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Parsing Beleaguered Words: The Perils of Getting Things Wrong

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 03, 2011

Under duress, people say the darndest things. Often these comments help shape the world, for better or worse. But to get real value from these incidents, you have to parse the text; you have to grasp what is really being said. Here are four examples from recent news:

The SSPX and the Doctrinal Preamble

Facing mounting pressure from the very fact that the Vatican has imposed a “Doctrinal Preamble” on the Society of St. Pius X if it wishes to be restored to full communion with the Church, that organization may be on its way to splintering again. A British faction reported that the Doctrinal Preamble was unacceptable because it did not concede that Vatican II contradicted earlier Church teachings. This prompted the highest level of the SSPX to caution that an authoritative response to the Vatican must come from the leaders of the organization.

Unfortunately, these remarks reveal both theological and practical problems which impede progress toward reconciling the SSPX with the Church. In the first place, as any Catholic ought to know, it is simply not possible for an ecumenical council to contradict past Church teaching in anything it intends to teach. This is no more possible than that one pope should contradict another in teaching the whole Church on a matter of faith or morals. Rather, the same Holy Spirit guarantees all the statements, and it is the task of the rest of us (and especially theologians) to show that any potential contradictions are only apparent and can be resolved by finding an understanding of the question which admits the truth of all statements.

The SSPX is rightly anti-Modernist, but one need neither love Modernism nor approve of the ways in which Modernism has disfigured the Church to reflect on the SSPX’s own shortcomings. It is, after all, a dissident group which just happens to love solemnity and structure. The fact that the SSPX as a whole does not accept the fundamental rule of Catholic theology—that its members so often insist on setting one part of the Magisterium against another—makes reconciliation very difficult.

But there is a practical problem as well. These conflicting statements remind us that negotiations with the SSPX are not like negotiations with the Catholic Church. Ultimately, the SSPX has no authority principle, and so its members might quite legitimately splinter in a thousand ways. Any sort of binding juridical leadership is meaningless in an organization defined by disobedience. If the SSPX leadership accepts the Doctrinal Preamble, how many will come home?

Sister Johnson and the Bishops

Cardinal Wuerl, head of the USSCB’s doctrine committee, claims Sister Elizabeth Johnson has declined to meet with him and his committee to further discuss her heterodox book, Quest for the Living God. Sister Johnson loudly asserts that this is “blatantly false”, saying (very, very carefully, in the manner typical of the Modernist tribe), that she never “received an offer to meet at a definite time or with a protocol or agenda that would ensure serious discussion of the issues in my book”.

Now “serious discussion” in this context typically means “fair discussion”, which in turn means “discussion dominated by intelligent theologians instead of stupid and authoritarian bishops.” But let us leave that aside for just a moment. What both parties agree on is that Bishop Wuerl, head of the Committee, expressed a desire to meet with Sister Johnson about the book and issued an open invitation. Now if I were concerned to be a faithful Catholic, and I also believed the bishops had misunderstood my work, I would delightedly follow up on that. I would not ignore it until I had been notified of a time, place and protocol.

But if I were not concerned to be a faithful Catholic, and I knew the bishops had understood my work perfectly, then I would put the protocol question front and center. I would insist on controlling the agenda, the attendance and the procedure for the meeting, ensuring that I would be judged by my peers in the Modernist theological fraternity. If the bishops did not agree to this, I would wait to see if I were criticized by the bishops for not responding to their invitation, or if I were summarily told to attend a meeting which I could not control. If the former, I could announce to the media that the bishops are insincere in their desire for discussions. If the latter—that is, if the bishops set up a time, place and protocol which I could not control—I could announce that they are on a witch hunt.

Insiders say that this is pretty much how things fell out, and indeed it is exactly what we would expect. Moreover, how is it that Sister Johnson decries the fact that the invitation was even less worthy because it came only after the Committee had already drafted its criticism of her book? The book was already in print and circulating widely as a work of Catholic theology, without a care in the world that it contradicted the faith the bishops are bound to uphold. So it turns out that people say the darndest things about the darndest things.

Catholics for Choice and Conscience Rights

In hearings held by Rep. Joseph Pitts yesterday to consider whether the mandates of the new health law threaten conscience rights, Jon O’Brien was dutifully on hand to represent the views of Catholics—or rather, of Catholics for Choice, which the bishops in the United States have formally stated is not a Catholic organization. Anyway, O’Brien claimed that most Catholics support the position of his group that the exercise of a right of conscience in things like contraception and abortion “would deny the right of everyone seeking comprehensive healthcare.”

But there are rights and there are rights. To say we have a “right” to something because it is not against the law (or even because the law approves it) is a very loose use of the term. Contrary to legal positivists everywhere, rights ought to be used to determine law, but laws ought not to be used to determine rights. A true right is definitely not something that the law creates. Rather, it is something rooted in the nature, moral character, and universal duties of the human person.

For example, a parent has the right to raise his own children because the parent-child relationship is rooted in the nature of man and, moreover, the parent has a moral duty to do so. The right to life arises because we are created by God and in his image, and this right applies not to accidents or disease or attacks by savage beasts but only to our relationships with other persons, who have a profound duty to treasure, revere and protect this extraordinary gift of human life.

So human laws cannot create rights, but are bound to protect them. Does the fact that contraception is not illegal give me a “right” to use contraception? And does it also give me the “right” to force someone else to provide contraceptives on my demand? Perhaps it is better if we insist that Catholics speak for Catholics after all, or at least find somebody who knows what words mean.

Daniel Avila and His Retracted Column

It may be unfortunate that Daniel Avila was pressured into a retraction of his column in the Boston Pilot. His column was a valiant effort to explain a difficult question in a hostile culture, and he might better have been urged to write a follow-up piece rather than to have been so obviously thrown to the wolves. Let us hope this is as far as it goes. But Avila chose to write on a supremely sensitive issue. He did not get it quite right, and the bishops rather understandably want to control the message, keeping it absolutely free from theological misunderstanding. One would, of course, like to see equal control over Catholics who publish the view Avila attempted to refute.

Indeed, the problem arose because so many people claim that, since same-sex attraction is given to persons by God, God must intend that this attraction should be morally fulfilled. Avila wished to counter this, but he went too far in the opposite direction. Apparently, he thought he could prove that God is not responsible only by identifying another responsible person, namely Satan. This, Avila argued, also helps us to realize that acting on same sex attractions is a serious evil, because there is a huge gulf between God’s plans and Satan’s plans.

The difficulty, of course, is that Avila attributes far too much to Satan, as if all our troubles come directly from his hand. This can too easily be read as suggesting that those who experience same-sex attractions are somehow more in the grip of Satan than those who do not. But according to Catholic teaching, that is simply not true. What determines whether we are more in the grip of Satan than somebody else is how we respond to the temptations we experience—temptations that can come from the world, the flesh and the devil, and some of which arise from the disorder we experience because of the Fall, or Original Sin.

Original Sin is a condition of disruption of the harmony within all of nature, including within man himself, and between nature and man, and between man and God. Human nature is weakened by Original Sin, and later by our own personal sins, and this weakness expresses itself in many different kinds of disorder—physical, psychological, rational, affective, and so on. The faculties in which such disorders arise are no longer docile to our wills, our wills are no longer docile to our intellect, and neither is our intellect as sharp and perceptive as it should be, or as docile to God. Hence we often feel inclinations that lead us in directions which are not good for us and which, to be sure, are displeasing to God not in the temptation but in the act. This tendency manifests itself in different persons in different ways. But we all bear the burden.

This burden, along with the sin of Adam that caused it, has also been called a “happy fault”, because it is both the occasion and the context for redemption and grace. Thus, in attempting to prove too much, Avila explained far too little, which is a shame.

That, in fact, seems to be the theme today. In every instance, someone has attempted to prove way too much, whether through presumption, ignorance, confusion or ill will. In consequence, these things have not been correctly explained at all. It just goes to show the necessity of reading very carefully, and even between the lines.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Nov. 03, 2011 5:57 PM ET USA

    I don't think that you have accurately framed the debate involving SSPX: a Council that was intended to be pastoral--according the the Pope!--and did not make any formal declarations of anthemas (as is traditional), is not the simple situation which your post implies. But regarding the lack of unifying authority, you are entirely correct: if SSPX comes into full unity with Rome, I doubt that all members will come.