Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Prodigal Son and Mercy Misunderstood

Doing my morning readings/studies, I noticed a trend of mercy and love in the varied works I read (Scripture, Patristics, Catechism, Saints, Church documents) that are synched together like well crafted gears (which makes sense, considering Who designed the system). It starts with God’s love for us, even though we misuse our free will for evil. God wants us to be reconciled to Him and He pursues us to bring us back to Him, knowing what will make us truly happy—though He never violates our free will. Even in the Old Testament, so often misinterpreted as having a harsh and vindictive God, shows God pleading with His people to cease sinning and turn back to Him so He can forgive them and give them His blessings.

Unfortunately, our responses do not match His generous and unselfish love for us. He calls everyone to turn to Him and follow Him, but it seems that we want to put conditions on that call. Those conditions either want to limit the requirements for us personally being His followers or put limits on who else can turn to Him. In other words, we can sum these two mindsets as:

  1. “I want God’s mercy without having to be sorry!”
  2. “I don’t want those people here unless they’re as good as ME!”

Both positions make a mockery of God’s mercy and create a perverted image of God that non-believers can point to and mock. (And I should note here that it is quite possible for us to be in both categories at once).

“I Want God’s Mercy Without Having To Be Sorry!"

Loving and following Our Lord requires changing our lives in order to be like Him (John 14:15, 1 John 5:1-5). God created us to seek out the greatest good—Himself. He gives us free will because He wants us to love us by His own choice, not as mindless drones. He has designed us in such a way that living in accordance to what is good benefits us, and living in opposition to that good harms us—even if it pleases us in the short term. Understood like that, people who want the Church to change her teachings are wanting the impossible. They want what God has forbade as evil to be redefined as good, as if the labels of good and evil were arbitrary decisions a human being chose to apply to behaviors at a whim.

Sin is something real. It destroys our relationship with God. It can condemn us to hell. It is something so serious, that Our Lord died on a Cross so we could be saved from it. His action is a gift we can either choose or reject. Accepting His salvation means we need to turn our life around and live as He calls us to live, and when we fall into sin, we need to change direction and turn back to God, trying to the best of our ability to stop doing what separates us from God, praying for His grace to do so, and making use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

That behavior is exactly the opposite of the person who demands that the Church change her teachings. That’s not metanoia. That’s demanding that reality change to suit the individual—in other words, putting the self above God and saying, “I’ll follow God, but He (or his Church) has to change to suit me.” It’s as if the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) returned home and expected to be treated as normal, like nothing ever happened, thinking he was still entitled to the Father’s inheritance, despite the fact that he’d squandered it. What they want is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, which wants the benefits of Jesus dying for us without the call to take up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24-27).

The thing is people who are becoming increasingly hostile to Christian teaching—especially those who try to claim that it is against what Jesus would want—is that such hostility fails to understand what the mercy of God is. This mercy is creating a way for each sinner to be brought back to God. This way is not mean that anybody who thinks “Jesus was a nice guy” is allowed to do whatever he or she wants to do. This way is making it possible for the sinner who repents to find forgiveness for his or her sins.

We see this in the Gospels. Sinners who have done wrong change their hearts and their ways and find forgiveness. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more (John 8:11). We are to go and sin no more. If we do sin and again break our relationship with God, He has created the Sacrament of Reconciliation (John 20:23) that our relationship with God may be healed anew as often as we seek Him with a sincere heart. THAT’s mercy!

“I Don’t Want Those People Here Unless They’re As Good as ME!"

In one sense, critics of the Church have it right. There are people who do act judgmentally towards sinners. They are people who get scandalized when the Pope reaches out to an atheist or someone flaunting their same sex behavior. They get scandalized when bishops speak about treating illegal aliens with human dignity. They believe the proper response to the sinner should be strong warnings and excommunications, assuming all people who have a sin they do not are people of wickedness, worse then them and therefore not welcome in the Church.

What we’re doing here is seen in the parable of the merciless servant (Matthew 18:21-35), the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) and it’s the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It presumes that so long as we are not as bad as the people we presume are worse than us, we have no reason to change our behavior. It presumes that we should be praised and those not like us should be condemned.

The problem with that view is it overlooks the fact that we are in the Church and trying to live faithfully in the first place because of God’s grace and the people God put into our lives to bring us about. It also overlooks the fact that we are not perfect people, but still sinners in need of salvation. But mainly it overlooks the fact that Jesus did die so that we might be saved. So every person—the illegal alien, the pro-abortion politician, the same sex activist—falls into the category of people we need to be reached out to. Even when we are spurned and hated, we cannot give upon trying to reach out to them. Even the penalty of excommunication is aimed at showing the sinner the need to turn back and repent—it is NOT intended to be an amputation of a sinner to be eternally cut off from God.

Ultimately, this mindset forgets Jesus’ words to St. Peter about how many times we are to forgive. Seventy times seven—that doesn’t mean a limit of 490 times but always (Matthew 18:21-22).

It’s Not About “The Other Side,” It’s About Us.

Of course, people get defensive about such things. It’s easy to see such behavior in others, but if someone dares say our own behavior is going wrong, we get outraged and point to the behavior of others. This is why I said above that it is quite possible for us to be in both categories at once. We are shown that our behavior is wrong and we start getting angry: How dare you judge me! I’m much better than those people!

But that’s to miss the point. None of us here can claim to be without sin. So we cannot look down on others who are in sin. They are our brothers and sisters who need our love even as we stand up for the truth. On the other side, none of us can claim that we know better than the magisterium what the teaching of the magisterium should be. So maybe we’re not openly supporting changing the Church teaching on sexual morality—but are we willing to be obedient to the Church on her social teaching? Or is our approach Mater Si, Magister No?

Essentially, we need to be certain that we are open to the Church and willing to obey her, and at the same time, be willing to reach out to the sinner. We must neither refuse to repent nor refuse to reach out, even if the person we reach out to refuses to turn back to God. That’s the message of Pope Francis, the message of the Church and the message of Christ.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mercy and Misunderstanding

Prodigal Son(The Return of the Prodigal Son, James Tissot)

The Bull Misericordiae Vultus, announcing a jubilee beginning with Advent 2015, has been released to mixed response. The response tends to be based on how one understands concepts like mercy and justice. With the modern tendency towards turning these terms into buzzwords, people tend to interpret the reports as if they were political rhetoric, and either approve or disapprove based on what the buzzwords mean. But we need to realize that mercy and justice have much deeper meanings in the Church, and this bull needs to be read with the understanding that the Church has for these words.

Summary of the Bull

Pope Francis published the Bull Misericordiae Vultus (“Face of Mercy” if Google Translate got it right) announcing the jubilee year of mercy. The text and the concept is a beautiful one. It seeks to tear down the barriers which keep people from turning back to God—the kind of thing where people have encountered bad experiences in the Church which leave them fearful or resentful of turning to the Church. Some might feel they cannot be saved because of fear. Others may have encountered bad experiences with members of the Church which lead them to think the experience is the norm.

The Pope recognizes that there must be more to evangelization than admonition. There must be “respect and love” and “encouraging remedies" (MV #4). The bull is a message of urging encouragement, stressing God’s love for the sinner and calling the sinner to be reconciled and healed by God. He points out Jesus’ compassion for the people who seek Him and provided for their deepest needs. He stresses how Jesus’ parables show God as a Father who never rests until He finds the lost and brings them back. Such mercy is not only for the institutional Church to deal out in the Sacraments. We are all called to show mercy to others because mercy was first shown to us by God (MV #9).

The bull speaks about how we as human beings judge only superficially, not knowing the depths of the soul that the Father can see. We are to accept the good in each person and forgive. It calls on us to rediscover the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, reminding us of God judging us based on whether we have aided those in need, whether physical or spiritual. The Pope insists on confessors being “authentic signs of the Father’s mercy” (MV #17), behaving as the father in the parable of the prodigal son—running out to meet the son despite the fact that he has squandered his inheritance, and expressing the joy of his return.

Then, in what seems to be a part overlooked in this bull, the Pope reminds people that justice and mercy are not contradictory, but “two dimensions of a single reality” (MV #20). Justice gives the individual what is rightly due, and God is the Judge. Justice, avoiding legalism, is seen as “faithful abandonment of oneself to God’s will.” Our Lord sought to break down the legalistic view that divides people into the just and the sinners—seeking to reach out to all sinners, offering the salvation. We have to go beyond considering the border of goodness as “formal respect for the law.” Mercy is God reaching out to the sinner to give him a new opportunity (MV #21) to repent and believe.

Reflections on What It Calls Us to Be

The bull is very insightful and should be read as a reminder of what God is calling us to be. It certainly strikes me as a challenge for a Catholic blogger. We need to avoid being barriers to people seeking mercy, and that means we must be careful in not choosing rhetoric that leaves a person believing that God is unapproachable or that we do not want them to return to the Church. Even when our blog is based on defending the teachings of the Church unpopular in modern culture (sexual morality or social justice depending on the ideological outlook), we have to do so in a way that does not leave the reader who happens to be at odds with the Church either defiant or despairing.

It means we have to avoid putting people into “us” and “them” categories or “saints” and “sinners” categories where we put ourselves in the category of the “good" and others in the category of “you horrible people!” It means we have to be showing people how to return to Christ’s Church and live rightly, not writing angry articles about how the bishops need to throw out some person or another. That’s not to say we have to capitulate on dissent (see below), but it does mean we have to stop acting like the angry guard dog on a chain barking and growling at everything that is out of the ordinary, failing to distinguish between the hostile intruder and the person needing help.

What this Document is Not Saying

However, one thing we need to remember is that a call for mercy and not judgment on our part does not mean changing Church teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” God has called us to live in a certain way which reflects His goodness. Accepting mercy means thinking like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, saying "O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The person who seeks mercy knows they have done wrong and wants to return to a healthy relationship. The person who does not accept that they have done wrong may want to return to a healthy relationship, but he or she is refusing to seek mercy.

So, the Pope is calling on those of us in the Church who have sought and received mercy from God, to show mercy to those who are at odds with us or the Church (see Matthew 18 23-35). That doesn’t mean that we are to call evil good. It means we are to act like the father of the prodigal son and embrace the returning sinner. The Church cannot say that abortion, contraception, same-sex acts etc. are no longer sins, because God has made clear that loving Him means keeping the commandments (see John 14:15 and 1 John 5:1-6).

So the person who hopes or fears that this jubilee of mercy is going to be changing the teaching of the Church, that is simply false. This isn’t a matter of letting people do whatever the hell they want. This is a matter of shepherds going out to find the lost sheep, and rejoicing when it is found and returned. We can't be saying “Stay out until you can behave!” It is a case of saying “Please come back to God who loves you!” Some may refuse the offer of mercy, but we can’t stop seeking to lead them back. If they refuse and die in their refusal, that is for God to judge. But if we don’t seek them out and try to bring them back, we too will be judged (see Ezekiel 33:1-18).

So, this document is not saying “The Church must change her teaching” or “you must let people do what they want.” It is saying we can’t write people off as irredeemable. We have to keep trying to reach them, avoiding the judgment that says “I’ve done enough—to hell with you!” That strikes me as key here. mercy neither means “Stop saying that what I do is a sin!” nor “That’s the limit and I don’t have to reach out to you anymore!” Even the Church penalty of excommunication is not done so as to amputate a diseased limb, but as to show the person how serious the sin is in hopes of bringing them back. It’s a tool to be used like a scalpel—not a sledgehammer.

Conclusion

What seems most important to remember is the Pope is not calling for moral laxity. He’s calling for a change of heart, both in the sinner estranged from God and His Church, and in the person who has already been converted by His grace. To the person estranged, the Pope is calling for them to accept God’s mercy and return to Him and His Church. To those who have received God’s mercy, God is calling us to be merciful to those who wrong us and to not stand in the door to keep those we dislike away from reconciliation.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

CSI: Catholic "Scandal" Instigation

While it has been most obvious during the pontificate of Pope Francis, the Church has had a problem for awhile. That problem is certain Catholics taking incidents and blowing them up into scandals to promote their own agendas. Whether that agenda is one of a liberal advocacy of changing Church teaching or whether it is a conservative advocacy of reverting practices to the way they were before Vatican II, the tactic is to take an event involving a member of the Church and changing that member into a hero or a villain and claim that if only we had changed/not changed things in the Church, things would be better.

In other words, one faction cannot put the blame only on the other faction. Both are trying to use news reports to promote their agenda. Nobody ever seems to ask how the Church can be dominated by liberals (the conservative allegation) and conservatives (the liberal allegation) at the same time. But this is the world of CSI—Catholic “Scandal” Instigation.

YH11 1

The most common form works in reaction to the major news coverage. The media reports on something happening in the Church with only superficial interpretation at best (usually, it’s completely uninformed speculation). We get a soundbite quote from someone in the Church which is aimed at either promoting a futile hope in the Church changing her teaching or at casting a member of the Church or Church teaching in a negative light. Members of the CSI immediately jump on the story assuming it is true as written. The Church is attacked for being either terribly heartless or terribly lenient. Bishops and even the Pope gets attacked if the story gives the CSI member a negative feeling.

We can consider the first year of Pope Francis. The media was taking soundbites from interviews or Church documents with no reference to why the Pope said or wrote such things. Unlike previous pontificates where such soundbites were used to show the Popes in a negative light, these were used to make it seem like the Pope was willing to change Church teaching from “X is forbidden” to “X is allowed.” Those who wanted to believe it rejoiced. Those who didn’t want to believe it, but did so anyway, reacted with horror. The internet spilled over with some Catholics denouncing the Pope as a heretic while others, long dissenting, portrayed themselves as being right all the time while the Church "finally caught up with the times” while the bishops were “in opposition” to the Pope.

The problem was, nobody actually asked the question of “Did the Pope actually say that in the first place?” Once a full transcript or the actual Papal document was released, it turned out that while the line existed, it was in the middle of a paragraph that was demonstrating fully orthodox Catholic teaching. Of course, once the correct context was released, the people who supported the alleged new teaching ignored this context and continued to repeat the original out of context story, while those who opposed it either pretended the whole affair never happened or else made it seem as if their overreaction was the Pope’s fault (Two common retorts: “Every time the Pope speaks, the Vatican has to do damage control!” and “The Pope needs to speak more clearly!”).

Another way is to take a negative story about the Church and make it sound like the bishop is guilty of supporting something monstrous. Two examples recently were:

  1. To take an incident in San Francisco and make it seem like Archbishop Cordileone was directly responsible for deliberately turning water on the homeless (the accusation of it being deliberate based solely on the claim of an anonymous report), never considering the possibility that auxiliary bishop William Justice (who made the decision) was telling the truth and had installed an ineffective system for washing hazardous waste out from corners and doorways.
  2. To take a case in New Jersey was put on paid leave while an investigation took place over a public statement made on Facebook that could have been seen as misrepresenting Church teaching and make it seem as if Bishop Paul Bootkowski was firing because of her defending the Christian understanding of marriage while ignoring the fact that the first half of her statement was problematic and ignoring the fact that she wasn’t fired. (In fact, she’s been reinstated).

In both cases, the bishops were essentially slandered/libeled and both were accused of bad will and acting against the teaching of the Church. In neither case does evidence exist for the accusations. But the attacks live on and the Church is undermined.

In this, I was struck by something written by Fr. Alban Butler in his Lives of the Saints concerning Pope Leo the Great:

St. Leo laid down this important maxim for the rule of his conduct, never to give any decision, especially to the prejudice of another, before he had examined into the affair with great caution and exactness, and most carefully taken all informations possible.

 

[Alban Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, vol. 2 (New York: P. J. Kenedy, 1903), 66.]

It makes me wonder why people continue to do this. When it comes to making a decision about doing right and wrong, why do we continue to assume we have all the facts before assuming the worst? We have seen often enough that the media, for whatever reason (ignorance or malice), constantly gets the reports wrong that we ought to beware of trusting the media in reporting on the Church at all. But people keep falling for it.

CB Football11

It seems to me that the problem is that people are willing to believe the worst about those they dislike or distrust. Conservatives mistrust the Pope and many bishops as sympathizing with liberalism, willing to undermine the Church. Liberals dislike the Church teachings on sexual morality and believe those who support it must be cold hearted and capable of cruelty (It should be noted that there seems to be a growing recognition that the Pope is not going to change doctrine and a gradual disillusionment with him). Both seem willing to undermine those in the Church who seem openly against their views.

We need to beware of the danger of jumping rashly on a news report. Nowadays, it’s all about being the first to report a breaking story. Reporters with little to no knowledge about the teachings of the Church can easily misinterpret the nuances of a Papal statement and report something wildly inaccurate. But we who are Catholic do not have the excuse of not knowing. We know that the Church teaching requires our assent. We trust that the Church is protected by God. Yet we continue to trust uninformed sources and let them form our opinions on the Church.

That has to stop. We have an obligation to think and assess before speaking. We’re not doing it. That failure is undermining of trust in the Church. Our first task is to give a favorable interpretation if possible. If not possible, we are to ask the one we are scandalized by for how they understand their own statement. Only then does correction take place—but even then with humility and love.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Conscience, Obligation and Decisions

Introduction

I came across an article, A Note from Creator Cakes | Andrew Walker | First Things from Facebook, which seems to have received popular support from Catholics whose views I ordinarily think are good. However, I personally find the article troubling because of what it seems to imply. Now maybe the article expressed a point badly and did not mean to advocate going against conscience. But I see some comments which seem to indicate that people are interpreting it this way, and so I feel like I need to speak out on what troubles me.

The Premise of the Article

The basic premise of the article is a fictional letter from what I assume is a fictional bakery. The fictional letter expresses the concern of the owners who are trying to run their business in accord with their religious beliefs. In response to the fact that business owners lose whenever they refuse to cooperate with a “same sex wedding,” they intend to set forth the following policy:

We've decided that if asked, we will provide a cake at a same-sex wedding ceremony. But we will take every dollar from that sale and donate it to an organization fighting to protect and advance religious liberty—organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom, Manhattan Declaration, or the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

No organization, company or person should be compelled to participate in events or speech that conflict with their convictions. This is a basic freedom we thought was afforded under our constitution. But our culture is beginning to turn its back on its rich legacy of protecting dissenting viewpoints. If Caesar insists that bakers must be made to bake cakes or else close up shop, we’re going to see to it that Caesar’s edicts get undermined by channeling resources designed to fight Caesar.

So, we will serve same-sex wedding services. We will do so unhappily and with a bothered conscience. But if we must do so with a bothered conscience, we reserve the right as a condition of the marketplace to bother others' consciences as well. If we are coerced into baking for events we disagree with, we will return the favor and use the funds of those we disagree with to fund the organizations they disagree with.

I have seen certain Catholics cheer this article, saying the article should be a template for Christian businesses. But when I read this, I find myself thinking, “Wait! Do you realize what are you saying?"

Conscience and Not Doing Evil

Let’s lay down some basics first, and look at the Church teaching on conscience

What troubles me about this article is this: The Catholic Church teaches that we may never do evil so good comes of it. The Catechism says:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. [Emphasis added

The writer of the article creates the situation of a baker forced to act against a troubled conscience but intends to mitigate it by donating the proceeds from such sales to groups which defend marriage. That is pretty much the essence of "doing evil so that good may come of it.” The question that first needs to be asked is: Does the baker believe that participating in a “same sex wedding” is wrong? If so, then to do what one believes to be wrong cannot be justified, regardless of the circumstances and intention. Again, the Catechism:

1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving). (2479; 596)

1754 The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil. (1735)

I find that the Youcat[*] has some good insights into conscience as well:

295 What is conscience?

Conscience is the inner voice in a man that moves him to do good under any circumstances and to avoid evil by all means. At the same time it is the ability to distinguish the one from the other. In the conscience God speaks to man. [1776–1779]

Conscience is compared with an inner voice in which God manifests himself in a man. God is the one who becomes apparent in the conscience. When we say, “I cannot reconcile that with my conscience”, this means for a Christian, “I cannot do that in the sight of my Creator!” Many people have gone to jail or been executed because they were true to their conscience.  120, 290–292, 312, 333

"Anything that is done against conscience is a sin."

ST. THOMAS AQUINAS

(1225–1274)

"To do violence to people’s conscience means to harm them seriously, to deal an extremely painful blow to their dignity. In a certain sense it is worse than killing them."

BL. JOHN XXIII

(1881–1963, the Pope who convoked the Second Vatican Council)

I believe the witness of the Church tells us that the conscience is to be obeyed when it tells us “I must do this!” or “I must not do this.” The conscience must be formed within the Church so it may be accurate (avoiding both scrupulosity and laxity), but deliberately choosing to go against the conscience can never be justified.

The Example of the Martyrs

As Catholics we have a history of facing rulers who have said we must obey them or face the consequences. We have a collection of saints who gave witness by dying or by suffering in other ways rather than obey government edicts which go against what they believed to be morally wrong. Whether it was the Romans who demanded that the saints burn incense to the emperors or whether it was the Persians who demanded the saints worship the sun, these saints looked to their love of God and their conscience and decided they had to obey God over man when what man demanded exceeded his rightful authority (see Acts 5:29). This was even at the consequence of suffering torture and often execution. 

Now, in America, I don’t expect torture and execution to happen unless America falls much further into moral collapse. Because we pride ourselves as a nation of law, I expect the persecution to come through the law and through unjust judicial rulings that provide a fig leaf for unjust applications of the law. So instead of executions in the arena, we can look to lawsuits, fines, injunctions and prosecutions.

With this in mind, I ask people to think about what the First Things (fictional) proposal is saying. In saying, "So, we will serve same-sex wedding services. We will do so unhappily and with a bothered conscience. But if we must do so with a bothered conscience, we reserve the right as a condition of the marketplace to bother others' consciences as well,” what we are seeing is not a praiseworthy thing, but a capitulation with the intent to use the results of the capitulation to defend Christians from needing to capitulate in the future.

It’s as if the martyrs took up the promised reward for denying their faith and applied that reward to protecting Christians in the future from denying their faith. Our Lord’s question echoes through the ages:

23 Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?" (Luke 9:23-25)

The Ultimate Goal

We need to remember the ultimate goal of our life is to know, love and serve God. We do this by keeping His commandments (Matthew 22:37-40). We must also keep in mind that the ultimate goal is not reached in this life, but the next life. Thus we endure suffering in this life for His sake, rather than lose the next life by putting ourselves over His commands. Some may pay a harder price than others. In such cases, those who have suffered less should help those who suffered more.

However, when we have to choose between The Lord and ourselves, we cannot choose ourselves—even if we seek to do good with the gain we receive from choosing ourselves over God. Every one of us will have to make this decision in some way. Let us pray that we be given the strength to do what is right and not what is easier.

___________________________

[*] I understand some Catholics look at the Youcat derisively. However, given the CDF has given it’s approval and Benedict XVI has also shown his approval (saying in the introduction, “So I invite you: Study this Catechism! That is my heartfelt desire.”), I find that the trust I have for those who approve far outweighs the trust I have of those who disapprove. Please keep this in mind. God Bless.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Timeframes

In the modern culture wars, I see two positions that I think show a failure to understand the issue. The first are the opponents of Catholic teaching who claim that the Church is on “the wrong side of history” and will either need to change or go extinct. The second is the Catholics who seem to fear that the first group is correct and, not wanting this to happen, shout for the Pope and the Bishops to do something “before we lose the culture war.” The problem with both positions is that they lose track of the timeframes. They see what is happening right now and assume that it will continue. But when we look at history, we find that threats against the Church are not handled in months and years, but often over centuries.

The first group has it wrong because the popularity of an issue has no bearing on the rightness of a position or the longevity of the position. The wrong side of history claim is basically an appeal to popularity fallacy. It ignores the fact that things like Fascism were once considered the wave of the future and those who refused to embrace it would ultimately be swept aside into irrelevance. I don’t invoke fascism for mere rhetorical effect. During the Great Depression, many saw it as the way to solve the economic crisis and predicted that democracy was an outmoded form of government doomed to die out. The mindset focuses on the immediate popularity and influence of a movement and assumes that these will continue indefinitely. It overlooks the fact that as people learn the downside of things, they can begin to dislike the cause. Once that happens, it can only be maintained by the use of force (People grew disillusioned by fascism, but by then it was in place and could maintain itself through violence). 

The second group has it wrong because they assume that the immediate success of those attacking the Church is a sign of how the whole of society thinks. Their response is one of panic. They want the Pope and bishops to start excommunicating people, assuming that the existence of this attack means the magisterium is too soft. Sometimes it is assumed that in the "golden age" of the Church, the Pope gave a decree and the faithful jumped in line, putting an end to error or dissent. But in reality, this never happened.

Historically, we know that the Catholic Church has had to fight battles over the course of centuries. The Arians should have been defeated after the First Nicene Council in AD 325, but as St. Jerome pointed out (Dialogue with the Luciferians #19), that shortly afterwards “the Nicene Faith stood condemned by acclamation. The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian." St. Augustine expressed his frustration at the fact that the heresy of Pelagianism was continuing to be obstinate in spite of the fact that the Pope had ruled against them more than once:

For already have two councils on this question been sent to the Apostolic see; and rescripts also have come from thence. The question has been brought to an issue; would that their error may sometime be brought to an issue too! Therefore do we advise that they may take heed, we teach that they may be instructed, we pray that they may be changed. (Sermon LXXXI)

 

[Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Saint Augustine: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 504.]

(This is where the paraphrase “Rome has spoken, the cause is finished” came from).

The point is, the Pope does not simply make heresy vanish by a decree. It takes years, decades, even centuries of faithful Catholics defending the true Church teaching before the error is given up. For the Catholic to assume failure because the dissent does not immediately stop shows that they don’t understand what really happened in times past.

Contrary to what seems to believed today, the Culture War is not being lost—it is being fought. The devil deceives and those deceived proclaim their victory over the Church, while at the same time, the devil seeks to discourage those who remain faithful by undermining their trust in those God has given the authority to lead and teach. We need to avoid being deceived. We need to avoid despair. We need to remember that the battle against the demons and the people misled by them is not one to be fought in a day or a week. It is to be fought as long as we live until Christ comes again.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Idol Worship 2015

“I die the king's faithful servant, but God's first.”

― St. Thomas More, before his execution.

When I read about the accounts of martyrdom in the early history of Christianity, one constant theme comes through. A group, holding unpopular views, found itself hated by people who misunderstood and misrepresented their teachings. The response of the government officials was not necessarily aimed at exterminating the individuals. It was aimed at using coercion to bring these people in line with the commonly accepted behavior. The pagan governments did not care about who these Christians worshipped, so long as they were willing to accept the edicts of the governments. Magistrates would try to persuade the Christians to just burn a pinch of incense to the Emperor or some other god which the state saw as a symbol of accepting their authority. If they refused, tortures were used to “persuade” compliance. If that failed, execution of the Christians would follow.

Christians to the lions(“To the Lions with the Christians!” An Early Example of the Need for Religious Freedom)

But the problem was this. Christians were perfectly willing to be loyal citizens, obeying the lawfully established magistrates, paying taxes and so on. But they were not willing to give to human beings the authority which belonged to God. This means when a human ruler demanded obedience that exceeded his authority to demand, the Christians felt obligated to put their obedience to God first. In other words, Christians recognized that the state did not have the moral authority to command a Christian to do something they believe to be morally wrong or to forbid them from complying with what their religion compels them to do. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this as:

2242 The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men”:49 (1903; 2313; 450; 1901)

When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel.

It is a good balance. On one side, the Christian cannot do what he or she knows is morally wrong. But on the other side, just because the government may overstep their authority on some areas does not give one free rein to disobey everything. Unfortunately, the overstepping Government often considers itself able to do whatever it has the force to compel, and seeks to target those who will not obey them in matters they have no authority over.

St Margaret V+M(Often the Ultimate Result of Putting Obedience to God First)

Thus, we had the first conflicts with Church and state. The state demanded that they be given the highest level of obedience and any other loyalties that an individual might have would have to be subject to the demands of the state. To disagree would be considered treason. During the centuries, governments have changed, but the basic assumption of the state was that religion had to be subject to the state and whoever would not conform was an enemy. Followers of the Christian faith thus found themselves targeted.

Anti Christian sign in Federal Plaza Chicago Andrew Ciscel(“To the Lions With the Christians”—Modern Version)

We pride ourselves today for standing up for freedom, and thinking we would never support things that the ancients did. But when you think of it, the fact is that only the types of idols and the means of coercion have changed, while the existence of idols and coercion remains. Nowadays, the idols people demand worship over are causes, not statues. Nowadays, the penalties are lawsuits and prosecutions, not torture and executions. But when you think about it, the attitudes are the same. The state and the populace demands that the civic values be put first, and only those religious beliefs that do not come in conflict with these demands are tolerated. Thus people have no problem with Jews and Muslims refusing to eat pork. They don’t care if Christians believe in the Trinity. But once the beliefs of a religion require a Christian to say “this is wrong, and I will not do it,” and all feigned tolerance for religion disappears. They want them fined, sued and prosecuted just as much as the ancients wanted them tortured and executed.

Of course, they never come out and say such things directly. Usually, they try to say Christians are hateful people. In ancient times, they were “enemies of humanity,” and accused of committing orgies and cannibalism and poisoning the aqueducts—all of them false. In modern times, they’re accused of intolerance and hatred—again, all of them false.

In the Second Century, St. Justin Martyr could write to the emperor of the time (Antonius Pius) and say:

But lest any one think that this is an unreasonable and reckless utterance, we demand that the charges against the Christians be investigated, and that, if these be substantiated, they be punished as they deserve; [or rather, indeed, we ourselves will punish them.] But if no one can convict us of anything, true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumour, to wrong blameless men, and indeed rather yourselves, who think fit to direct affairs, not by judgment, but by passion. And every sober-minded person will declare this to be the only fair and equitable adjustment, namely, that the subjects render an unexceptional account of their own life and doctrine; and that, on the other hand, the rulers should give their decision in obedience, not to violence and tyranny, but to piety and philosophy. For thus would both rulers and ruled reap benefit. For even one of the ancients somewhere said, “Unless both rulers and ruled philosophize, it is impossible to make states blessed.” It is our task, therefore, to afford to all an opportunity of inspecting our life and teachings, lest, on account of those who are accustomed to be ignorant of our affairs, we should incur the penalty due to them for mental blindness; and it is your business, when you hear us, to be found, as reason demands, good judges. For if, when ye have learned the truth, you do not what is just, you will be before God without excuse.

 

[Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” Chapter 3, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 163.]

In other words, St. Justin Martyr called on people to not assume Christians were guilty of allegations simply because they were Christians. He didn’t deny that Christians could do evil (and said those who did could be punished), but he denied that a Christian who lived according to the faith would be guilty of the accusations made.

In modern times, the same situation applies. We too can ask the modern persecutors to investigate the charges of against Christian moral teaching and see if they are motivated by hatred or not. We too can ask that people investigate and follow the truth to avoid having to appear before God without excuse. But like then (he was called St. Justin Martyr for a reason—being flogged and beheaded in AD 165), society prefers to repeat the false charges to justify their hostility. Because if they actually investigated the charges, they might be required to recognize that the accusations were false and perhaps there is more to the Christian belief than people think.

They might learn (like the pagans of Rome eventually did) that once they looked past the false accusations, that the Christian teachings were true, had good justification and needed to be followed by people of good will seeking to do what was right. Then of course, they’d have to change their ways and live according to what was right. That’s probably why people are more willing to believe the false accusations—because it feels easier to attack the messenger than to turn away from sins and resist inclinations which lead one towards sinful acts.

The culture wars of today are ultimately a case of the world demanding that it be obeyed in everything vs. the Christian which says that a government must be obeyed in some things, but not when it goes so far as to infringe on changing what is good and evil. Our history of totalitarian governments of the 20th century are proof that what a government decrees can be evil. Governments have shown that they cannot be trusted to consistently make good decisions in terms of what one must do (consider for example, the Supreme Court defended laws supporting slavery and segregation.

But, like the first centuries that Christianity existed, there are governments who insist that Christians recognize the idols that the state or the society accept but we know are morally wrong. We cannot bow to those idols, whether this is the literal sense or in the sense of accepting laws that try to legitimize what we know is morally wrong.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Contradiction and Hypocrisy

Remember the old and oft refuted argument of “If you’re against X, don’t do X” that was so often invoked to attack opposition to things like abortion and same sex marriage? (For example, “If you’re against abortion, don’t have one!”)

It was easily refuted by plugging in things that most people recognize as wrong:

  • If you’re against slavery, don’t own a slave!
  • If you’re against rape, don’t rape anyone!
  • If you’re against murder, don’t murder anyone!

The fatal flaw in the argument is that some things can never be done, so to argue that a person who opposes something as wrong, simply shouldn’t do it while everybody else does is to make a mockery against any person who ever stood up against evil in a society (“If Martin Luther King Jr. was against racial discrimination, he shouldn’t discriminate against a person of another race!”)

But now, in addition, we’re seeing that people who make these arguments of “just don’t do it" conveniently ignore them when someone tries to apply it against them:

"If you’re against participating in a same sex ‘wedding' then just don’t… Oh, wait—you have to do that anyway, you bigot!"

Once again, those who try to work against religious freedom contradict themselves:

  1. If the “If you’re against X, don’t do X” argument is true, then you can’t force Christians who oppose same sex “marriage” to participate in it because, hey, they’re just doing what you said!
  2. But if the “If you’re against X, don’t do X” argument is false, then you have to recognize that people have the right to morally object to something they believe is wrong.

Christianity recognizes that the “If you’re against X, don’t do X” is flawed, so it does not contradict itself nor practice hypocrisy in making a stand against things it calls “evil.” However, the person who preaches “tolerance” have caught themselves in a dilemma—if they apply their own argument universally, they can’t coerce Christian business owners to do what they believe is morally wrong. But if they recognize the argument forces them to accept something that they think is morally wrong, then they have to start asking what determines moral right and wrong, and follow that search to the end.

The Christian can and does stand up for what is right, whether or not society approves. There are no moral contradictions in their stand. But there are huge contradictions in the whole approach opponents of religious freedom are taking, and these contradictions are arbitrary infringements aimed at forcing people who disagree with them to comply against what they think is morally right.