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?
19 You give your mouth free rein for evil;
you yoke your tongue to deceit.
20 You sit and speak against your brother,
slandering your mother’s son.
21 When you do these things should I be silent?
Do you think that I am like you?
I accuse you, I lay out the matter before your eyes. (Psalm 50:19-21)
So I started to see some Catholic blogs publish articles that take a different slant about the Pope. Now, instead of accusing the Pope of being heterodox, this tactic takes the truth that not everything the Pope says is an authoritative teaching and uses it to attack people defending the Pope as if they argued everything authoritative. They say that it’s OK to be upset by certain comments the Pope makes, and apologists shouldn’t be defending the Pope in those circumstances.
However, that is not the problem. The problem is that some authors use controversial phrases from press conferences to imply (or state outright) that the Pope is heterodox. Some do it subtly. Others come right out and say they think the Pope is not Catholic. But either way, they argue that the Church is worse off because Pope Francis is Pope. That’s different from saying “I like St. John Paul II better.” We’re not talking about a person who prefers the style of one Pope over another. We’re talking about a person who thinks Pope Francis is a menace and needs to be opposed.
This past weekend has been a field day for Catholics who seek to undermine trust in this Pope. With some ambiguous comments made during a press conference, his detractors seem determined to discredit his orthodoxy. It’s no doubt disturbing the faith of many. When people are coming out claiming that the Pope “taught” error on contraception or accusing him of supporting open borders across the US, the Catholic seeking to offer obedience to him are feeling beset on every side.
Doing the Office of Readings as I drove to work this morning, I felt a reminder of a different story of Peter than the ones covered. This one involves Matthew 14:22-33 and Jesus walking on water
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.