Challenging How We Think About the Catholic Church
We have so many confrontations that are focused on episodes. For once, I’d rather skip the episodes and talk about the larger issues that are driving the episodes behind the scenes.
I intend to provoke. I want to challenge Ricochet to confront some assumptions that need to be looked at. Before going any further, I’m not going to kid anyone: everyone who has read Ricochet knows who holds these assumptions. They’re held by some of our best and most accomplished writers. The people who hold these assumptions are well known, but I want to attack the assumptions and not the persons. I don’t think that the people who hold these assumptions are faithless, craven, stupid, or morally flawed. I disagree with the assumptions, often strongly, but I have respect for the people who hold them.
Let me start with the Infallibility Backdoor.
That’s the excuse that some Catholics use when they don’t like what the church teaches. They immediately ask whether the teaching was declared “infallible.” The church has only used that declaration twice; and only once about the teaching itself, so it’s a pretty safe bet that anything the church teaches is not going to be designated infallible. Once they hear that the teaching isn’t infallible, they breathe a sigh of relief … and then ignore the teaching. That, of course, opens the door to dismissing all authority. Instead of reinforcing the church’s teaching authority, it winds up giving people an out.
Sorry, Catholics … the church’s authority isn’t limited to infallible teachings. Nor is it limited to the text of the catechism. The Roman Catholic Church isn’t a statutory, constitutional organization. You’ve likely heard the quote from John Adams that the United States was to be a nation of laws and not of men; but that formula is not true of the Catholic Church. Much of its authority is vested in men. Jesus never gave the keys of the kingdom with a proviso that the authority can only be used if it agrees with some text. The authority belongs to the person, and we have faith that the Holy Spirit will keep our path straight, not any text.
When the Catholic Church issues a teaching of some kind, Catholics are required to try to accept the teaching to the best of their ability.
For those of you with long memories (or who’ve bumped into this argument before), this is the same issue that came up in National Review when it released an editorial that said Mater si, magistra no. I will remind readers that William F. Buckley himself denied that National Review intended to dismiss the teaching authority of the church.
The competence of the church
I have more than once heard the argument that the church should stick to morality, and not get involved in the details of any particular academic field, because those academic fields are beyond their competence.
I have several objections to this.
Coming from a group of conservatives who routinely scorn “government by experts,” it’s incongruous to hear that someone is disqualified from offering an opinion because they’re not an expert.
But the criticism is more complicated. The critics argue that when the church teaches about the morality of economics, for instance, the church misconstrues things in a way that, had they been more aware of contemporary economics, they wouldn’t have made the same mistakes. Sure, the church can lecture us about morality, but as soon as morality gets mixed in with other academic disciplines, the church carries no weight.
To which I respond: Morality, except for the most abstract philosophy, is never isolated. It’s always the morality of something. And when discussing the morality of a discipline, it isn’t necessary to know the discipline itself, academically, from top to bottom. I may not know the latest techniques in tank warfare, but I don’t need to know that in order to say that firing a shell into a crowded village is morally wrong.
The recent papal exhortation never argued that some other economic system was superior to a free market. The exhortation said, instead, that justice doesn’t come from the market. That’s a point about the morality of the market, not an academic economic treatise.
Is the free market system better than every other? I’d say it is, but I also don’t think it’s perfect. I’ll also say that, like any other human system, it still depends heavily on the day-to-day decisions of real live human beings, all of whom are flawed and sinful. The “system” itself can’t guarantee morality or justice. Trusting the Invisible Hand to solve all problems is foolish; after all, has it?
There are less poor people than before. Great. But the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t grade on a curve. The fact that there are still poor people means we still have a lot of work to do. It also means that capitalism isn’t an automatic robot that we can turn on and sit back, waiting for the free market to solve all problems. It still takes believers to get up off our dead ass and do what we can do.
All of the protests that ... capitalism has brought more wealth than any other system … hey, the poor should be grateful for capitalism! … If only the liberals would get out of the way … all of these comments miss the moral point. No human system will bring justice, happiness, and peace. No system can bring that.
Only the good news, the Gospel, can overcome the injustices of the world. Is anyone surprised that a religious Christian leader thinks so?
When the pope says that only the good news of Jesus Christ can bring justice, it’s jarring to hear Catholics answer that ... this is an insult to capitalism. And then, that the pope must not understand economics. If your answer to the challenge (i.e., that capitalism isn't the path to salvation) is to proclaim how great capitalism is, you really didn't understand the challenge.
Another assumption: that when one’s enemies praise someone, that person must be an enemy also.
In law, that’s called circumstantial evidence. It isn’t direct evidence; it’s indirect. It holds that if something were true, other circumstances would also be true. (If the pope was a conservative, liberals would hate him.) But since the other circumstances are not true, that must prove the contrary. (The pope must be a liberal.)
The problem is that this argument doesn’t account for the possibility that the liberals might be wrong. (Wow, what a thought! Liberals might be wrong. Who knew that was possible?)
- The liberals love Francis because they hope that Francis might loosen the church’s laws about abortion or gay marriage. Yeah, they’re wrong. He’s been more than clear about that.
- The liberals love Francis because they hope that Francis might let women become priests. Yeah, they’re wrong. He’s dismissed that idea several times.
- Francis has said that the best way to preach the gospel is through mercy and forgiveness, not by engaging in culture war skirmishes. The liberals love Francis because they hope that means that the church has surrendered in the culture war. Yeah, they’re wrong. Francis is calling for a better way to preach the gospel, not changing the gospel itself, about which he’s been very clear.
So, arguing that the pope must be an enemy because liberals love him is absurd. It’s illogical. It's a circumstantial argument with no other evidence to back it up.
For me, the biggest challenge to Ricochet is how people approach the roles of religion and politics.
If you think you can bring justice and peace through being a conservative, I’d say you’re wrong. There’s a lot more to life than limiting the government. Yes, I agree that we should limit the government, but there’s a lot more work to do after we’ve limited it.
As I say, I intend to be provocative.
I say that some people on Ricochet see religion as something useful to help politics.
We’ll listen to the church only to the extent that it agrees with our politics. When the church comes out with teachings that agree with our conservative politics or conservative cultural view, we’re all in favor of that. Then they have authority.
But if the church teaches something that doesn’t actively support conservatism, that itself is proof that it has strayed from truth, and therefore has strayed from its authority, and therefore it becomes an enemy.
I say these assumptions are rampant, not just on Ricochet, but throughout conservatism. And they need to be confronted and denied.