Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Missing the Point: Church Teaching or non-Teachings?

Today I ran across a claim on the internet that the Church could change Church teachings on moral issues, because she had made changes in the past. When pressed on the question, one individual pointed to the Church changing the rules on eating meat on Friday and the “extermination” of those who refused to convert to Catholicism as proof of changed teachings. The person went so far as to claim Papal bulls sanctioned this extermination—though when pressed was unwilling or unable to name any.

That wasn’t unexpected of course. When one does not understand how the teaching of the Church works or does not know of the doctrines and history of the Church, it’s easy to believe all sorts of claims about the Church without actually looking for evidence for the claim. Thus, there’s a lot of cases going around where there is common knowledge—where the response is “everybody knows THAT,” but when one tries to find evidence for what “everybody knows,” it turns out that nobody actually knows of any...

I find that people tend to make one or more of four errors when it comes to the Catholic Church and what she teaches. These are:

  1. Confusing a discipline or other decree with the official teaching of the Church.
  2. Missing the Point about the actual Church teaching.
  3. Misunderstanding a term used in a Church document, thinking it means something more than it actually does.
  4. Wrongly believing that an abuse which is done by a Catholic is the intended teaching of the Catholic Church.

I’ll take a look at these things, and see where they go wrong.

Confusing Discipline/Decree With a Church Teaching

Church teaching is not everything a member of the Church says—even if the person speaking is a bishop or the Pope. The Teaching of the Church is what the Church formally intends to teach as being binding on all the faithful as a matter of the faith or morals of the Church. So when the Church says that same sex marriage, contraception and abortion are intrinsically (that is, always wrong regardless of motives or circumstances) evil, this is a Church teaching. This is not something that is optional, or that the changing circumstances of the times will let the Church decide to do things differently.

However, when the Church decides that members of the Church need to practice a discipline for their spiritual good—for example, Friday abstinence from meat, permitting or withholding the chalice for the laity, whether the Mass be said in Latin or the Vernacular, or even whether or not the clergy must be celibate—these things can be changed if the Church deems it to be for a greater good. So now, we can choose another Friday sacrifice instead of giving up meat. The Church has at different times decreed that the laity may or may not receive the chalice. And, if the Church truly sees a need for it, she can change the discipline of whether the Church ordains married men (as she does in the Eastern Rites) or only ordains celibate men (as she does in the Latin rite). Making a change in these matters is not a case of “the Church was wrong then but right now” (or vice versa for traditionalists). These are situations where the Church makes a decree based on certain conditions.

Missing the Point About the Church Teaching

This brings us to the next issue, which is keeping in mind what Church teaching is actually under consideration. Consider the common canard that the Church changed her teaching on “eating meat on Friday means you will go to Hell.” This is to miss the point. In this case, the Church teaching is not that eating meat on Fridays is evil. The Catholic belief is that the Church has Christ’s authority and that what the Church binds or looses on Earth will be bound or loosed in Heaven. If a person willfully rejects a discipline mandated by the Church for the good of the people that person is rejecting something bound in Heaven.

Another common accusation made about Church teaching being changed is the issue of loans. The argument is that formerly the Church forbade lending at interest, but is now OK with it. Therefore, the Church can change her other teachings. But it wasn’t interest that was the problem. It was the problem of usury (the practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest). In different economic systems during the Roman era, the Dark Ages, the Medieval period and the Enlightenment, what was an unreasonably high rate of interest was different from one period to the next. So the Catechism of the Council of Trent could condemn any interest on a loan while over 200 years later, Pope Pius VII could say some returns on investments were acceptable, but profits that were made based on harmful methods of lending were not. (I imagine the modern practice of Payday loans would meet the criteria for condemnation).

When the only means of exchange were coins and barter, and when every person was paid a fixed amount a day, then charging interest on a loan could mean extreme hardship for the person in debt. But when money could be exchanged with notes, deposited in banks and used to bring in profits, it became possible for people to pay off certain loans. In the first instance any charging of interest would be usury. In the second, some charging of interest would not be usury. So, we can see that the Church did not go from saying “usury is wrong” to “usury is OK.” She merely updated the understanding of what was and was not allowed.

But we have to avoid the fallacy of irrelevant comparisons. One cannot argue that the change in economic conditions changing what met the definition of usury means that the Church can change her teaching on sexual morality. Economic systems can change. The genders and the nature of the sexual act do not change.

Misunderstanding a Term Used In Church Teaching

So, where does the idea come that the Church permitted the extermination of people who would not convert? It comes from applying a limited meaning of a word in modern English which actually has a much broader meaning in different times. The modern meaning of exterminate is "destroy completely; eradicate.” But, when you look at the Latin word, exterminare, we find that it has a different meaning:  lesser banish, expel; dismiss. So, while some people may point to the Lateran IV Council (AD 1215) and quote the following from canon 3:

Secular authorities, whatever office they may hold, shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled by ecclesiastical censure, that as they wish to be esteemed and numbered among the faithful, so for the defense of the faith they ought publicly to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church; so that whenever anyone shall have assumed authority, whether spiritual or temporal, let him be bound to confirm this decree by oath. But if a temporal ruler, after having been requested and admonished by the Church, should neglect to cleanse his territory of this heretical foulness, let him be excommunicated by the metropolitan and the other bishops of the province. If he refuses to make satisfaction within a year, let the matter be made known to the supreme pontiff, that he may declare the ruler’s vassals absolved from their allegiance and may offer the territory to be ruled by Catholics, who on the extermination of the heretics may possess it without hindrance and preserve it in the purity of faith; the right, however, of the chief ruler is to be respected so long as he offers no obstacle in this matter and permits freedom of action. The same law is to be observed in regard to those who have no chief rulers (that is, are independent). Catholics who have girded themselves with the cross for the extermination of the heretics, shall enjoy the indulgences and privileges granted to those who go in defense of the Holy Land.


[Schroeder, H. J. (1937). Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation, and Commentary (pp. 242–243). St. Louis, MO; London: B. Herder Book Co.]

I imagine people might be shocked on reading this. Isn’t it genocide? Well, no. If you look a couple of paragraphs down, you’ll see an admonishment for the people who interact with the exterminated heretics...

If any refuse to avoid such after they have been ostracized by the Church, let them be excommunicated till they have made suitable satisfaction. Clerics shall not give the sacraments of the Church to such pestilential people, nor shall they presume to give them Christian burial, or to receive their alms or offerings; otherwise they shall be deprived of their office, to which they may not be restored without a special indult of the Apostolic See. Similarly, all regulars, on whom also this punishment may be imposed, let their privileges be nullified in that diocese in which they have presumed to perpetrate such excesses.

We can see that the heretics are not exterminated in the sense of “The Final Solution.” They’re exterminated in the sense of being ostracized. We see in other documents the calling for bishops to use the penalty of interdict to exterminate heresy. Interdict was the refusal of Mass, Sacraments and Christian Burial. In modern times, interdict is applied only to a person, but in the past, the Church did apply it to regions. The point was to bring heretics to their senses by denying them the ministry of the Church until they repented (and see 1 Corinthians 5:5 if you think this is an unbiblical behavior), showing them how serious this was.

Wrongly Believing That an Abuse is the Actual Teaching of the Church

There’s no sense in denying that some people in history who professed to be Christian did behave in a way which was wrong. Not just wrong by the 21st century standards and sensitivities. I mean things that even back then, should have been obvious to people. So the mess that was the Spanish Inquisition, the wrongdoing by some in the Crusades—these things were wrong. The problem for the accusers is the fact that the Church condemned the evils done at the time. They didn’t always speak out effectively, and they weren’t always heeded. But they spoke out.

Here’s something to think about. Consider the Catholics who present themselves as being pro-abortion. They act publicly and ignore the teaching of the Church. is their disobedience the fault of the Church? No, because the Church does have a clear teaching that is being ignored. Sure, a person may wish that the Church was more forceful in certain times, but one can’t say that the Church supported these things.

The fact is, many of the events people point to as proof of the wickedness of the Church (the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders and the cruelties of the Spanish against the Native Americans are popular accusations) were actually denounced by the Church. But, like today, there were many Catholics who chose to ignore the teaching of the Church, and like today, many got away with it. There is only so much the Church can do against the willfully defiant. That doesn’t mean the men who led the Church always did enough or responded perfectly. Sometimes they even used their office to do wrong. However, these failings were not a part of the binding teaching of the Church.

So What is a Teaching of the Church?

So, now that I have said what the teaching of the Church is not, one might ask what a teaching of the Church is. The first step is to look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church #888-892. The teaching of the Church is based in preserving the teachings of Christ as passed on through the Apostles. It is "to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” (CCC #890). When the Church intends to teach in a way which "they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals" (CCC #892) or when the Pope “when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (CCC #891).

So, many things which people point at, in an attempt to deny that the Church is protected from error, were never considered teachings of the Church in the sense she intends to be understood as teaching. Many others were not teaching what her enemies accused her of teaching.

When one wants to critique the Church, the first step is to determine whether the Church was teaching something as doctrine, and if so, what the Church intended to teach when binding the faithful. The Church can certainly make certain disciplines binding that are not teachings of the Church, but disciplines can be changed if the need requires it without contradicting Church teaching. Criticisms which fail to take into account what the Church intended to teach are doing nothing more than creating a Straw Man fallacy, condemning us for something which is either false or taken out of context.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Missing the Point of Mercy

Inigo Judgmental

I came across a new aspect to the same old outrage against the Church. In response to a special outreach of mercy, the Archbishop of Turin announced that women who had procured abortion could be reconciled with God and the Church by having excommunications lifted in a much easier way than normal (ordinarily, this is a case reserved for the bishop or a priest he designates) by granting these facilities to all priests hearing confessions during the time that the Shroud of Turin is on display.

Excommunication is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as:

1463 Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them. In danger of death any priest, even if deprived of faculties for hearing confessions, can absolve from every sin and excommunication.

It is a penalty for cases which are so serious, that the Church wants to bring to their senses the severity of the wrongdoing. The action of the archbishop prevents a backlog and encourages women who have had an abortion to get right with God by removing some of the steps that are ordinarily required.

However, this encouragement actually seems to outrage some Catholics as a sign of “being judgmental.” I’ve seen things on Facebook, for example, where people are trying to contrast Jesus and the Catholic Church, saying that Jesus is loving and doesn’t judge while the Church is acting like the pharisees. It’s rather wearying because it seems that these people have fundamentally missed the point of what mercy is and why the Church says some things are sins, and assigns certain penalties to them (like excommunication in some cases).

What they want is not easier ways to be reconciled with God—they want the Church to say that “X is no longer a sin.” It’s basically the personification of what H. Richard Niebuhr called, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

Such people misunderstand what the Church is doing through her teaching and through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sin is not an arbitrary designation by the Church that “you can’t do that!” Calling something a sin is pointing out that it is an act that goes against what God calls us to be. God’s call in both the Old and New Testament is not “do what you want to do.” It is warning them to repent because that the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 3:2). It is calling people to change their ways:

Say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return to me—oracle of the Lord of hosts—and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. Do not be like your ancestors to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Turn from your evil ways and from your wicked deeds. (Zechariah 1:3-4a)

So, when sin is committed, the person needs to repent… to turn back to God and away from what keeps them apart from Him. The term is metanoia (μετάνοια, change of mind or heart, repentance, regret). As St. John Paul II puts it:

2. When God seeks out the rebellious son who flees far from his sight, he does so with particular insistence and love. God traveled the tortuous roads of sinners through his Son, Jesus Christ, who, bursting onto history’s stage, is presented as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). Here are the first words he says in public: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 4:17). An important term appears which Jesus will repeatedly explain in words and deeds: “Repent”, in Greek metanoeite, that is, make a metanoia, a radical change of mind and heart. It is necessary to turn away from evil and to enter the kingdom of justice, love and truth which is being established.

The trilogy of parables on divine mercy collected by Luke in chapter 15 of his Gospel is the most striking depiction of how God actively seeks out and lovingly awaits his sinful creature. Through his metanoia or conversion man returns, like the prodigal son, to embrace the Father who has never forgotten or abandoned him. [Audience of Pope John Paul II. August 30, 2000. John Paul II. (2014). Audiences of Pope John Paul II (English). Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.]

So, yes—God is loving and merciful. But if a person refuses to turn back to God and reject the evil which separates him or her from God, they are in fact refusing God. If we will not make a radical repentance to God, turning away from evil, we will not be saved.

Once we can understand that sin is conflict with God, not an arbitrary rule by the Church, and once we understand that the proper response to sin is repentance and turning back to God, then the Catholic Church with her Sacrament of Reconciliation becomes a conduit of God’s mercy and not a “judgmental act.” We as Catholics profess the belief that the Church is established by Christ to carry on His mission here on Earth. That includes giving the answer to the question of what one must do to be saved (Matthew 19:17 and Acts 2:37-38). The Church is not opposing Christ when she teaches that certain behaviors which are popular today are actually sins. She is playing the role of the watchman in Ezekiel 3:17-21, where God warns:

17 Son of man, I have appointed you a sentinel for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, you shall warn them for me. 18 If I say to the wicked, You shall surely die—and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil conduct in order to save their lives—then they shall die for their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. 19 If, however, you warn the wicked and they still do not turn from their wickedness and evil conduct, they shall die for their sin, but you shall save your life. 


20 But if the just turn away from their right conduct and do evil when I place a stumbling block before them, then they shall die. Even if you warned them about their sin, they shall still die, and the just deeds that they performed will not be remembered on their behalf. I will, however, hold you responsible for their blood. 21 If, on the other hand, you warn the just to avoid sin, and they do not sin, they will surely live because of the warning, and you in turn shall save your own life. 

God desires the salvation of all. But some things do keep people away from God. The Church is called to teach the people to observe what He has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20 and John 20:21-23). The Church teaching is not “legalism” or “Pharisaism.” The Church is a guide leading one on the to God. Refusing to follow that guide and going off on a different path is not going to bring a person to God. It is going to lead to ruin that is neither the fault of God nor the Church.

It is important to remember that mercy is not a “feel free to sin without fear of judgment” card. Sin is real, and God will punish the sinners who refuse to repent at the final judgment. Mercy is in the fact that God will never turn away the repentant sinner. If we turn back to God, He will forgive us. There’s no limit to His love and His willingness to forgive—but if we refuse to be sorry and seek to make a change, then we are refusing that forgiveness.

The Church is not an obstacle to God, and is not in opposition to God’s mercy. Certainly, there can be members of the Church who look down on the sinners, and certainly the Pope wants to eliminate this mindset (see THIS for example). The Church needs to make sure there are no unnecessary demands that discourage the sinner from repenting and turning back to God. But the Church will never tell people that it is now OK to sin.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Do We Accept the Change God Gives?

Doing my morning readings, I came across an interesting thought from a priest, Fr. George Rutler. The thought was that we have a tendency to only accept the changes we want. When we encounter a change that does not meet out expectations, we tend to reject it. I think that’s a good insight. We tend to get irritated when things don’t go our way, even when we seek to be doing God’s work.

Take for example, today’s First Reading. We see a beautiful response to God’s message sent through the prophet Jonah. The people of a city who oppressed Israel heard the message and repented of the evil done. But Jonah’s response (which takes place later in the Book of Jonah) is resentment. God sent him to warn Nineveh of a coming wrath, and then doesn’t follow through. Jonah wanted change, but the change he wanted was for Nineveh to be a smoking crater in the ground. Because God did not give him that change, he was angry with God.

We see the same thing during the earthly ministry of Our Lord. The people wanted a Messiah who was going to establish Israel as a kingdom, putting down the oppressors. They also wanted to be personally recognized for their adherence to the law of Moses. But instead, Jesus reached out to sinners, encouraging them to repent and rejoicing in their change of heart. He also warned those who did adhere to the law that they needed the same change of heart that the notorious sinners had. He called on people to love and forgive those who did wrong to them.

Our Lord brought change, but it was not the change the people of Israel wanted so the people did not accept it, or even recognize it (John 1:10-11).

It’s certainly food for thought today. We might look at the Bible and think that “those poor Jews just didn’t get it, but we would never make the same mistake.” But I suspect we are continuing to make the same mistake. Whenever the Church teaches something we like, all is fine with the world. When the Church speaks against the sins we oppose, we feel vindicated. But when the Church speaks about the sins that strike close to home, suddenly the Pope is an idiot and the bishops are liberal/conservative ideologues trying to push political agendas.

We never seem to recognize that change isn’t just for the other person. Sometimes, we are the ones that need to change. We may not have flagrant opposition to the Church teachings on abortion or “same sex marriage,” that the Obamas, Clintons and Pelosis of the world have. But do we have other areas where we disagree with the teaching of the Church and call that disagreement “not important?” Do we think that only the other political party has policies that are wrong? In other words, are we willing to accept God’s changing our hearts through the teaching of the Church? Or will we only accept the teaching of the Church when we agree with it?

For example, consider the Pope’s call for finding new ways for reaching out to those who are separated from the Church, and how to bring them back in. How many have been scandalized because he did not instead denounce them and tell them they would go to hell if they didn’t toe the line? How many have been scandalized when he spoke about the dangers in certain attitudes towards capitalism instead of denouncing socialism?

Or how many people were scandalized by Vatican II and the intent to explain the teachings of the Church to a world which no longer understand them? The expressing the need to peacefully exist with those who do not share our faith while trying to evangelize? How many people look derisively at Muslims and call the Church dialogue with them “Chrislam.” Some of these people even want the Pope to call a Crusade against Islam in response to the atrocities of ISIS!

We need to recognize that sometimes the Church, with her authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18), sees a different approach as best serving the mission of Christ. For example, the case of St. Tarasius. The Patriarch of Constantinople in the 8th century AD, he was faced with a government which was nominally Christian and led by men who did not live according to the moral teaching of the Church. (sound familiar?) 

Then, as now, the people in government rejected the teaching of the Church, and tried to impose its will on the Church (this was the time of the Iconoclast heresy). Nowadays, the issues are abortion, same sex “marriage” and the contraception mandate. Back then, it involved a case of the emperor (Constantine VI) wanting sanction to divorce and remarriage—namely divorce his own wife and marry his mistress. St. Tarasius refused to be a part of it:

St. Tarasius answered the messenger, saying: “I know not how the emperor can bear the infamy of so scandalous an action in the sight of the universe: nor how he will be able to hinder or punish adulteries and debaucheries, if he himself set such an example. Tell him that I will rather suffer death and all manner of torments than consent to his design.” The emperor hoping to prevail with him by flattery, sent for him to the palace, and said to him: “I can conceal nothing from you, whom I regard as my father. No one can deny but I may divorce one who has attempted my life. She deserves death or perpetual penance.” He then produced a vessel, as he pretended, full of the poison prepared for him. The patriarch, with good reason, judging the whole to be only an artful contrivance to impose upon him, answered: that he was too well convinced that his passion for Theodota was at the bottom of all his complaints against the empress. He added, that, though she were guilty of the crime he laid to her charge, his second marriage during her life, with any other, would still be contrary to the law of God, and that he would draw upon himself the censures of the church by attempting it.


[Butler, A. (1903). The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints (Vol. 1, p. 466). New York: P. J. Kenedy.]

When the emperor did divorce and remarry, causing scandal and encouraging others in government to follow his example, St. Tarasius did not excommunicate him, despite the urging of some. As Butler’s account tells us:

But Tarasius did not think it prudent to proceed to excommunication, as he had threatened, apprehensive that the violence of his temper, when further provoked, might carry him still greater lengths, and prompt him to re-establish the heresy [Iconoclasm] which he had taken such effectual measures to suppress. Thus the patriarch, by his moderation, prevented the ruin of religion, but drew upon himself the emperor’s resentment, who persecuted him many ways during the remainder of his reign. Not content to set spies and guards over him under the name of Syncelli, who watched all his actions, and suffered no one to speak to him without their leave, he banished many of his domestics and relations.

How many of us would write him off today as a heretic and a sympathizer with those who wanted to change Church teaching? (Some secular accounts portray him as being silent because he condoned the behavior of Constantine VI—again, sound familiar?) Sometimes the change we want is not prudent and the bishops entrusted to guiding the Church have to make a decision which is unpopular to us.

I think that ultimately this brings us to the considering of Christian obligation. By Our Lord’s own command, we are to seek out and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). He didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17). This may be hard for us to accept when we wanted a different change than the one God gave us (see Jonah 4:1-3). Thus we have a choice. We can follow Christ’s teaching and His Church's, even when it takes us in a direction we don’t want to go, or we can act like Jonah and the Pharisees, refusing to accept what we do not want.

But if we do reject the Church making decisions which best fit teaching to this present generation, we may find we are rejecting God (see Acts 5:39).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

TFTD: Teaching a Falsehood

Introduction: An Example of False Teaching and Its Refutation by Fact

I came across this in a work by Presbyterian theologian and known critic of the Catholic Church, RC Sproul. In discussing the meaning of “The Lord’s Supper,” he tries to represent the Catholic position as follows:

There was also another point that was a matter of controversy in the Lord’s Supper. This had to do with the church’s understanding of what actually happens in the drama of the Mass. After the consecration takes place, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that what happens in the Mass is the repetition of the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. Now, the church makes it clear that this repetition of the sacrifice is done in a non-bloody way; nevertheless, they insist that the sacrifice is a real sacrifice. So even though it’s a non-bloody offering, Christ is truly and really sacrificed afresh every time the Mass is offered. The Reformers found that to be blasphemous, as it was a complete rejection of what the book of Hebrews tells us, namely, that Christ offered Himself once and for all (Heb. 10:10). The sufficiency and the perfection of the atonement that Christ made on Calvary was so thorough that to repeat it would be to denigrate the supreme value of the once-for-all atonement that had been made there.


[Sproul, R. C. (2013). What Is the Lord’s Supper? (First edition., p. 57). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.]

However, when one actually bothers to look up what the Church teaches about the Eucharist, the Catechism of the Catholic Church effectively contradicts the claims of Sproul:

1366 The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit: (613)

[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper “on the night when he was betrayed,” [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.


1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner … this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.” (1545)

In other words, what RC Sproul claims we believe is false. We Catholics deny that the Mass is a repetition of the Sacrifice at Calvary. We instead believe that the Sacrifice of Christ at Mass is made present on the altar. And lest anybody think this is a recent change to Church teaching, let’s go back to the teaching of the Council of Trent:

940 [DS 1743] And since in this divine sacrifice, which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who on the altar of the Cross “once offered Himself” in a bloody manner [Heb. 9:27], the holy Synod teaches that this is truly propitiatory [can. 3], and has this effect, that if contrite and penitent We approach God with a sincere heart and right faith, with fear and reverence, “we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid” [Heb. 4:16]. For, appeased by this oblation, the Lord, granting the grace and gift of penitence, pardons crimes and even great sins. For, it is one and the same Victim, the same one now offering by the ministry of the priests as He who then offered Himself on the Cross, the manner of offering alone being different. The fruits of that oblation (bloody, that is) are received most abundantly through this un-bloody one; so far is the latter from being derogatory in any way to Him [can. 4]. Therefore, it is offered rightly according to the tradition of the apostles [can. 3], not only for the sins of the faithful living, for their punishments and other necessities, but also for the dead in Christ not yet fully purged.

[Denzinger, H., & Rahner, K. (Eds.). (1954). The Sources of Catholic dogma. (R. J. Deferrari, Trans.) (pp. 289–290). St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co.]

So, we can see here that even at the time that the Protestants were objecting to our “re-sacrificing” Jesus, we were saying it was not a re-sacrifice. We are celebrating the sacrifice of Our Lord which is made present on the altar in a non-bloody manner. In other words, what happens in the Mass is The Sacrifice, not another sacrifice.

The Danger of Teaching Falsehood—Accidentally or Deliberately

So, remembering that Aristotle identified truth as, “saying of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not,” we can see that Sproul did not say of what is that it is. So Sproul did not teach the truth. Whether he spoke sincerely or not, what he said was a falsehood. So it is clear that when it comes to speaking about the Catholic Church, Sproul is not a reliable witness. It leaves us with the question of his motive. Was he ignorant and sincere? Or did he know what we believe and pass this teaching on anyway in spite of his knowledge? Logically, we can say, either he knew or did not know that his words were false.

Either way, his actions are wrong in the eyes of God (Proverbs 19:9 for example). If he did not know that his actions were false, he certainly had the obligation to be certain he was speaking the truth before passing on somebody else’s false witness or rash judgment. If he did know he was speaking falsehood, then he violated the commandment against bearing false witness, which is an abomination (Proverbs 12:22).

God alone will judge him. I do not know whether he honestly believes what he wrote or not. Personally, I think he just passed on what he was told without ever questioning whether or not it was accurate. But consider the fallout of this decision. How many people has he led astray by saying these things? He is known for his books and recordings and videos. Every person he teaches wrongly will continue the teaching of error. At the very least that person wrongly taught will believe a falsehood about the Catholic Church which interferes with his or her ability to learn the truth. At the worst, this person will continue to pass this falsehood on as if it were true, infecting even more people.

Applying The Lesson

I did not write this article in order to bash Sproul or condemn him—in fact I pray for Him. I wrote of this offensive example to show that when we speak or write falsely—whether by failing to assess whether it is true or with full knowledge of the falseness—we do harm to others. This applies to Protestants maligning Catholics. It applies to Catholics maligning the Pope. Whether done by one sincere in their error or by someone who knows it is false, such statements block people from finding the truth, especially truths that lead us to how God wants us to live.

That’s why we must refute the falsehoods spoken.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections on Persecution


The word persecution tends to be misused today. Either people try to limit its use to the great atrocities of world history (such as the Holocaust or the Ethnic Cleansing), or use it as an epithet when a person happens to oppose their position (such as the rhetoric used by proponents of “same sex marriage”). Both would be misuses because:

  1. Persecution is not limited to genocide
  2. Persecution is not mere opposition.

Why These Two Cases Misapply the Word Persecution

The first case is a misuse because this confuses what a persecution is (definition) with the level of injustice directed at a person because of his or her religion, ethnicity or political outlook. When this confusion is made, it basically says, “You’re not being persecuted because what you’re going through is not severe enough to count.” Yes, genocide of people of a religion or race is a persecution, but there can be less drastic forms intending to cause harm to a person which are persecution, but fall short of mass murder.

The second case is a misuse because this confuses mere opposition to a person’s views or behavior with maltreating them on account of those who hold them. For example, when I meet an atheist who is virulently anti-Catholic, I may think he’s a bigot or an idiot if he’s obnoxious enough about it. But I don’t assume he is persecuting me simply on the grounds that he thinks my views or actions are wrong. It’s only if he goes from opposition to seeking to mistreat me on account of my beliefs that opposition can become persecution. When being opposed by someone who thinks your ideas are wrong and seeks to pass laws which support what they think is right, that’s not persecution. But when someone seeks to use the law to target someone who holds certain beliefs with the aim of punishing them for holding those beliefs and living in accordance with them, that is persecution.

So, the state not recognizing “same sex marriage” is not a persecution of people with same sex attraction. Nor is outlawing abortion a persecution of women. Such laws do not seek to punish people for having same sex attraction or being a woman They face no legal maltreatment for being a person with same sex attraction or being a woman. However, a judge who rules that it is illegal for a person who refuses to provide services on the grounds that he or she believes that to do so is to cooperate with moral evil is persecuting the person. He or she can either abandon their moral convictions or face repercussions.

The Issues of Religious Persecution

St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor points out what this conflict ends up being about. It is about the obligation to do what is right in the face of coercion to do what is wrong. When we are called to do what is right before God, we see it as better to suffer evil at the hands of our persecutors than to do evil ourselves:

91. In the Old Testament we already find admirable witnesses of fidelity to the holy law of God even to the point of a voluntary acceptance of death. A prime example is the story of Susanna: in reply to the two unjust judges who threatened to have her condemned to death if she refused to yield to their sinful passion, she says: “I am hemmed in on every side. For if I do this thing, it is death for me; and if I do not, I shall not escape your hands. I choose not to do it and to fall into your hands, rather than to sin in the sight of the Lord!” (Dan 13:22–23). Susanna, preferring to “fall innocent” into the hands of the judges, bears witness not only to her faith and trust in God but also to her obedience to the truth and to the absoluteness of the moral order. By her readiness to die a martyr, she proclaims that it is not right to do what God’s law qualifies as evil in order to draw some good from it. Susanna chose for herself the “better part”: hers was a perfectly clear witness, without any compromise, to the truth about the good and to the God of Israel. By her acts, she revealed the holiness of God.

The same applies to us. When threatened by punishment or death if we do not choose to do evil, we must choose to obey God. This has been an example throughout history. Our martyrs witness to the proper response to persecution Take for example, the account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp (AD 69–155):

And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”


[Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 41). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.]

Susanna could have sought to save her life from the corrupt judges by yielding to them. St. Polycarp could have saved his life by denying Christ. Christians today can avoid suffering, whether physical or otherwise, by compromising their beliefs. By participating in a sin, they could save their lives or their businesses. But they chose to do what was right and obey Christ.

Most of us will not have to suffer martyrdom for our faith (though it may happen—ten years ago, I never thought America would be where she is today). But we may have to endure lesser suffering if we would be faithful to God. As St. John Paul II told us in Veritatis Splendor #93:

Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice. Indeed, faced with the many difficulties which fidelity to the moral order can demand, even in the most ordinary circumstances, the Christian is called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic commitment. In this he or she is sustained by the virtue of fortitude, whereby—as Gregory the Great teaches—one can actually “love the difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards”.

So we do have the right to defend ourselves from unjust laws, seeking to overturn them and to show our persecutors why we must do as we do, and try to convince them of the truth of what we say. But when it comes to the choice between serving God, or serving ourselves, we must serve God and avoid evil.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bellwether of Persecution

I thought this was america

bellwether |ˈbelˌweT͟Hərnounthe leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck.• an indicator or predictor of something: college campuses are often the bellwether of change

I remember my youth in school and what was taught to us about America. How we were a free country and that the government couldn’t do, or force us to do, bad things. We were told how people came to America to escape places that treated them unjustly. As I grew older, I realized that this was a “rose colored glasses” view of things. That our country could and did wrong over the past 200 years. But throughout my transition from growth to adulthood, it was still recognized that the Declaration of Independence was still meaningful when it said:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

We were told that the Bill of Rights were essential rights to all people and that our Founding Fathers were determined to protect the people from the abuses from a government, acknowledging that there were certain things that the government had no right to do.

Right now, America has a system where laws which were based on this understanding are subject to being reviewed by courts that are free to throw out those laws which the judges happen to disagree with. The term used is “finding the law unconstitutional,” but too often, this is a code word for an arbitrary decision that reflects the political views of the judges without concern with actual concern for justice or law. This is the case when a few judges have ruled that the understanding of marriage as being between one man and one woman is “unconstitutional.” Based on these rulings, people with religious beliefs that forbid them from participating in what they think is morally wrong can be forced to choose between their business and their beliefs—something the government had previously been seen as having no right to do.

Take a recent case of a Washington florist. The judge ruled that the florist’s religious beliefs, which forbade her from providing flowers to a same sex “wedding,” was illegal from the time that Washington legalized it. Think I’m using unreasonable rhetoric? Think again. Look at what the judge (Alexander C. Ekstrom) said:

"Stutzman is not a minister, nor is Arlene’s Flowers a religious organization when they sell flowers to the general public,” Ekstrom wrote. “Stutzman cannot comply with both the law and her faith if she continues to provide flowers for weddings as part of her duly licensed business.”

The judge has baldly stated what we have been warning of for years—that a person with religious convictions can be forced to choose between business and faith (Stultzman has decided to stop doing any weddings).  Basically, what we have is this: if a law is passed defending our religious freedoms, it is ruled as unconstitutional. When a law is passed which infringes on our religious liberties, it is seen as acceptable and those who invoke their first amendment freedoms are told that it doesn’t apply—the courts continually reducing who has religious freedom to the point that a church itself can (thus far) be protected from government interference, but the institutions that church runs or the individual practitioner is not.

Decisions like this make much more chilling a recent event where lawmakers urged Archbishop Cordileone to change his policy insisting that teachers in Catholic institutions actually act—Catholic. With legal precedence like this, we can expect the judges to be more likely to side with the laws infringing on our religious freedoms. 

While such things are more benign than in other countries and other times in how they try to coerce compliance with religious beliefs they oppose, these rulings are in the same spirit as the persecutions of the past. Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints describes for us the case of St. Sadoth:

The second year of the persecution, king Sapor coming to Seleucia, Sadoth was apprehended, with several of his clergy, some ecclesiastics of the neighborhood, and certain monks and nuns belonging to his church, to the amount of one hundred and twenty-eight persons. They were thrown into dungeons, where, during five months’ confinement, they suffered incredible misery and torments. They were thrice called out, and put to the rack or question; their legs were straight bound with cords, which were drawn with so much violence, that their bones breaking, were heard to crack like sticks in a fagot. Amidst these tortures the officers cried out to them: “Adore the sun, and obey the king, if you would save your lives.” Sadoth answered in the name of all, that the sun was but a creature, the work of God, made for the use of mankind; that they would pay supreme adoration to none but the Creator of heaven and earth, and never be unfaithful to him; that it was indeed in their power to take away their lives, but that this would be the greatest favor they could do them; wherefore he conjured them not to spare them, or delay their execution. The officers said: “Obey! or know that your death is certain, and immediate.” The martyrs all cried out with one voice: “We shall not die, but live and reign eternally with God and his Son Jesus Christ. Wherefore inflict death as soon as you please; for we repeat it to you that we will not adore the sun, nor obey the unjust edicts.”

Whether the governments would have us worship the sun, burn incense to the emperor or give our acceptance of “same sex marriage,” we must not obey what is unjust or forces us to go against what God commands. It may only cause us overt persecution or it may cause us hardship, perhaps legal action, but we need to be prepared for being called on to make the choice—for God, or against God. It might not happen to you or personally, but Our Lord did warn us that we must accept this:

The World’s Hatred. 18 If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. 20 Remember the word I spoke to you, ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 And they will do all these things to you on account of my name,* because they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin; but as it is they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me also hates my Father. 24 If I had not done works among them that no one else ever did, they would not have sin; but as it is, they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But in order that the word written in their law might be fulfilled, ‘They hated me without cause.’ (John 15:18-25)

And so, we must prepare for darker times, which continue to come faster than I expect. We must prepare to continue to carry out our mission. As Cardinal George said, "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” None of us want to die in prison, let alone the public square for the faith. But if it does happen by death or by lawsuit or by imprisonment, we must respond in love, blessing and praying for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44) and seeking to convert them. This is true, whether persecution comes from unjust judges interpreting unjust laws or whether it comes at the hands of fanatics like ISIS.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Reflections on Dark Church History

I’ve been reading The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen (I figured it would be good to root out any triumphalism in me to read it during Lent, but I started early). It’s a book that came highly recommended as being as unbiased, and not taking part in the Church bashing. But it still shows a grim picture of an ugly time. Ugly times, where ugly things were done—and some of them in the name of religion. These are things that can’t be justified. But we can try to understand how they happened then—changing what needs to be changed on one hand while avoiding any post hoc arguments that claim that Catholic belief in itself caused the actions that were wrong.


President Obama managed to offend most of Christianity when he equated the actions of ISIS today with the actions of Christianity over 500 years ago—treating the abuses as if they were main purposes of the actions. Christians were right to be offended by this overly broad statement. However, one thing I have noticed about the response to Obama’s words is that some of my fellow Catholics seem to go in the opposite extreme. Instead of saying that the abuses were the norm, some of my fellow Catholics try to deny or downplay the fact that these abuses did exist. Such behavior is, of course, scandalous when it comes to our witness to non-Catholics. It looks like we’re belittling the suffering that was caused or behaving like the modern Holocaust deniers. 

I don’t write this in a sense of “You Catholic bloggers need to be more like me.” God knows I have been in the same boat at times, looking for excuses that exonerates Catholics. It’s one of the things where belief in the Mark of the Church as Holy is mistakenly understood as meaning that the members of the Church were impeccable (without sin). But that’s a battle we don’t have to fight. The Church is holy because of Christ, not because a certain percentage of her followers are saints, and if she falls below that quota, she will cease to be holy. This is shown in The Prayers of Forgiveness that St. John Paul II offered on May 12, 2000. It’s humbling to read, and sometimes it’s easy to say, “But what about—?"

I think another reason for defensiveness is that we fear that if something wrong was done by leaders of the Church, it will be a refutation of the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error. But I think this fear is misplaced. Not all magisterial decrees are taught as infallible doctrine, and some decrees (such as laws governing the Papal States prior to 1878) do not fall under such teaching at all. Christ’s promises about the Gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church weren’t aimed at the temporal governing of a territory or a political action, even if done from a religious motive. The Popes of the time had the authority to do these things, but we don’t have to treat them as doctrine. So we don’t have to try to defend the Jewish ghettoes in Europe or the like. Admitting these were wrong is not a denial of the Church’s holiness or infallibility.

With that said, I think we need to remember that to have a good act, we need three things:

  1. The act itself must be good.
  2. The motive for doing the act must be good.
  3. The circumstances surrounding the act must be good.

If one or more of these things is missing, the act is not good—even if the intention was to do good.

In addition, even if the Church decree for something was good in itself—meeting these three conditions—it doesn’t mean it will be executed well (no pun intended). Yes, the Crusades were intended as a defensive action. Yes, the inquisitions were intended to find out subversive actions done to undermine the faith, but that doesn’t mean that the people who took part in them were all saints and that all the actions done were right or done for the right reasons. People, being sinners, can corrupt anything. It is tragic that members of the Church were quick to cooperate with (and sometimes encourage) the state in things where they should have been the ones saying “slow down."

So let’s not try to deny the anti-semitism in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition or the evil actions done in the Crusades. Let’s not deny that the Summa Theologica has some cringeworthy ideas (like the treatment of heretics in Summa Theologica II-II q.10 a.8 resp.)

Of course at the same time, let’s not look at the evils done and say that the Church needs to abandon her teachings. Yes, evils were done in the name of the Church—and some of them by people highly placed in the Church. But people who act out of hatred or greed or other vices and exploit the Church in doing so are not a sign that the Church teaching “X is wrong,” is the cause for Christians mistreating people solely because they are part of group X. There are some misguided Catholics out there who point to the Crusades as if they are a good idea for today in response to ISIS. But the Catholic teaching that the existence of Christ’s Church "subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (Lumen Gentium 8), is not the cause of certain Catholics behaving in a bigoted manner towards non-Catholics, just like believing marriage can only be between one man and one woman is not the cause of mistreating people with same sex attraction.

And let’s also get rid of the idea that the people in Europe from the 12th-17th centuries could and should have thought like 21st century Americans. What we have in society today is based on the development of Christian thought and the stabilization of society. The idea of a pluralistic society (as opposed to an empire with subjected peoples) did not exist yet. It was developed during this time. Political society evolved from the decrees of the ruler to being a more constitutional view of how to treat people—a view formed by Christian ethics.

I think Pope emeritus Benedict XVI had a good point which can be derived from when he was writing about “dark passages” in the Bible and how to understand them:

God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. (Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini 42)

Even now, with the fullness of revelation in Christ being given us [that is—no further divine revelation], humanity can come up with new ways to be barbaric and cruel, and, in response, the Church needs to determine what is the best way to apply what we believe to these situations (for example, nuclear weapons required us to consider new aspects in the concept of “just war”). For example, the Church did not have much to say on slavery before it reemerged in the 15th century, because it was largely dying away in Christian Europe. But when the Azores were conquered, and slaves were taken, the Pope at the time (Eugene IV) certainly had something to say on the matter in the Papal Bulls Creator Omnium and Sicut Dudem. Sometimes it takes an abuse to exist before a response can be given, and sometimes it can take awhile before people recognize that a thing is an abuse. Remember, we believe the Popes are infallible when it comes to avoiding teaching error as binding—it doesn’t mean they are omnipotent (all knowing) understanding that wrongdoing is happening or grasping the significance of it. Sometimes, scandal has happened when the Church has been silent over something when it should have spoken out. But we have to distinguish these things before assigning blame to the Church.

Understanding where blame goes is that first step that needs to be discerned. The individual who decides on his own to commit an evil act and tries to justify it by pointing to Church teaching cannot be justified if his interpretation of Church teaching goes against the Church understanding. The state that enforces laws that the Church calls unjust is going against Church teaching. In these cases, it cannot be said that the Church is to blame for the actions of the individual or the State. It’s only when individual or the state is properly obeying (as opposed to misinterpreting) the Church in doing wrong, or when the Church is knowingly silent instead of speaking out that the Church herself can be said to be to blame. These things did happen of course—St. John Paul II did see the need to apologize for actions done in the name of the Church. But ultimately, we need to discern first, neither defending the indefensible nor condemning that which was not wrong.