Teaching and Arguing Catholicism

Sometimes I receive e-mails from persons sincerely asking for the answer to a theological question. They include some comments about their current thinking on the topic. And sometimes, from their words, I perceive that they will not accept the answer that I give. Though they are asking a sincere question, they also have indicated a set of presuppositions that conflict with the answer to the question. So when I answer, they either don’t accept or don’t even understand what I’ve said.

As a hypothetical example, Alice asks a question on ethics: Is lying in a particular situation wrong?

My answer, of course, is that lying is wrong by its nature, and therefore it is an intrinsically evil act. Every intrinsically evil act is always wrong, always a sin to knowingly choose, regardless of intention or circumstances. This answer is based on the three fonts of morality taught by the Roman Catholic Magisterium in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Compendium of the Catechism, the USCCB Catechism, and the encyclical Veritatis Splendor — all those magisterial sources teach the three fonts of morality.

Alice is unfamiliar with the three fonts of morality. She knows that certain acts have been called intrinsically evil by the Church, but she has no real understanding as to what makes an act intrinsically evil, or why one cannot choose to commit such an act, with a good intention in difficult circumstances. So she replies by arguing that lying is not wrong in certain cases.

No matter how well I explain the three fonts, or the Church’s teaching that intrinsically evil acts are always wrong, she does not accept the answer. She has a secularized understanding of morality. She has never learned the basic teachings of the Church on ethics. She has many presuppositions as to what makes an act moral or immoral, based on what seems right or wrong, what society accepts or condemns, and her own experiences. And she is not alone. Hers is the typical response of Catholics to Church teaching on ethics.

And this response extends to contraception, same-sex marriage, artificial procreation and many other topics in ethics. The average Catholic, and many of those Catholics who teach and lead the faithful, have an understanding of Catholic ethics that is an odd amalgam of Church teaching and secular ideas and their own thinking.

As another hypothetical example, Bob asks a question as to the official teaching of the Church on some topic. But he does not distinguish between infallible teachings, non-infallible teachings, and fallible judgments of the prudential order. He assumes that every teaching is infallible. He does not realize that any teaching might be misunderstood by him. He assumes that the obvious meaning — at least what seems obvious to a secularized poorly-catechized Catholic like himself — is the only possible meaning.

So when I try to distinguish between infallible and non-infallible teachings, or correct a misinterpretation in his mind, he does not accept it. Like Alice, he wants an answer to his question that is in accord with his own limited understanding, misunderstanding, and incorrect assumptions.

In online discussion groups, I’m speaking primarily about groups other than my own, a similar process is at work. Each person argues their opinion, from their own limited understanding, misunderstanding, and incorrect assumptions. There is not a lot of learning going on. No one likes to admit that they were wrong on a particular point. And this is one reason that I rarely participate in other discussion groups nowadays. It is not fruitful. People argue very foolish theological positions, and they don’t accept correction.

As our Lady said at La Salette: “The holy faith of God being forgotten, each individual will want to be guided by himself and to be superior to his peers.” Each Catholic is guided by the version of Catholicism in his own mind and heart, regardless of its errors and distortions.

But there is a worse problem among Catholics online: anonymous teachers of doctrinal error. In most Catholic discussion groups and on many a Catholic blog, certain persons exalt themselves as teachers of Catholicism, telling everyone what to believe and what the Church supposedly teaches, while remaining anonymous. They are adamant that their ideas are nothing other than Church teaching. There is no acknowledgement that they merely hold an opinion on an open question, or one of several possible interpretations. And if anyone offers a theological argument to the contrary, they respond with arrogance, rudeness, personal attacks, harassment or even malice. Despite this bad behavior and their anonymity, they often succeed in convincing their fellow Catholics that a doctrinal error is really a correct understanding of Church teaching. Sometimes they convince other Catholics that a grave sin is a moral choice approved by the Church. They do very grave harm to souls by their false teaching. They accept correction from no one. Any magisterial document quoted or cited to show that they have misunderstood a point is ignored or radically reinterpreted. The Pharisees of today are often found on the internet.

[James 3]
{3:1} My brothers, not many of you should choose to become teachers, knowing that you shall receive a stricter judgment.

{5:18} Amen I say to you, certainly, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one dot shall pass away from the law, until all is done.
{5:19} Therefore, whoever will have loosened one of the least of these commandments, and have taught men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever will have done and taught these, such a one shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
{5:20} For I say to you, that unless your justice has surpassed that of the scribes and the Pharisees you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Then, finally, there are teachers among the faithful who teach under their real names. Some of these persons teach well, others teach poorly. And the faithful do not give any indication that they can tell the difference. As long as the teaching being presented is pleasing, they accept it.

In the past, I’ve written more than a few articles and posts pointing out the doctrinal errors and outright heresies taught by some of these false teachers. But I’ve stopped doing that for now; it is not fruitful. No one seems to mind if their favorite priest or Catholic blogger has a poor understanding of Church teaching and in fact teaches multiple severe heresies. And a sharp theological argument, proving that a theological position is heresy, does not seem to have any effect on these false teachers. They laugh it off, or they reply with a personal attack.

When the Warning from God occurs (Good Friday 2016), perhaps then we will see which teachers of the Faith are true and which are false.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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