Sunday, June 1, 2014

“Mere Catholicism” vs. Real Catholicism™

Which one is the Real Catholic™?
The Circular Catholic Firing Squad found more bullets this last week. *sigh*

It appears that a Popular Catholic Blogger (whom I will not identify) called BS in the combox of another Not-So-Popular Catholic Blogger (ditto). After some vicious squabbling in NSPCB’s combox and on PCB’s Facebook page, joined in by other Well-Known Catholic Bloggers, NSPCB left the field of bloggery in a huff — or, per Groucho, in a minute and a huff — calling down divine retribution on all those who had the gall to correct him for their lack of charity.

In reference to this shindy, Scott Eric Alt commented on Facebook, “Pride is the most dangerous of sins because it is the least correctible — the very nature of the sin makes its victim feel himself to be above correction. The adulteress wept, and the Pharisee sneered.” Whether because of pride or narcissism or a particularly nasty combination of both, it’s very tempting for a Catholic blogger (Your Humble Blogger included) to make him/herself and his tribe the point of reference for Real Catholicism™.

The problem isn’t that there’s no normative or “mere” Catholicism, with distinct borders that define it as well as distinguish it from not-Catholicism. The first problem is that, while the Greek root katholikos means “universal”, Real Catholicism™ tries to make that universe smaller; it becomes more concerned with kicking “fake Catholics” to the curb than with correcting error or instructing the unknowing. The second problem is that, because Catholics are split politically by our god-awful culture wars, political language confuses and pollutes the competing monologues (very little real dialogue takes place). For example, see Hilary White’s diatribe in The Remnant  of a couple years ago, in which she condescendingly equates “neo-Catholicism” (almost-but-not-quite Real Catholicism™) with political progressivism. (EEK! RUN AWAY!)


In the Encyclical “Mystici Corporis,” Pius XII declared: “Only those are to be accounted really members of the Church who have been regenerated in the waters of Baptism and profess the true faith, and have not cut themselves off from the structure of the Body [of Christ] by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority.” (Denzinger 2286)
According to this declaration three conditions are to be demanded for membership of the Church: a) The valid reception of the Sacrament of Baptism. b) The profession of the true Faith. c) Participation in the Communion of the Church. By fulfillment of these three conditions one subjects oneself to the threefold office of the Church, the sacerdotal office (Baptism), the teaching office (Confession of Faith), and the pastoral office (obedience to the Church authority).[1]

In sum, full membership belongs to those validly baptized who hold the Faith in communion with the Holy See and the bishops, and strive to live according to the dogmas, doctrine and precepts of the Church. As Ven. Pius XII’s predecessor Benedict XV said, “There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim ‘Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,’ only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself.” (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24)

Now, I take it that the role of the lay Catholic blogger is fundamentally evangelical; per Canon 211, “All the Christian faithful have the duty and right to work so that the divine message of salvation more and more reaches all people in every age and in every land.” This is a true and valid participation of the baptized in the priesthood of Christ[2]. Also, with respect to Canon 212 §3, the faithful have a right, sometimes a positive duty, to “manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive tothe dignity of persons[bold type mine.—ASL]

But while counseling the doubtful, instructing the unknowing and admonishing the sinner are all considered spiritual works of mercy[3] — as is, nota bene, the patient bearing of wrongs — the excommunication of heretics and schismatics is a function that belongs properly and solely to the bishops as successors to the apostles, not to laymen, religious, deacons or priests. We explain to persuade, not to judge.

Second, laymen, religious, deacons and priests do not individually partake of the Church’s infallibility. Only the pope and the bishops are protected from teaching error on matters of faith and morals, under defined circumstances. Your average Catholic writer, including Your Humble Blogger, is well and truly capable of misunderstanding or misexplaining a doctrine. In fact, I have a disclaimer in the right margin, as does canon lawyer Ed Peters. It’s a practice I think every Catholic blogger ought to adopt, as well as to post a sign on the wall that says: The Church teaches infallibly. You do not.

The opposing virtue to the sin of Pride is Humility — the willingness to eat crow when it’s served.

Speaking of Humility, there is a way in which infallibility isn’t a relevant issue for Catholics: When the Church, either in person of the Pope or in the form of the college of Bishops in communion with the Pope, proposes something to be believed without formally defining it as infallible, we’re still called to give religious assent to it.[4]

I say this because I note that many writers occasionally minimize a doctrine of the Church or a teaching of the Pope by stressing its non-infallible nature. This can be — and usually is — a dangerously misleading fallacy, this appellum ad auctoritatem theologicam (“appeal to theological weight”). It’s not a question of whether we trust our flawed, failing human leaders but of whether we trust the Holy Spirit which Jesus promised would guide and teach them (cf. John 14:26, 16:13). “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).

Finally, the appropriate hierarchy of loyalties runs thus: As we belong to God before we belong to a nation, so we belong to the Church before we belong to a political faction. We must at all points avoid reading doctrine through ideological glasses, and as much as possible avoid using political language to discuss theological issues. Changes in the Church should be discussed on the grounds of their own merits and demerits, and neither damned out of a fear/resentment of change nor demanded out of a fear/resentment of tradition.

Saint Paul tells us that we were all given different gifts by the Holy Spirit to “build up the body of Christ”, to attain unity of the faith and fullness of knowledge, “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:11-15). And key to that work is “speaking the truth in charity”. Truth without charity is sterile, empty … a noisy gong or clanging cymbal (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-2).

It’s time to remember that Real Catholics are erring, failing sinners too. Have some humble pie.


[1] Ott, L. (1952). Principles of Catholic Dogma. Tr. Bastible, J. Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers; p. 309.