5 Commandments for Culturally Conservative Catholics, part two.

Last post we mentioned that conservative Catholics need to avoid wandering off the rails and should adhere to some rules. Let’s call these

The 5 Commandments for Culturally Conservative Catholics.

1)      Do not confuse disagreements about prudential matters with denial of moral or doctrinal truth, bad judgment is not heresy

Remember we pointed out this difference when we discussed the problems the Catholic left has when considering issues of war and peace, or economic policy here and here .

By the same token we should always recognize the difference between an argument over established moral or theological dogma versus a debate over something which has not been definitively settled by the magisterium, or even something which is a matter of prudential judgement and can not be settled by Church authority per se. In these cases we use our reason to do things like the interpret  empirical evidence. Many arguments in Catholic circles are arguments of this kind. Things like the place of the Tridentine Mass versus the Novus Ordo,  both being valid masses, may on some level be a matter of personal preference. To what extent there is a crisis in the Church and what its causes are is a matter not of settled doctrine, but one that requires joining of various arguments supported by evidence. A host of other questions are all matters that are not defined by the magisterium and cannot even in principle be defined . The answer to questions like that depends on the evidence brought to bear on the question.  This does not mean these sorts of issues are not worthy of vigorous debate or that we should not have strong opinions. We have talked about such things and will do so again. It does mean that we should initially presume the good will of our opponents. They may be merely wrong, they are not necessarily “heretics”. The real moral fault in debates of this kind is the unwillingness to bow to the evidence. This is intellectually dishonest. We are entitled to demand that our opponents respect facts and evidence, but by the same token we need to do the same. Thus if someone had evidence that a devoutly said Novus Ordo mass would bring more people into the Catholic Church than doubling the number of Tridentine Masses available, we should  focus our energies on  the making the Novus Ordo more devout. The goal is after all to bring people to God.  Similarly any strategy designed to reverse the decline in the Church is just a strategy, and will contain human elements that are subject to debate.  Even the nature of the problems in the Church will sometimes be less than certain. Reasoned differences of opinion among people who basically are in agreement on doctrine and morals are similar to differences in opinion among two doctors about how to treat a difficult illness. The debate may be vigorous but should never be rancorous.


2)      Do not try to be more Catholic than the Pope and the magisterium.

 There are some traditional Catholics who make some of their personal opinions matters of doctrine in spite of clear statements from the real magisterium that allow personal freedom in a particular area.  Of course the Catholic left has done this by arguing that the Catholic teaching on war and peace has “developed” to mandate pacifism or mandates opposition to the death penalty in all cases, neither being true. The traditional right does this as well however, as we have discussed here .  Another illustration of this has been the debate over the moral acceptability of the concept of brain death and organ donation. Brain death and the potential to donate organs has traditionally been accepted by orthodox Catholic medical moralists, and had  recently been reaffirmed as morally acceptable by Blessed John Paul II, but remains an item of contention for some. A debate about this topic can be seen on the informative “Catholic Culture” web site run by Phillip Lawler and Jeff Mirus and viewed here with further discussion here.  It is unfortunate however that there is still controversy as the Pope has addressed the issue and affirmed the conclusions of catholic moralists who are fully loyal to the magisterium. A devout loyal Catholic can accept that brain death is a legitimate way to determine if someone is in fact dead. Still because organ donation and the concept of brain death is relatively new, or perhaps because it has been tainted by legitimate concerns regarding euthanasia, confusion among some traditionalist Catholic remains in spite of the Papal teaching. The point is we should not equate everything that has happened post Vatican II with heresy. 

At its root people who do this are identical with liberals, who at some level do not believe in the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium. At times the distinction between what is theological speculation, prudential judgment or settled teaching may get confusing for the non specialist. Fair enough, mistakes will be made, but when there is clear Church teaching in a given area we cannot just dismiss it for our own version of the truth.

3)   Do not fear science!

This is really an overlapping problem with the above. We should take our lead from St Thomas Aquinas whose primary project was not to reject secular knowledge but rather incorporate the best of it into his theology. As he noted reason and faith both aim at truth and since they have a single source they can not contradict. Therefore apparent contradictions imply that our understanding of one or the other is flawed. At the end of the day no true scientific fact can contradict a doctrine of the Church properly understood.  My son Thomas discussed this at length in his series of posts that begin here

In Aquinas’s time modern experimental science was in an embryonic stage, and the best secular learning was from the Greek philosophers and particular Aristotle. In our time the world is shaped by the sciences.  A reasonable understanding of the findings of modern science, and it’s methods and thus it’s limitations is an aid to theology not opposed to it. There are many scientists who have written extensively about both scientific and theological issues, among them Stephen Barr, Michael Behe, and the late Steven Jaki O.P.  There is a tendency among secularists to try and use “science” as a weapon. Those of us who know a little something about real science are not threatened by this.


4)      Be respectful of the office of Bishops, Priests and especially the Pope.

 This does not mean we must agree with everything the Bishops do, or even everything the Pope does. It does not even mean that all public criticism is off base. Aquinas has said in the Summa Theoligica:

It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal  concerning faith, and, as St.Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.”

 A good deal of recent history has certainly made it clear that the individual Bishops have failed at times catastrophically and  to pretend  this is not so is on some level to perpetuate the problem. That said simple charity demands that the criticism of the Bishops maintain respect for the dignity of the office and be targeted to the actions in question, personal attacks are out-of-bounds. This of course goes double for the Pope. At the very least if we are trying to get the Bishops to listen to us, we are more likely to meet this goal if we tone down the anger in the rhetoric. Anger just tends to make people defensive.  This can be difficult at times; in some cases those of us concerned about the culture wars have felt thrown under the bus by the Bishops. If what you want to do is vent, well then I suppose you can fire away, but if what you want to do is have some positive influence than modulate the tone.



5)      Remember ultimately the good guys win.

If we are serious about the infallibility of the Church we realize that at the end of the day the Holy Spirit will not let the wheels come of completely. I recently saw a post that some left-wing Catholic is hoping Pope Francis will revisit the teaching on artificial contraception.  At times conservative Catholics act like they fear this is a real possibility! Here is a news flash. It is more likely that you will be abducted by a space alien or that the earth will be wiped out by a killer asteroid than the Pope is going to reverse the teaching of the Church most recently affirmed by the last 5 Popes, two of which he plans on canonizing.  We know this for certainty since we believe that Christ promised the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. At times we may be dismayed by actions or decisions of the leadership in the Church, and there may even be serious damage from such actions, we should be vigorous in our efforts to limit this damage and do our part to further the common good. Still we should never panic even it if things look bleak. This is not being unrealistic. The early Christian martyrs likely knew what awaited them in the Roman circuses, but they also knew God ultimately is in charge.  Revelations tells us at the end of the day

“Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds.I am the Alpha and the Omega,the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city* through its gates.Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the unchaste, the murderers, the idol-worshipers, and all who love and practice deceit.


The only thing we really need to worry about is which side we are on.  We should act like people who really know we are on the winning side, not like people who think they might ultimately lose.

I am not advocating that Catholics who are concerned about the obvious crisis in the Church pretend everything is fine. Nor do I advocate that we accept everything the Bishops do must be met with meek acceptance. The Church is in the midst of a cultural crisis that may be unprecedented in the post Constantine era. This clearly requires a bold response and to get that kind of response may require bold statements. As Flannery O’Connor said “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” So this is not a call to timidity. It is rather a call to use reason, be intellectually honest and not resort to rhetoric that drives away rather than persuades.

Let us pray to St Jerome, brilliant biblical scholar and Father of the Church, whose zeal for the Church and for truth was sometimes mixed with an excessive temper. St Jerome managed to ultimately control this personality trait and is recognized as a great Saint. We ask that we maintain our desire to fight for the truth, but like him learn to contain our frustration when dealing with falsehood and not be overwhelmed by it, so that we avoid bitterness, and draw people to God,  rather than end up pushing them away.


St Jerome, pray for us.

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