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.
When it comes to moral obligation members of the Church can suddenly become very pharisaical in the sense of setting aside God’s commandment and the teaching of His Church in favor of their own thoughts on how things should be done. We see people trotting out fragments of what Popes, Councils and Saints have said on a subject and using those fragments to justify their behavior against what the Church actually teaches. The result is that we see some people arguing that a Church teaching concerning rare circumstances like the Pauline Privilege justifies divorce and remarriage in the case of a Sacramental marriage, or that the Church teaching on Double Effect and hysterectomies and ectopic pregnancies justifies sterilization and abortion. When the Church responds to that argument with an emphatic “No,” people accuse the Church of hypocrisy, contradiction, and double standards.
Or (so people won’t think this error is only committed by people on the political “Left”), we can see people scandalized when it appears that the Church has said for the longest time that people must abstain from meat on Fridays and now they don’t, or that the Mass must be celebrated in Latin, but now it doesn’t. They accuse the Church of “changing” her teachings and falling into error.
Basically, people see the Church as “changing her teachings” in one area and either demand (or fear) that this means the Church can change her teaching in any other area.
But nowhere do we see people actually seek to understand why the Church offers X as a general teaching and then appears to say “not-X” when it comes to certain cases.
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).
The loss of loved-ones is especially difficult at the holidays for believers and non-believers alike. But what if, assisted by our faith, we re-conceptualize the way we look at missing those who have gone to God before us? What if we can turn our grief into joy?
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…
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.