Friday, March 9, 2012

Faith in God, Faith in the Church

Bright Maidens Topic: To Counsel the Doubtful
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            There were times in the past when I disagreed (or thought I disagreed) with certain teachings of the Catholic Church (or, what I incorrectly perceived the teachings to be).  I can now identify at least two issues that were the main sources of my apparent disagreement, and I suspect that there are many people in a similar circumstance.  It is probably not too inaccurate to say, as Fulton Sheen has said, "There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church.  There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church - which is, of course, quite a different thing" (1).

            My disagreements with Church teaching were, I later recognized, differences in opinion which came out of two underlying situations.  The first situation was a lack of catechesis and correct understanding of the basis of Church teachings.  If someone pressed the topic with me, I likely would have admitted at least that it was something that I had simply not been taught.  In fact, I did exactly that, with the attitude that it was not my fault.  What I failed to recognize at the time, but eventually came to realize during my faith conversion was this: As true as it is that my past lack of catechesis had been no fault of my own, that fact does not and will not excuse me from the responsibility of seeking to learn and understand the truth on my own.  Further, if I am to continue calling myself a Catholic, I must only do so if the truth I am seeking is that of Jesus Christ, as revealed to us by His Church.

            The second situation, which I did not fully understand prior to coming back to the Church, was that in disagreeing as I did with those teachings, I was exhibiting a somewhat general lack of faith in the Church itself.  To explain this reasoning, I propose that a disagreement with a teaching of the Church about "topic X" may often stem from a denial of the Church's authority to speak about "topic X" to begin with.  Since we believe that the Church's authority stems from Jesus Christ Himself, to say that the Church does not have the authority to teach on matters of faith and of morality is to say that the Church does not possess the Truth of Jesus Christ.  If we do believe that the Church is what it says it is, “If one holds the church capable, under the guidance of the Spirit, of declaring her belief on a specific point, it follows that assent to such a declaration might require abandonment of a contrary personal opinion” (2).  This does not mean that to believe in the teachings of the Church is to have no right to a personal opinion.  Belief in the Church does, however, call for acts of faith, humility, and obedience concerning Catholic teachings.

            What I have learned along the way is that Church teachings about individual topics cannot be separated from the bigger picture from which they are deducted. In order to understand such topics, we must first understand the Church itself.  That bigger picture is not just what the Church decides to think about particular topics; it is the Church's rendition of Divine Revelation, history, and natural law.  Understanding all of these things is not always easy for us.  It can be very difficult without having faith that the Church is protected from error by the Holy Spirit, as she reveals to us the Truth of Jesus Christ.  To have this faith, we can be aided by humility in the face of a teaching that may be difficult for us to understand at first, and trust that the Church's statements, must have infinitely more knowledge and experience behind them than our short lifetime on earth has yet or even will.  As we strive to understand what the Church teaches us, our faith and humility will hopefully lead to obedient behavior.  It is based on that same humble trust that faithfully recognizes in the Church infinite wisdom beyond our own comprehension. 

1. Fulton Sheen, Preface to Radio Replies Volume 1, Catholic Apologetics Online: Radio Replies.  (accessed March 9, 2012).

2. Michael Ivens, S.J. , Understanding the Spiritual Exercises, (Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Cromwell Press, 1998), 260    
[found on Google books]

3. See note 1.

Update: I posted an afterthought to this post here: Look for the Church

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Excuse Me Sir, You Look Like a Sinner

Bright Maidens topic: To Admonish the Sinner
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I am always amused at one of the last scenes in Guys and Dolls, when the gambler Sky Masterson has managed to force a dozen or so of his fellow gamblers to attend a prayer meeting at the local save-a-soul mission by winning their souls in a dice game.  The leader of the mission looks out at the riff-raff gathered in her mission and announces in delight, “I have rarely attended a meeting in any of our branches which could boast of so many evil-looking sinners.”  She might just as easily have been addressing a college fraternity, Las Vegas, or the United States Congress.

Admonishing the sinner is never easy and it is a duty that many shy away from.  We do not want the sneers, the accusations of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, judgmental behavior or other assaults that come our way.  Even the Catholic Church herself often seems to try to avoid this duty, when she hesitates to invoke Canon 915, which bans public figures from the Holy Eucharist, who profess themselves Catholic even when they live in a state of fornication or who publicly advocate abortion.  And, of course, when was the last time any of us saw a good excommunication?

There are several reasons why admonishing the sinner is difficult, and a couple that it is downright dangerous.  First, it is hard to tell a person that they are sinning when they do not believe in sin.  If one asked an average college student, for instance, if they believed in objective morality, that student would almost certainly reply that objective morality does not exist because different cultures and people have thought different things.  Passing the disastrous lapse in logic by—obviously that a person does not believe in a thing is not evidence that it does not exist—the consequence of this is that such a person can hardly believe in sin.  How can it be wrong to break a law if one does not exist?  If there are no rules, then one cannot violate the rules.  

Second, people do not like being told that they are sinners.  I am the same way.  When my wife complains about my driving, my first reaction is to say, “I know,” or “Yes dear, I did indeed see that enormous truck about to plow into us, I was just making sure that you did.”  Many people are too convinced of their own unique specialness; many in our generation and later generations have been told that they are ever so special from youth.  This hardly invites a person to consider their own sinfulness. 
Third, many today do not believe in the devil.  Believing in sin is much easier when one believes in a father (by way of imitation not creation) of sin.  Today, however, we hear little about the devil even from the pulpit.  And a presidential candidate can be dismissed by the popular media as unfit for office because he believes that the devil is attacking America.  

Next, admonishing the sinner can be downright dangerous.  A person could become angry.  One could forever ruin a relationship with a family member by refusing to attend her re-marriage ceremony to a divorced man.  It can be dangerous for other reasons, including to our own spiritual welfare; this is perhaps the greatest danger.  In admonishing the sinner, a person might forget that he is one himself.  He might find himself the sort of hypocrite of whom Our Lord said “many will say to me “Lord, Lord,” who will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Or else, “remove the splinter first from your own eye...”  To this I suggest the following caution, that the only person who is a good Catholic, is the one who knows that he is a bad Catholic.  

Nonetheless, to admonish the sinner is our moral duty, to God and to the sinner himself.  We are all responsible for each other’s salvation.  “Go and make disciples of all nations...”  To shy back from this duty is like the woman who refuses to confront her husband’s alcoholism because of the fear of the immediate inconvenience to her, or immediate discomfort to her husband.  Yet, there is no alternative.  Admonish the sinner and while doing so, “remember man that thou art dust,”  and “go and sin no more.”