Things to Remember in Reading Commentary on Amoris Laetitia

Once again, as happens with every document Pope Francis writes and promulgates, there is a mad rush to make commentary on Amoris Laetitia. I won’t comment on my thoughts on prudence and taking time to prayerfully read a document first before unleashing fury all over the Internet. I myself have not had time to read the document, but I have read the last two, and the responses in social media have all been the same. Some people panic, others misread, misuse, and turn them into ideological weapons, some provide insightful thoughts, and many don’t even realize the Pope wrote a document in the first place.

AL is the wrap up document of the contentious Synod on the Family. As happens with Synods, the Pope writes an Apostolic Exhortation or other papal document as a type of summation and wrapping up of what was gleaned from a particular Synod. This is not encyclical, motu proprio, or bull. There are no juridicial changes, doctrinal changes, or amendments to Canon Law within its pages. So from that knowledge alone people should put their pitchforks down and take a step back on all “sides”.

There is an obsession with this Pope that I have not observed in my short 35 years on this earth. It betrays a complete lack of understanding by the media and a lot of Catholics as to the role of the Supreme Pontiff. Hanging on his every word seems to be creating a disordered obsession with him in which people are turning to sinful anger or sinful license. I will address this issue at a later date. My only point now is there is a major need for balance. Here are a few suggestions in reading commentary on AL.

  1. The Church has always been divided by factions, sin, division, heresies, and calls to conform to the world. The Mystical Body is given life by the Holy Spirit, but it is lived through sinful men and women, including those who have fallen into relativism (no this is not pointed towards Pope Francis, so don’t read into it in that manner).
  2. Most of the great theologians of the Church have in fact not been Popes. Think St. Paul, St. John, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Athanasius, etc. The last few decades the Church has had a springtime of Popes who excel in philosophy and theology. This isn’t the norm throughout the ages. The Church is filled with individuals with different gifts. That means not every bishop or cardinal is a great theologian. You cannot compare the intellects of Francis and Benedict XVI, for instance. They differ in approach, understanding, and gifts from God. Do not read Francis’ documents in the same manner as B16’s. Francis is not a systematic writer, like his two predecessors. Yes, this poses challenges during this age of social media.
  3. Ignore secular media coverage. The secular world reporting on Catholic affairs is like asking a person who only speaks English to translate Chinese without ever having studied the language.
  4. There are ideologically driven Catholic writers all over the place. Keep that in mind when reading commentary. There will be those who say divorced and re-married can all take Holy Communion now (this is false) or those who say this Pope is the worst in our history the world is coming to an end (also false). Be leery of those sowing seeds of division. Division is a sign of sin and ideology.  Caution is fine, division and sinful anger are not.
  5. Prayerfully read the document for yourself. If there is something that seems unclear or confusing, pull out your Catechism or read other Church documents, Familiaris Consortio for instance, to help clarify things for you. St. John Paul II really is a go to source for understanding marriage and family life in a theological and philosophical manner. Yes, his phenomenological approach can be difficult, but many orthodox sources have made Theology of the Body more accessible for the Church.
  6. Yes, modernism is a heresy within the Church today. It will take decades, if not centuries, to root it out. Study Gnosticism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, and Arianism if you want to better understand the longevity and virulence of certain heresies. It is clear that individuals within the hierarchy and the laity have fallen prey to the Siren calls of modernism and relativism. What I mean by modernism is the idea that the Church must conform to the world, mainly Western culture. The constant battle for the Church is to avoid turning a small truth into the whole truth. For instance, human sexuality and marriage are gifts and we are sinful human beings, but this is not the entirety of our faith. The Faith rests in the glorified Christ in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. It is the life of the Trinity that is our end, every other aspect of the Faith must be seen in light of the Triune communion.
  7. The Church survives and continues on while we sinful creatures do our best to destroy her with our sins, including institutional sin. Keep your eyes fixed on Christ and the mission of holiness. Do not allow commentary rob you of joy and peace.
  8. Take a break from social media if you feel sinful anger coming on. There is no sense falling into sin by reading comboxes and commentary that is not meant to lead others to truth and the Faith. What we think is righteous anger very often is, or becomes sinful the more we allow it to consume us. The Passions are difficult to control, so walk away.
  9. Yes, ambiguity in language is frustrating. There has been ambiguity in this papacy. It’s okay to acknowledge the frustration, but it’s not acceptable to turn to sinful anger. Pray for Pope Francis, the Church, and the world. Pray that the light of the Holy Spirit may bring souls into the Church and true conversions.
  10. Keep living the mission. Our mission, sealed in our baptism is to live the priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices of Christ in order to bring the world into conformation with the Blessed Trinity. That is theological speak for living holy lives, loving and serving one another, and fixing our eyes on Heaven. You and I have very little control over what happens in Rome or how things are received by the world in media. All we can do is live the mission God has given us. Each us has a unique mission for the Kingdom. For most of us it is to live our Faith within our sphere of influence, wherever that may be. For some it is a pulpit or social media platform that reaches millions, for most of us, it is simply to lead our children to God and our neighbors. Let’s all keep things in perspective and live our mission.
  11. Be prudent in discussing these matters with others. Don’t advise others in a manner that could lead them to sin or you to sin. Most of us are not experts and even with a graduate level education in progress in Theology, I realize daily just how little I know or understand about it all. Prudence is the least sought after virtue, and yet, the  most important. I struggle with it too. A LOT!
  12. Look for the good, beautiful, and true in the document and incorporate it into your life. Any ambiguity can be answered in light of Tradition, so breathe. Yes, it is disconcerting to see the Faith disfigured and distorted by those who turn AL into ideology, all we can do is share the truth, pray, and fast.

May Our Lord bless you and give you the peace that surpasses all understanding throughout this Easter season. Pax Christi.

The Cardinal Virtues: The Queenship of Prudence

The moral life has been hampered greatly by the prevalence of both nominalism (a system based on opposition) and a system of morality based on obligation over charity. For the first 1500 years of the Church, the moral life was seen as the movement of grace within the individual who then strives to live the virtues both supernatural and human. The supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity drive the individual to conform their lives to the good who is God. The human virtues, or cardinal virtues, are those lived daily through habitual action and choices. Thus morality is seen as a movement towards love and the New Law of Christ rather than a system of external obligation. The Decalogue and other moral teachings are inherent parts of the Christian life, but they are lived more fruitfully through charity and a life of virtue, rather than as an external force dictating each of our actions. The first cardinal virtue we will examine is prudence.

The foundation and highest of the cardinal virtues is prudence.[1] Joseph Pieper begins his chapter on prudence in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues by pointing out the strangeness most people experience in learning that prudence must come before the other virtues.

No dictum in traditional Christian doctrine strikes such a note of strangeness to the ears of contemporaries, even contemporary Christians, as this one: that the virtue of prudence is the mold and “mother” of all the other cardinal virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance. In other words, none but the prudent man can be just, brave, and temperate, and the good man is good in so far as he is prudent.[2]

Most people assume the cardinal virtues are separate and belong to no set order, which is why the idea of prudence being primary is so foreign to most people, including many moral theologians.

Prudence in its contemporary usage has become confused from its original meaning and understanding. In the contemporary psyche it is confused with a form of utilitarianism rather than as a grounding force to the other virtues. Pieper points out that most people think of prudence as that which “always carries the connotation of timorous, self-minded preservation, of a rather selfish concern about oneself.”[3] This idea of prudence forgets the human drive for goodness, truth, and nobility. One who is selfish is not concerned with virtue, rather they have turned inward away from truth. The prudent person desires to live according to truth.

Prudence is inextricably linked with choices. It is to choose the good in each moment of the day. One cannot be just, courageous, or temperate if their choices are not ordered to the good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines prudence as: “…the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going”…Prudence is “right reason in action”, writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle (CCC 1806).” This means “prudence is the “measure” of justice, of fortitude, of temperance.”[4] It is through prudence where emotions and passions are tempered by reason in order for good decisions to be made. A person who is not ruled by reason easily falls into error and sin. Prudence’s primary concern is truth and how best to achieve and conform to that truth. This conformity to the truth propels the man or woman into action.

All of the virtues have at their heart an action in response to truth. The intellect processes the information presented to examine whether or not it conforms to the ontological need for goodness and the will chooses an action in conformity to this truth.[5] The truth can be blocked by the individual’s will, but in the formation of prudence the individual comes to choose the good more and more frequently. The Catechism explains, “The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid (CCC 1806).” In a proper examination of prudence, it is clear why the other cardinal virtues rest on this virtue. A man cannot be just if he is not conformed to the truth, nor can a person be willing to die a martyr’s death through fortitude without the aspiration to live truth, or temper bodily desires if the need for balance is not rightly understood.

[1] Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, Kindle Edition (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1965), 88.

[2] Ibid, 88.

[3] Ibid, 108.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, On Human Nature, ed. Thomas S. Hibbs, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), 133-34.

The Cardinal Virtues: Introduction

It has been a very stressful week for my family and me with multiple health scares and the ever present agony of waiting for news. I did want to start a brief series on the cardinal virtues based on a term paper I wrote for grad school. This first part is from that paper. We will consider this the introduction and next week I will begin on prudence. I hope you are having a very blessed Lent.

The cardinal virtues are essential to the moral life. Each human being is made for happiness and truth, which can only be found in God. In order to discover and live this happiness each individual must foster proper habits through the cardinal virtues. In the Christian life the assumption is that the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the movement of grace, are all at work within the individual as he or she works towards the ultimate truth of God. While the focus here is on the cardinal virtues, the supernatural virtues are always at work in each Christian’s life. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are virtues which order behavior to the pursuit and habitual response to goodness and truth. An individual cannot hope to live a moral life fixed on objective truth without the constant pursuit of these virtues in daily living. It is within the seemingly mundane tasks of daily living where the bigger moral questions are grounded. If an individual lives their private life virtuously, then those habits will spill over into public life and the moral orders of family, community, and country.

In examining virtue and calling others to its pursuit there is often a stumbling block tied to freedom. Individuals may see the virtues as a limitation of freedom and an imposition from external forces against the desires of that particular person; therefore, freedom must be rightly understood first in order to prevent this impediment. Since human beings are spiritual and bodily creatures, there is a natural order within each person at the ontological level. At the very level of being human beings are made for goodness and truth. This goodness cannot be completely blotted out by sin and concupiscence.[1] Far from limiting personal freedom, the virtues order and give direction to life. Servais Pinckaers states, “Far from lessening our freedom, such dispositions are its foundation. We are free, not in spite of them, but because of them.”[2] This means human beings are free when they conform their lives to their natural inclinations for goodness and truth. Freedom is grounded in the human desire for good, “The natural root of freedom develops in us principally through a sense of the true and the good, of uprightness and love, and through a desire for knowledge and happiness.”[3] Freedom itself must not be seen as the ability to do whatever one wants, but as the perfection and pursuit of goodness so that each person may be fully alive.

Since freedom is grounded in goodness, there must be an examination of how best to achieve this goodness. As stated before, the supernatural virtues play their essential role, but the cardinal virtues are the habits needed in daily living. The process of acquiring virtue is life-long and a slow process requiring discipline. It is to make small choices in conformity to truth each day, so that truth is the ever present reality for the individual. Pinckaers uses the virtue of courage to explain this process, “The development of courage is progressive. It is acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions. It grows with the dogged effort to study, to finish a task, render a service, or overcome laziness or some other fault.”[4] This development of habit applies to all of the cardinal virtues, but there is a hierarchical nature to the cardinal virtues. They develop, deepen, and are grounded in one another.

[1] Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, Third Edition, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 358.

[2] Ibid, 358.

[3] Ibid, 357.

[4] Ibid, 356.

What is Conscience?

In the United States it is a presidential election year, which means the word conscience will be thrown around in Catholic circles and in the culture. At times the use will be correct and other times it will be wrong as individuals fall victim to a desire for the subjective and an abandonment of objective truth. Conscience is an ontological reality for human beings, which means that conscience is part of our experience and nature. God has given us an intellect and a will. Our conscience gets information and processes it through the intellect and then decides on a course of action, which is the will. It’s important for us to understand precisely what conscience is and is not, our responsibilities in conscience, and our conscience as it relates to God and the Magisterium. I do not have time to give a thorough account, many books have been written on the subject and the Catechism of the Catholic Church covers the topic, but I want to briefly explain this much maligned word and aspect of our nature.

The West has fallen prey to a “dictatorship of relativism”, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls it. Conscience has become a catch-phrase and excuse for all sorts of behavior including intrinsic evil. It is up to the individual to set truth according to the clarion call of relativism. The problem, besides the obvious moral chaos that ensues, is that this subjectivism ignores the ontological reality of mankind. God made human beings for goodness and truth. Internally within the very depths of our being, we are ordered to love God, choose goodness, and live in truth. That truth is set by God as the Creator of the universe and of all human beings. He has placed that truth within us, even as we battle concupiscence.

In his book, Values in a Time of Upheaval, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI composed a series of essays on the state of the world. He devotes an entire section to the topic of conscience which has taken a prime of place in moral theology. He explains and clarifies what conscience means and what it does not because he sees a great danger of relativism even within the Church. He gives a stunning and beautiful portrayal of the two levels of conscience. He refers to them as: anamnesis and conscientia. Anamnesis is the ontological level of conscience, Benedict XVI writes:

Accordingly, the first level, which we might call the ontological level, of the phenomenon “conscience” means that a kind of primal remembrance of the good and the true (which are identical) is bestowed on us. There is an inherent existential tendency of man, who is created in the image of God, to tend toward that which is in keeping with God. Thanks to its origin, man’s being is constitutively in keeping with God, is not a knowledge of articulated concepts, a treasure store of retrievable contents. It is an inner space, a capacity for recognition, in such a way that the one addressed recognizes himself an echo of what is said to him. If he does not hide from his own self, he comes to the insight: this is the goal toward which my whole being tends, this is where I want to go.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval, 92.

Since we were made by and for God, there dwells deep within us the desire to live our lives in conformity to the good which is God. We are able to recognize what is from God and our own eschatological goal of Heaven. This of course can become blinded by sin, confusion, error, and our own will, but this interior reality is always present and the consequences are grave when we ignore this part of ourselves.

Conscientia is the act in response to a judgment in relation to the desire for good within us. According to St. Thomas Aquinas this act occurs in three stages: recognition (recognoscere), bearing witness (testificari), and judgment (iudicare). It is possible for an individual to not recognize a moral decision and to block their own will to the truth. The risks of doing this are great, as is evidenced by a history full of debauchery, violence, blood, and war. At times it is ignorance or disorder that leads a person to error and this can be corrected through a proper formation of their conscience and a realigning to God. A mistake in judgment is much easier to resolve than a person who has deadened themselves to their own ontological orientation to goodness.

What is the Church’s role in conscience?

Since human beings already have the natural capacity to do good within themselves, Jesus Christ the Logos, came to further clarify the truth which can be disordered within us by sin. As material and spiritual beings, we needed God to reach down on our level to fully teach us and guide us to Him. The danger of error is an ever present reality for mankind. We easily deceive ourselves and it is through Christ and His Church that we are given the clarity we need, so that we can always be pointed towards our eschatological end and our ontological desire for goodness. The conscience itself must find truth and dwell in goodness in order to retain its dignity. The Church guides us in the proper formation of our conscience. Truth is freedom.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Confronting Dissent Within the Church

There is major division brewing within the Church. It has been there from quite some time, as religious and laity alike chose to dissent from Humanae Vitae putting them directly at odds with Christ and His Church. We have been reeling ever since. I do believe in time, as medicine and science catch up with what we already morally know, more and more people will see the error of their ways. As our culture implodes, I believe people will begin to see what the deconstruction of the family is doing to our country. I think that we will have to undergo some serious and difficult times first. I think that we will undergo some pretty serious persecution.  This is not alarmist.  I have spoken at length with priests, as well as other members of the laity, and we all can see it in the times we are living.

One of the hardest things for orthodox Catholics to confront is dissent, also known as cafeteria Catholicism. Dissent implies knowledge of Church teaching and the choice to ignore it. There are some who are ignorant of the Church’s moral teaching, but these days it would be hard to not have an inkling that the Church does not agree with the prevailing culture. We have an obligation to continue to study the Faith and to learn what we believe as a Church.  So how do we engage these people? I am still trying to figure this one out, as are many of my friends. A lot of priests and sisters are trying to figure it out as well. There are some stumbling blocks that we have to figure our way around.

First, no one likes to be reminded that they are a sinner. As a friend of mine reminded me today, “we are all broken”. We do not like other people to tell us that what we are doing is morally wrong, or evil. The hardest sin to overcome is pride. Ask my husband about me on this one.  The fact of the matter is that we all sin, we all commit evil. The problem arises when we refuse to accept something is evil and work to overcome it. Sin damages and it can cause widespread evil and pain. The beginning of conversion means recognizing our sinfulness and falling on Christ. The real issue of our day is that the majority of people think that they set truth. A real and full conversion to Christ means submitting to Him in all matters. This is deeply difficult, but the road to real freedom. This is a message that we are struggling to share as we confront relativism.

Moral relativism is widespread. It is in the Church and it is outside of the Church. Thanks to Descartes we all think that we know what truth is and is not. That means that we no longer trust the Church to teach us the Truth. Instead we accept a hodge-podge of sources including the media and secular culture. The Church cannot possibly know what is true in our day. She is antiquated and out of touch. This is one of the biggest hurdles we have to overcome. Many will not change their position and will continue to dissent. All we can do is try to proclaim the Gospel and live it in our daily lives. Many people turned their backs on Christ in His day, our day will be no different, as heart-breaking as it is.

Another major issue is emotionalism. I have tried, and failed, to engage with people who ignore Church teaching on various issues. What ensues is not pretty. I have been called every name imaginable. The discussion quickly turns irrational and launches into personal attacks. In the social media world it usually results in “unfriending” which has happened to me on a few occasions. I am okay with that, but it is distressing that people are so wrapped up in their belief that their only response is rage. There is no reasoning with these people. Instead I commend them to prayer and God’s mercy. I pray that I planted seeds, no matter how poorly I did it. My own sinful nature is carried into debates and I am sure that I don’t always explain things the best, even if I meant well.

We are at a point in our country where tempers are at dangerous levels. People seek to silence one another. This is also true inside of the Church. Heterodoxical people will seek to silence the orthodox. We are already seeing this play out in churches and schools in this country and across the West. We have to remember that Christ can soften hardened hearts. We must pray and do penance. We also cannot put our heads in the sand. We must stand up for the truth. We just have to find the patience, love, and charity that is born out of prayer and contemplation. We must receive the Sacraments often and spend time before the Blessed Sacrament.  We will all fall short and say the wrong thing at times. The Lord knows that I have, but we must keep trying. These people do not understand that our concern is out of love. None of us want to see a person put their soul at risk. It is even more difficult to watch people put themselves at risk as they approach the Blessed Sacrament each week with no thought. I know one thing that I will be doing is beginning more study on Theology of the Body. It changed my life and I know that it can change other hearts.

There is a great story about St. Dominic that another friend reminded me of this morning. St. Dominic was “a great lover of heretics”. His primary mission was fighting the Albigensian heresy, which is not too much different from the heresies of our own day. One day, St. Dominic met an innkeeper who was an Albigensian. It is said that St Dominic stayed up all night and did not retire until the innkeeper acknowledged the truth of the Catholic Faith. So that is what we must do. To take time with each person we meet. We cannot shy away from the truth, but we must share it out of love for souls. It is hard to engage in social media because it turns into a fight where other people get involved. This is a mistake that I have made. It quickly becomes a fight and people gang up on the one espousing the Truth. We have to find a way when in the heat of disagreement, to remember that these people are broken, that they are victims of the Evil One’s lies. So let’s keep about the task of saving souls, regardless of the personal cost to ourselves. If you have suggestions for engaging heterodoxy, please leave a comment. God bless.