the faith while that of the Pope or, in many cases, the whole Church is in error and must be opposed. In other words, if the Pope does not behave in the way his critics want him to behave he is considered to be heretical and working to destroy the Catholic faith—though whether he does so through incompetence or malice, the critics have not come to an agreement on.
When challenged on this by defenders, these critics then misrepresent any attempt to disprove their claims as “explaining away” what was said or “claiming infallibility” for every little thing the Pope says or does. I once, not too long ago, had critics accuse me of being blind because, I always defended him and disagreed with their interpretations of the Pope’s words and actions. I find that to be rather alarming: The anti-Francis mindset has reached the point where the accusations are assumed to be true by default, and these critics refuse to consider the possibility that they misinterpreted what the Pope actually said.
There’s been some Facebook and blogging debates going on about the authority of the teaching of the Church and infallibility. Unfortunately, some of this discussion is muddled because of a confusion of two issues: The issue of obedience and the issue of infallibility. Some, in attempting to argue against obedience to the Church in an issue they dislike, try to explain away binding authority this way. They begin by pointing out that the ordinary magisterium is not formally protected from error in the same way that an ex cathedra statement is protected. They point out that technically, the rest of the Church teachings are non infallible. Now that is true. The ex cathedra statement is a special magisterial action, and it has special protections, given the level of authority they invoke.
But, then the fallacy of equivocation comes into play. Because the teachings of the ordinary magisterium are non infallible, it is argued that they are in fact “fallible,” and the word is stretched into the claim that the Pope or the bishop is teaching error and must be resisted. That is a distortion of the Church teaching. Everything that was eventually defined infallibly by the Church was previously taught by the ordinary magisterium. The infallible definition essentially made the ordinary magisterium more specific. But people were still obligated to obey the ordinary magisterial teaching before it was defined ex cathedra.
The Pope’s visit to America confirms what I long knew—the media and the politicians don’t understand the meaning of religion, treating it as one more political viewpoint. It also confirmed what I long suspected but hoped was actually false—that a large portion of American Catholics view religion in the same sense as the media and politicians. The result of this mindset is that the average person praises or laments what the Pope says or does in light of his or her political convictions and not on the basis of the Christian faith.
St. Paul wrote about this way of thinking in his letter to the Philippians:
17 Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us. 18 For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their “shame.” Their minds are occupied with earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21)