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…
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.
I’ve had a lot to say about the bloggers gone bad in the Radical Traditionalist sense. But I have become more aware of another bad trend in Catholic blogging—the abuse of one’s reputation as a Catholic blogger to promote a particular opinion on how to best obey Church teaching, treating other opinions on how to best obey Church teaching as if it was the sign of a cafeteria Catholic. I say that such Catholics abuse their reputation because people do look to them to explain the faith and defend it. So when they use their blog as a platform to attack people who disagree with them and treat this difference of opinion on ways and means as if the person who disagrees are actively choosing to disobey the Church, they alienate the faithful into thinking the Church has no place for them.
Making A Distinction
Now we have to make a distinction of course. When the Church teaches “We must do X,” or “We must not do Y,” then the Catholic who tries to undermine these teachings or tries to say that one may disobey the teaching of the Church are being faithless Catholics.
Before I begin, I’d like to share two passages from the First Epistle of St. Peter:
19 For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering because of consciousness of God, that is a grace. 20 But what credit is there if you are patient when beaten for doing wrong? But if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20)
14 But even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, 16 but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:14-17)
I share these two passages because they show there is a difference between being mistreated on account of doing right and being mistreated on account of behaving badly. Unfortunately, it seems some Catholic blogs fail to make this distinction.
Catholic blogging, particularly that of the apologetics type, involves people offering their insights into the Catholic faith and the Church. However, we possess no authority ourselves. The best we can do is to point to what the teaching of the Church is and encouraging people to follow it. We can explain why we think that the Church authority properly applied should lead to a certain way of acting, but we have to recognize that there certainly is a difference between others disagreeing with us and others disagreeing with The Church. The former is no sin. The latter is—but it is the task of the Church, not the blogger, to determine how to handle such behavior.
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)
With the Pope’s visit to the US, people—including Catholics—are scrutinizing his words to use them in order to justify their political positions. If the individual agrees with his words, he is a great Pope, while if they don’t, he is not. Unfortunately this mindset seeks to take the Pope’s words and cram them into a dualistic political mindset: “Either the Pope is conservative or liberal.”
On one hand, we get Nancy Pelosi’s reprehensible statement of “I actually agree with the pope on more issues than many Catholics who agree with him on one issue” where that “one issue” is abortion and St. John Paul II spoke of “Precisely in an age when the inviolable rights of the person are solemnly proclaimed and the value of life is publicly affirmed, the very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death.” [John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae #18]—a pretty big disconnect. On the other hand, we get the accusation that the Pope is a liberal-leftist-marxist-who-should-stick-to-religion-and-not-get-into-politics (whew!) whenever he speaks on a topic they dislike.