On the “Benefits” of Heresy

In times like these, filled with errors and a resurgence of heresies (old or recast as new), there is a cry that goes up among the faithful: “How long, O Lord?” We may wonder why the Lord permits such errors to flourish. St. Augustine pondered the question as well:

But that is precisely why divine providence permits so many heretics to come along with various errors; it’s so that when they taunt us and shower us with questions we do not know the answers to, we may at least in this way be shaken out of our mental sloth and start longing to become acquainted with the divine scriptures … many people are lazy to want to be taught, unless they are sort of awakened from their slumbers by heretics making a nuisance of themselves with their taunts, so that then they start feeling ashamed of their ignorance and begin to realize that they are being put in a dangerous position by this ignorance of theirs.

That is why the apostle too says: “There have to be many heresies, so that those who prove reliable may stand out among you” (1 Cor 11:19). Those who can teach well are the ones who prove reliable in God’s eyes. But they can only stand out among people when they teach… (Augustine, On Genesis, Book 1.2).

Yes, our detractors and dissenters provide us a gift, albeit in a strange package. Their scoffs and pronouncements that the Church is out of date and will eventually change to “catch up” to their newly minted “truths,” compels the orthodox to ponder again the ancient truths given by God and to do so more deeply.

In our own times, so beset with public dissent even from some in the clergy, there has also been a blossoming of Catholic teaching as never before. There is a magnificent array of books, videos, websites, podcasts, solid Catholic journalism, radio and television programming, and even new Catholic universities. Our teaching has become sharper and more apologetic, focused not simply on the “what” of faith but also the “why.”

As I look at younger adults, I think it is a small miracle that they even come to Mass. Where would they have gotten such an idea? Certainly not from our current culture! Although only a small percentage of them attend, the ones that do are far more intentional, devout, and knowledgeable in some ways than the generations that preceded them.

I grew up at the end of an era, in the 60s and 70s, when Mass attendance rode the wave of a cultural energy. Back then it was widely held that “decent people” went to Church. Politicians, community leaders, and business owners were all expected to manifest belief and membership, to include regular attendance at sacred services. It was part of one’s bona fides. We went to Church in much larger numbers in those halcyon days, but in many cases we did so mostly because we were expected to do so. It was not that we were particularly devout or spiritual or that we were theological giants. Rather, it was a certain box that needed to be checked off. Surely not all were attending Mass perfunctorily, but a lot of people were swept in by the current of culture. When the culture turned (not just against attendance but against belief altogether), the numbers began to ebb. The whole thing was thousands of miles wide but only two inches deep. It broke up quickly under the scorching sun in the desert of our discontent, starting in the late 1960s.

Those of us who still attend Mass today are more intentional. Few seem to expect us to attend. Indeed, our attendance often provokes scorn, eliciting questions such as, “You don’t really believe all that Catholic stuff, do you?” It is this very scorn, however, that can help to quicken our resolve and to be clearer about what we believe and why it makes sense. If you ask me, there is something deeper and richer about the faith of many Church-goers today. In many cases they have had to swim against the current to believe and to come to Mass each Sunday.

St. Augustine’s observation remains largely true. When you encounter heresy and error don’t just get mad. Instead, get smarter and more devout!

Let’s Be Careful in Our Charges Regarding the New Wording of the Catechism on the Death Penalty

As most of you know, the Pope has directed that the wording of the Catechism of the Catholic Church about capital punishment be changed. The new wording is as follows:

2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.

Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” [1], and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

[1] FRANCIS, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.

I have concerns that the reactions I have seen in the Catholic “blogosphere” have been too extreme. There are accusations of error, heresy, violations of Natural Law, and unauthorized changes to an unchangeable doctrine. There are calls to resist the Pope, to reject the teaching, and even to bring charges of heresy.

I think we need to be careful, slow down, and look more carefully at the wording. While I understand that there are legitimate concerns, I hope for a more respectful discussion among Catholics than I am currently seeing, at least here in the U.S.

My own reading of the new wording is more sanguine than that of my usual allies. I would like to make three points:

  1. I do not think the Pope or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has changed doctrine or teaching. The new wording addresses a change in the circumstances of our times. While acknowledging the past assessments that permitted the use of the death penalty, the new wording uses an important interpretive phrase: “Today, however, …” What this means is that given the circumstances of our times, the current stance of the Church is that the use of the death penalty is both unnecessary and unwarranted. This is not the same as saying that previous Church teaching was wrong. The emphasis is on current circumstances, in which the need for this penalty is less than demonstrable, and there is an uneven application of “penal sanctions imposed by the state.” These circumstances make the use of the death penalty inadmissible because it does not meet the standards upon which the teaching insists: that it is necessary for the common good and that it is justly and consistently applied. You may disagree with these conclusions, but the point is that the teaching has not been changed; rather, current circumstances do not accord with what is necessary for legitimate recourse to the death penalty.
  2. The circumstances of our times are such that there is a need for a pastoral strategy that speaks to the dignity of every human person. While I realize that an innocent child in the womb is not to be equated with a convicted criminal, we should be careful about affording increasingly secular states the right to end any human life that does not immediately threaten the common good or the safety of innocent people. The new wording speaks to this.
  3. Some have said that the use of the word “inadmissible” is the same as calling the death penalty intrinsically evil. This seems a reckless charge meant to inflame. Had the Pope or the CDF meant to call it such (and it is not) they would have used the words “intrinsic evil”—but that is not the case. A more benign understanding is that the use of the death penalty is inadmissible due to the current circumstances. The context for the word “inadmissible” is supplied by the prior sentences and should be used in understanding it.

I realize that there will be ongoing discussion. I only ask that we calm down a bit and try to listen to what is actually being said (even if we find it somewhat ambiguous). Perhaps we should exhibit a little more care than I have seen exhibited in some of the commentaries I have read.

My central point is that it is not necessary to read this new wording in radical contrast to what has been taught in the past. The stance of the Church for at least the last fifty years has been that the conditions that require the death penalty are rarely if ever present today. This new wording of a moral teaching about a matter rarely encountered in the average person’s lifetime does not amount to a collapse of the Church’s entire moral doctrine. The heated responses on the blogs are out of proportion to a change that, while significant, is worded in a way that permits a contextual no rather than an absolute no that overthrows previous Church teaching. I do not think it does reverse Church teaching and we should be far more careful in making such claims.

In the interest of disclosure, I will say that I have not supported the use of the death penalty for years. I do not hold that it is intrinsically evil, but I cannot see why it is necessary. I do think that we must be more serious about keeping dangerous criminals locked up. First, there should be “truth in sentencing” (i.e., twenty years means twenty years). Second, these convicts should be strictly confined in ways that respect the common good and the need for public safety.

In closing, we should resist the vision of the culture of death, which insists that the killing of human beings is a legitimate solution to human problems.