Sunday, April 14, 2013

Caricatures of the Catholic Church

Abp. Fulton J. Sheen and his Life Is Worth Living blackboard.
One of the eminently quotable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s most well-known dicta is this: “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.”

Let’s face it: The history, beliefs and culture of the Catholic Church comprises almost 2,000 years of development. To do justice merely to the last hundred years or so would require two or three volumes the size of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is thick enough to make Stephen King pale with fright. Frankly, non-Catholics ought to read Frs. John Trigillio and Kenneth Brighenti’s Catholicism for Dummies® and at least peruse the Catechism before they attempt to comment on matters of the Faith. All too often, though, people hate a caricature of the Church, usually one they learned from similarly ill-informed people, like a person who hates Pres. Obama based on editorial cartoons he’s enjoyed.

Case in point: Before I went on my post-Easter “Internet fast”, I wrote a post for The Impractical Catholic arguing that the “rich Catholic Church” trope was a simplistic and unjustified treatment of Church finances. When I came back online Saturday, I found a reply from “Chester” which was little more than a dismissal. For our purposes, two lines stand out which illustrate this tendency to beat the stuffing out of straw men:

I think you raise some good points about businesses, but the Catholic church claims to be above human law, above mere business dealings.
The Catholic church is claimed to be a charitable organisation, but they actively discriminate against women and gays. If your god is good enough for everyone, so is your time and money.


Let’s set aside the implication that Catholic charities turn away people based on sex or orientation, and content ourselves for now with noting that it’s baloney. That’s not my point here, nor am I going to allow any rabbit holes on the subject of discrimination.

Instead, let’s take the first assertion: “the Catholic Church claims to be above human law”. I’m sure if you dig deep enough in Church history, you can find some cleric or hierarch who said something that could be interpreted in such a fashion. However, that’s not authentic Catholic doctrine.

So far as it is in accord with natural and divine law (or at least not opposed to them), the Church is bound to observe human law just as anyone else is. When human law opposes natural and divine law, moral persons are not bound in conscience to obey it; this is true not just for Catholics or the institutional Church (Ac 5:29) but for all who hold themselves bound to natural law (cf. CCC 1903). Otherwise, “The authority required by the moral order derives from God: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment’” (CCC 1899; cit. Rom 13:1-2; cf. 1 Pet 2:13-17).

So is the Church “above mere business dealings”? I’d like to know where people got the idea that being “spiritual” or “religious” means being improvident or scatter-brained about money. Justice, honesty and prudence require that the Church pay her bills and keep track of the funds entrusted to her; also, as we just saw, the Church is bound to obey all secular laws pertaining to non-profit organizations, including accounting and financial filings. The Catholic Church has never claimed to be “above mere business dealings”; in fact, the phrase itself is meaningless bombast, the kind of silly cliché spoken by pompous asses who affect a “higher spirituality”.

“The Church is claimed to be a charitable organisation”: This may explain why so many people are confused as to the Church’s intransigence on such matters as the ordination of women and marrying of same-sex couples. That the Church is a charitable organization may very well be other people’s claim, but it’s an inaccurate and inapposite statement — the Church is not primarily a charitable organization. Rather, the Church is primarily a religious organization that runs charities as a logical and practical yet secondary extension of its moral doctrine.

The Church’s primary reason for being, as I’ve said before, is found in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Our charitable ministries derive from Jesus’ teaching that our treatment of others, particularly of the unfortunate, reflects our true relationship with God (Matt 25:31-46 and passim). However, if the Church were forced by circumstance or law to divest herself of all her charitable ministries, she would still have a raison d’être: to pass the Gospel message on to future generations.

In summation, then, Chester attributes three claims to the Church, two of which are false and one of which is an understandable yet critical mistake; of the two false claims, one is a libel created by anti-Catholics and the other a misappropriated, misattributed fatuity. Taken all together, they’re the kind of tropes that manage to eke out long lives due to endless repetition, the kind of pseudo-knowledge generally introduced by the phrase, “Everyone knows that …”.

It’s quite permissible to criticize the Church on what her leaders and followers have done in her name. “Of course I mean that Catholicism was not tried; plenty of Catholics were tried, and found guilty” (G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World). It’s permissible to take issue with those things she does teach.

But to criticize the Church for failing to achieve an ideal she has never held for herself, or for failing to live by a doctrine she’s never taught, is to hate a Catholic Church that doesn’t exist.