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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Cardinal Burke's New Adventures As A Jackass

So, now Cardinal Burke claims he never said the Pope was a heretic.

That's alright, Cardinal - the people you deliberately stirred up are saying that is really what you meant.

So, it looks like your language has been pretty damned imprecise. Maybe someone should issue a formal correction to you, eh?

As for his statement about the pope and heresy, let's just say better theologians than Cardinal Burke have already dismissed his opinion as ridiculous.

Wow - looks like I'm precisely in line with Pope Francis.
This makes me very happy.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

All Dogs Go To Hell

If dogs can go to heaven, then dogs can go to hell as well.
So, maybe all dogs go to hell.

Which would actually be much more logical, since:

  1. all of creation is fallen,
  2. thus dogs are fallen
  3. Heaven is only attainable through sacramental grace.
  4. Dogs are not baptized
  5. Therefore, dogs don't receive sacramental grace,
  6. Thus, if dogs have souls, their souls must be fallen (along with the rest of creation), they have no baptism to save them, and thus no means to be healed of their fallen state.

CONCLUSION: All dogs go to hell.


Either accept that conclusion or stop pretending pets are persons. Pets don't have immortal souls - they die, they are done. They disappear. Period. End of story.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Problem of Intent

The bishops of Buenos Aires have issued a teaching on how to deal with chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis has lauded their summary, saying "There is no other interpretation." 
Many people have read what the bishops of Buenos Aires have said about Amoris Laetitia, found fault with it, and - based on Pope Francis' acquiescence with the bishops' writing - concluded that Pope Francis is teaching error. If we take into account the inexplicable hatred some people have for Pope Francis, this reading is understandable, but not supportable. 

It is possible for two groups of people to read and write exactly the same words, yet have completely different understandings of the meanings of those words.

I know this from personal experience, and therein lies a tale.

My undergraduate degree was in computer science. One of my courses was on database structures, one class of which was devoted to the structure of something called the "b-tree." Now, the instructor spent quite some amount of class time explaining the structure of the b-tree and providing code examples for how to implement it. As he spoke, I built in my mind a model of what it should look like and how to traverse it. When the mid-term exam rolled around, the instructor asked us, in one of the questions, to write a paragraph describe how to traverse a b-tree. I dutifully wrote my understanding out.

On receiving the exams back the next week, I was pleased to see I had gotten full credit for my b-tree answer. But, as the professor reviewed the answers to the exam, his discussion of b-tree traversal was radically different than mine. Impossibly different. I couldn't figure it out. What he was describing didn't match my understanding at all. But he had given me full credit. Why had he given me full credit?

I read my answer over and over, and suddenly it hit me. My description of b-tree traversal had been so imprecise that, depending on whether or not you assumed I had the correct model in mind, it could be read either as a completely correct or a completely incorrect traversal of the b-tree. I nearly laughed out loud. I didn't, of course. I didn't want the instructor to notice me just then. 

Now, make no mistake, my mental model was completely wrong. But my instructor inadvertently gave me the Christian charity of the doubt, he assumed the model in my head matched the model in his head, and so he read my answer in a hermeneutic of continuity with his own, thus giving me full marks when I actually deserved none at all. 

Think on that a moment - he and I both read the same answer, we both affirmed the answer was true, we might each have said about these very same words that "there is no other interpretation." Yet, my instructor's understanding was correct, and mine was thoroughly wrong. 

There have been many negative articles that pretend to "summarize" the Argentinian bishop's teachings. Are those summaries accurately depicting what the bishops have in mind? I don't know. I suspect not. But let us assume the negative summaries are accurate. 

The Pope has said that he agrees with the Argentinian bishops. Does Pope Francis really agree with the bishops, or does he merely "agree" with them in the same way that my instructor thought I agreed with him? Again, I don't know. What I do know from personal experience is this: it is possible for the bishops and the Pope to agree on exactly the same paragraph and its wording, yet the bishops might be thoroughly wrong, while the Pope is, at the same time, entirely correct.

There are a number of instances where Popes have made, or agreed with, statements that they may have intended in one way, but which could be, and subsequently were, read by either the people or the Magisterium in another. So, e
ven if the worst happens to be true, even if the bishops are wrong and the Pope has affirmed their wrong understanding, does that mean the Chair of Peter has failed? Not at all. Amoris Laetitia did not explicitly say anything that violated the Faith. Even if what the bishops wrote is wrong, even if Pope Francis thoroughly agreed with the erroneous bishops when he said "there is no other interpretation," his statement is his view as a private theologian. As a private theologian, he could easily be wrong about whether or not there is another interpretation. That is, even if we grant error on the part of the Argentine bishops and the Pope, a Magisterial document could easily overrule his off-the-cuff remark concerning how to read the Argentinian bishops' document.

You may agree with all that I have written, but reply that the Pope has no right to make pronouncements that are not precise. That argument is completely insupportable. As the eminent historian Father Phillip Hughes points out, the Nicene Creed, the very first Creed produced by the very first major council of the Church, contained the word "homoousion". "Homoousion" was so imprecise, so constantly associated with heresy, that its inclusion in the Creed arguably forced the the Church to hold four subsequent ecumenical councils just to hammer out exactly what that vague and vaguely heretical word meant. The presence of that word, "homoousion", in the Nicene creed actually caused the Coptic Church to schism off rather than sign off on any Creed containing such infamous phrasing. 

The examples could easily be multiplied. Popes and councils have a long history of imprecise wording. They think it is precise when they write it or say it, but then some wag in the corner comes up with an interpretation they hadn't considered, and it's back to the drawing board we go! 

The Church is made of people. Anyone who writes for a living knows that it is nearly impossible to phrase things precisely and accurately the first time around. Such precision takes constant re-writes, discussions, and more re-writes. Even if, by some miracle, a writer does get it correct the first time through, the phrasing may be so original that the readers simply don't "get" it, they don't see how the writer possibly made the leap from A to W. So, a bunch of supporting documents, examples, footnotes, have to be added to help the reader make the connection the first time through.

Most of the negative drum-beating about Amoris Laetitia is nonsense fomented by people who simply don't like Pope Francis. They are determined to find fault where there is no fault. It is ridiculous.

Have some faith in the Pope, have some faith in the Church. This dust-up is regrettable, but not at all new. It is not the end of the world, not even close. This, too, shall pass. 

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Voting Conundrum

Voting is like homeopathy. The idea is, my vote is critically important, even though we both know that it will be swamped by the votes of the city, county and state in which I live. Nobody wins an election by one vote at the national level. No one does so at the state level, and it is pretty darned rare even at the county or city level.

But, let's ignore facts and pretend my vote really, really matters.

Then this happens:

So, you are from Texas and you voted for an elector, but the elector won't do what you want.

I live in Texas, I didn't vote at all, but I got an elector who will do precisely what I want.

Wow - it's almost like our votes don't matter.

How crazy is that?

And it's not like this is new. Think of the politician who promises to vote "the will of the people." It is childishly easy to keep the promise. Hundreds of thousands of people will vote for him, all of them holding diverse opinions on any particular issue. The politician need only vote for whatever he personally wants, and he has thereby voted "the will of the people."

If his personal opinion happens to match the majority of voters, he is following the mandate of the people. If his personal opinion happens to be opposed by the majority, and championed only by some small minority, then he is defending the needs of the minority against oppression.

See how that works?

No politician can be a liar on this score. As I wrote elsewhere,
So, when I vote, I don't vote in order THAT someone may win. Rather, I vote in order to express the idea that this person is someone I know well enough and I trust well enough to act correctly while they are in office (whether they get that office or not). My vote is a statement about how much I trust another person, a statement that asserts the office-seeker's values are close enough to my own that I have good reason to believe he will serve others well while in office.
It is only in THAT sense that my vote is a moral act. My vote is a short-hand letter of reference. I don't look at the office-seeker and say "Well, he's not as bad as the others, and someone has to do the job, so I suppose he will have to do." Rather, I look at the office seeker on his own, without reference to the other office-seekers. Based on the assessment I make of this seeker alone, I determine if I know him well enough and trust him well enough to endow him with the power of the office.
This is the important part: If none of the office seekers are trustworthy enough, then none of them get my vote.
If voting is a moral act, then my vote is my personal moral statement.That is all it is - it can be no more.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Making Sense of Catholic Marriage

Recently, "traditionalist" Catholics have been complaining about Pope Francis' Amoris LaetitiaSpecifically, they demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of exactly how sin and the confessional work.

The bishops of Buenos Aires have issued a teaching on how to deal with chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis has lauded their summary, saying "There is no other interpretation." Let's look at what the Argentine bishops said.
“When the concrete circumstances of a couple make it feasible, especially when both are Christians with a journey of faith, one may propose that they commit to living in continence.” Amoris Laetitia “does not ignore the difficulties of this option (cf. note 329) and leaves open the possibility of receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation when one fails in this intention” (cf. note 364). 
This is nothing new. Living "as brother and sister", that is, living as a married couple but without engaging in sex certainly does not bar either member of the couple from the sacraments. It never has. Sex outside of marriage is a sin, but if two people are living in the same space, but are not having sex outside of marriage, that is, if they are "living in continence", they are fine. They can receive the Eucharist.

Even if they occasionally fail, that is no new thing. How many of us go to confession, confess a sin, fully intend to never repeat it again, then find ourselves in the confessional the next month, confessing EXACTLY the same sin again? What matters at the moment of confession and absolution is intent at the moment of confession and absolution. As long as we have proper intent, we are absolved of our sin and able to receive the Eucharist. Even if we fail a few hours later, for the few hours that our resolve held, we can receive. The situation the Argentine bishops described above is EXACTLY the same as the situation any sin puts us in.

But the bishops did not stop there. They added this in the next paragraph:
“In other more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity,” the document continues, “the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be viable. Nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment.” And “if one arrives at the recognition that, in a concrete case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351). These in turn disposes the person to continue maturing and growing with the strength of grace. 
This paragraph does not say that all couples who have gotten civil marriage without benefit of annulment have the right to the Eucharist. What AL points out is something that already applies to other sins: "there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability." 

Case 1

Again, this is not a new concept. We don't become new people overnight - it takes time to change habits. Priests are required to recognize this reality in the confessional. Lay Catholics are required to recognize this in real life. 

For instance, getting drunk is a mortal sin, but if the sinner is addicted to alcohol, then that diminishes the sinner's culpability. What is purely sinful for me, who has no addiction to alcohol, no habit of imbibing when life gets me down, might not be as sinful for you, who has developed this habit. Your habit has enslaved you to commit this sin in a way that my life has not enslaved me. It will be easier for me to avoid this sin in the future than it will be for you. You have less culpability, less responsibility, because you have lost ingrained habits of control in this regard. Any sin can become a habit in this way, any habitual sin reduces culpability. This is true of every sin, even the sin of sex outside of marriage.

Combine this with the fact above concerning intent, and we have the possibility of a civilly remarried couple who intend to live from this point forward as brother and sister. They receive Eucharist after confession, perhaps even receiving Eucharist outside of Mass, and then fail in their intentions just hours or days later. Perhaps this is something they struggle with over the course of months or years, with the time elapsed between sinful episodes slowly expanding, sometimes contracting, as they constantly work on this area with the help of Confession and Eucharist.

Remember, civil re-marriage is not a canonical crime, it does not incur the penalty of excommunication. As the Diocese of Madison points out:
Are those who divorce and civilly remarry excommunicated?
No. Excommunication is a specific canonical penalty imposed as a consequence for certain very serious canonical crimes. Neither seeking a divorce nor attempting remarriage are currently punishable by excommunication, nor are they even classified as canonical crimes. This is not necessarily to say that divorce and civil remarriage are not immoral or sinful, or that they have no effect on one's relationship with the Church. In general, divorce introduces disorder into the family and society, bringing grave harm to the deserted spouse and to children traumatized by the separation of their parents (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2386). Therefore, depending on the circumstances, divorce can be gravely immoral. And attempting remarriage while already validly married in always seriously sinful.
In the case of the couple above, with whom the priest is assiduously working, no law of the Church is broken, no reality is ignored. Pope Francis points out that there is nothing wrong with working with a couple in this way.

Before we go further, we should recall Pope Benedict famously stated that the use of condoms in extramarital sex might constitute a first step towards morality. Now that Pope Benedict has cleared the way for such discussions, Pope Francis and the Argentine bishops use "the Benedictine condom principle" to point towards a similar application within marriage itself - the protection of the children.

Remember two things: (1) One of the three goods of marriage (procreation, union of the spouses and remedy for concupiscence) is the conception and raising of children (both are part of procreation), (2) According to Pope Benedict, the use of condoms is evil in itself, but may indicate a willingness to consider the good of another. If that is the case, Benedict considers the use of condoms a first step towards morality.

So, Francis just takes Benedict's condom principle and applies it to marriage (Pope Benedict himself said the condom principle applied even in heterosexual acts). According to the "Benedictine" principle, the sexually active couple who view their own sexual union as necessary to their life together, may see their life together as pre-eminently important for the children (a good). That is, they recognize the children from one or both first marriages need to have both a mother and a father present in the house. The couple want the children to have both mother and father. The couple has taken civil (natural) vows of fidelity to each other, but recognize that they themselves have a tendency to stray. So, they have sex in order to reduce/remove their tendency to stray (quiet concupiscence), in order to maintain their union and in order to help make sure the little ones have a home. They are showing concern for innocent little ones.

Again, according to Pope Benedict, this concern for fidelity to each other for the sake of the children would constitute the first step towards morality to the priest who tries to guide them towards the good of preparing themselves for sacramental marriage. Their willingness to work to stay together, even though it involves sex that is not licit, is undertaken for the good of others, innocent children. According to "the Benedictine condom principle", this willingness to recognize personal weaknesses and the needs of the children has to be taken into consideration by the priest as he works with them to move towards a situation that does not do violation to the sacrament of marriage.

So, anyone who defended Pope Benedict's remarks on condoms (Ignatius Press, I'm looking at you), should likewise be defending Pope Francis' and the bishops of Buenos Aires on Amoris LaetitiaPope Francis is merely following in Pope Benedict's footsteps. 

Case 2

But we can take it even further. There is a fact about marriage tribunals which all priests and bishops (should) already know: the declaration of a marriage tribunal is a disciplinary, not a doctrinal, statement. Again, we quote from the Diocese of Madison:
Are tribunal judgments infallible?
The marriage nullity process serves precisely to allow for and encourage the discovery of truth regarding the juridic status of the marriage under review. In other words, the process is designed to arrive at the truth as to whether a valid and indissoluble matrimonial bond arose between the two parties at the moment of consent. Even though the judicial decisions of an ecclesiastical tribunal are certainly trustworthy, they are not infallible. (emphasis added) In theory, the judges could err in two ways: 1) they could incorrectly declare a valid marriage to be invalid, or 2) they could incorrectly declare an invalid marriage to be valid. Neither error is a good thing, but the former is much worse, since the judges would essentially be doing what the Lord prohibited, separating what God has joined. For this reason, the Church's law is designed to ensure that any doubts about the validity of a marriage are resolved in favor of the marriage bond, means that marriages are presumed valid until proven otherwise.
Marriage tribunals can be wrong. As I have pointed out before, those who are not sinning have a right to the sacraments. If those innocent of mortal sin are denied access to the sacraments, the priests who deny them access have sinned against them. What do we do if the marriage tribunal has erroneously closed off access to the sacraments of Marriage and the Eucharist?

Remember, marriage tribunals do not just draw their power from canon law, but also from the power of the local bishop. That is, marriage cases can, at least in theory, be decided directly by the local bishop without the use of a marriage tribunal. Now, this almost never happens, but in theory, it could. This possibility of circumventing current procedures lies within AL as well - the possibility that it is time for the Church to find a better disciplinary method than a marriage tribunal for assessing the sacramental bond of marriage.

Time to Change Discipline?
Changing the disciplinary method for a sacrament has precedent. For the first thousand years of the Church, a man learned how to be a priest by following a real priest around. That was originally the function of an altar server - he was the priest's apprentice. Unfortunately, the process was only as good as the priests in the process. Every priest trained his own replacement via an apprenticeship. Since half of any group is sub-average, this apprenticeship process guaranteed half of all new priests would receive sub-average training. That wasn't good.

Although the apprenticeship method stank to high heaven and no one really liked it, for over a thousand years, no one knew how to fix it. The priest formation process stayed broken until technological change, specifically, the invention of the printing press and the resulting hundred-fold drop in book prices, allowed the Council of Trent to develop an alternate solution: the seminary. With the new seminary training system, the old apprenticeship was abolished. After Trent, all priests had to attend a seminary, a training school, where only the best priests of the diocese were allowed to serve as instructors. Now everyone got the best instruction that the diocese had to offer. Some dioceses were better than others, but that was the best anyone could do. That solution has held for the last 500 years.

The marriage tribunal is similarly an invention of the Church, meant to handle marriage questions in a more systematic and professional way. But nobody really likes the system. By reminding bishops that they have a certain amount of latitude in dealing with marriage questions, Pope Francis may be opening the door to start a discussion about how to move forward from the current marriage tribunal system to something more efficacious and certain.

I have no idea what that would look like, and AL gives only the barest hint that something like this is open for discussion. But, we should consider the possibility that it is time the Church came up with a "seminary-like" solution for marriage questions. It may well be time to abolish marriage tribunals and implement a new process that is better than the tribunal solution we currently have, better at administering and clarifying the ancient understanding of the sacrament of marriage. If that is where Pope Francis would like to go, he has the support of most of the Church.

If Pope Francis' point seems convoluted and in serious need of explanation, that may be because his point builds so directly off of Pope Benedict's deeply confusing remarks. Note, the comment below is about Benedict's condom remarks:
“I have never seen a communiqué from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that explains the words of the pope after the fact,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at Il Foglio, an Italian daily newspaper. “I think it’s unique. And it demonstrates how many complaints and serious criticism the Vatican has received.”