by Deacon Nick Donnelly
A couple of weeks ago a priest prominent in the Church for his work in the media strongly criticised Catholic bloggers. He accused us of creating a ‘cess pool of hatred’through character assassination and personal attacks. I myself have cautioned fellow Catholics against personal attacks, especially against the Holy Father, but based on my experience over the past six years I dispute Fr Rosica’s completely negative portrayal of Catholics’use of the social media. For the most part I have found Catholics using social media intelligent, good-humoured, passionate about the faith, and, during times of personal grief and suffering, very loving and caring.
One of the disparaging things Fr Rosica said about Catholic bloggers raises questions that should concern us all, not just those of us who use social media. Fr Rosica said:
“Often times the obsessed, scrupulous, self-appointed, nostalgia-hankering virtual guardians of faith or of liturgical practices are very disturbed, broken and angry individuals, who never found a platform or pulpit in real life and so resort to the Internet and become trolling pontiffs and holy executioners!”
Ignoring Fr Rosica’s invective, here we have the English-speaking Media Attachéof the Holy See Press Office castigating Catholic bloggers, for the most part lay people, for being ‘self-appointed’‘guardians of faith or of liturgical practices’. The error, in his eyes, appears to be using social media to express concerns, and at times robust criticism, about doctrinal and liturgical matters. Fr Rosica's use of the phrase ‘self-appointed guardians’ ‘who never found a platform or pulpit in real life’ shows a disconnect with the fact that the internet is now part of society’s ‘real life’ and suggests that by guarding the faith via the internet we have trespassed into a dimension of the Church to which we have no right to go.
The dismissal of the faithful’s concerns
It is hard to judge how wide-spread Fr Rosica’s dismissive attitude towards Catholics using social media to discuss the faith is? Judging by the anodyne responses or adamant silence we receive when we write or email bishops expressing our worries about public dissent and scandalous behaviour I’d guess that a number share Fr Rosica’s attitude and view us as transgressing into areas not of our concern.
However, what do we do when the appointed guardians of the faith won’t defend the Faith ? What do we do when they won’t protest scandalous behaviour that totally contradicts the doctrinal and moral truths of the Catholic Faith? The internet is part of ‘real life’ and the faith should be defended there. According to Vatican II the bishops have a duty to protect us from error, ‘with watchfulness they ward off whatever errors threaten their flock’. (Lumen Gentium, 25). But what if our bishops are not watchful or are inactive when such threatening errors are brought to their attention?
Sadly there are many examples of episcopal inaction in the face of defiant dissent, but let’s refer to just two that I mentioned in my last column for Catholic Voice. What are faithful Catholics to do when Mater Misericordiae Hospital publicly announces that they will co-operate with Kenny’s abortion law? What are we to do when Dr Tina Beattie, an adviser to an agency of the Bishops’Conference of England and Wales, advocates abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy? For protesting these scandalous actions and asking the bishops to act to protect unborn babies and the Faith is it really right to dismiss us as ‘self-appointed guardians’? It is helpful here to look at what the Magisterium says about our right, even our duty, to act to guard the Faith.
Sacred Scripture on our duty to guard the Faith
St Paul cautions that we must be on our guard against those who preach a false gospel, which they attempt to pass off as being the Gospel entrusted to us by Our Lord Jesus Christ:
‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.’(Galatians 1:6-9).
We see some Catholics in our own time seeking to change the gospel of Christ, doing violence to the text of sacred Scripture to force acceptance of their sinful lifestyles and desires. For example, Catholics afflicted with homosexual attraction attempt to distort Scripture in ways that wrongly give them ‘permission’ to commit homosexual sex acts. More commonly, some Catholics exaggerate and distort Our Lord’s teaching on mercy and compassion in order to accept women killing their babies through abortion. These Catholics who seek to ‘pervert the gospel of Christ’do not succeed in presenting ‘another gospel’but end up presenting nothing, no gospel at all. As St Jerome wrote:
‘These people wanted to change the Gospel, to twist it; but that is something they cannot succeed in doing, for this Gospel is such that it cannot be true if it is tampered with’(Commentary on Galatians, 1, 7).
Pope Benedict XVI’s warning to the English and Welsh bishops about not mistaking dissent for valid differences of opinion is in accord with St Paul and St Jerome’s understanding of the grave threat posed by those who seek to pervert the gospel of Christ:
‘In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate. It is the truth revealed through Scripture and Tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium that sets us free’. (Pope Benedict, 2010).
Those at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital who have agreed to co-operate with Kenny’s abortion law, or the ‘Catholic’ TDs who voted to legalise abortion, or Dr Tina Beattie arguing for early abortion on demand are not entitled to express these opinions as being consistent with being Catholic. Even worse, if they seek to justify their dissent by claiming justification for it using Scripture they ‘pervert the gospel of Christ’.
What does St Paul advise about how we should react to those who seek to ‘pervert the gospel’? In his letter to Titus St Paul exhorts us to warn those who are distorting our Lord’s gospel at least two times:
‘As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned.’(Titus 3:10).
The English word ‘factious’is a translation of the Greek hairetikos and the Latin, haereticus, both words meaning heretic. By the use of this word St Paul meant someone someone who follows their own erroneous ideas. St Paul advises that if they refuse to listen to fraternal correction they must be treated as people who have estranged themselves from the Church.
The crisis facing the Church is that those who seek to impose their erroneous ideas on the Church are more often than not left unchallenged by the appointed guardians of the Faith and more often than not they are left in positions of authority and influence in the Church. St Paul doesn’t say what to do in such circumstances, because I’m sure he couldn’t envisage successors to the apostles failing in one of their basic duties.
Tradition on our duty to guard the Faith
Contrary to what the purveyors of erroneous ideas claim, the tradition of the Church is that there is not unlimited freedom of thought, writing and teaching. Such activities should reasonably be constrained by moral order and the common good. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes states:
‘Love and good will, to be sure, must in no way render us indifferent to truth and goodness. Indeed love itself impels the disciples of Christ to speak the saving truth to all men. But it is necessary to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions. God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts, for that reason He forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone.’(Gaudium et Spes, 28).
The duty to repudiate error
Vatican II is clear that we must not be ‘indifferent to truth and goodness’, but that, with true Christian love, all ‘disciples of Christ’ — not just the clergy —must speak the saving truth to everyone. This includes the imperative to always‘repudiate’error. Repudiation [reiciendum] is a strong word, meaning refuse to accept, to reject, to deny the truth of or validity of.
Vatican II insists that we have a duty to always repudiate errors, while never losing sight of the dignity of the person proposing the errors. This means that it is not an insult or attack on the dignity of the person if we publicly repudiate their error against truth, provided we don’t make judgements about their internal guilt, which is left to God. It’s important to insist on this distinction because nowadays individuals promoting error falsely claim that they are being bullied or that their freedom of conscience is being infringed if others challenge their erroneous notions or behaviour. To repeat, Vatican II states categorically that we all have a duty to repudiate error.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the first of the Ten Commandments, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve’contains the duty ‘to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it’(CCC 2088). The Catechism states explicitly, in the context of God’s first commandment, that the primary duty of every Catholic is the ‘obedience of faith’(Romans 1:5; 16:26). St Paul’s understanding of the ‘obedience of faith’is that we submit our minds and will to God’s authority, freely accepting God’s truths revealed in His Church’s doctrines and moral teaching.
Both the Mater Hospital Board and Dr Beattie’s writing by publicly expressing support for the killing of unborn human beings through abortion signify a rejection of their primary duty to uphold the obedience of faith.
The Catechism goes on to define a number of sins against Faith which we must guard against, which includes heresy, ‘the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same’. (CCC 2089).
The tradition of the Church expressed in the Catechism is that we all have a duty to protect our faith with vigilance, and we have a duty to reject everything that is opposed to it.
In 1998 Pope St John Paul II promulgated the Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem, that emphasised the solemn obligation on every Catholic to protect the faith, making this duty the law of the Church. In the introduction the Holy Father wrote:
TO PROTECT THE FAITH of the Catholic Church against errors arising from certain members of the Christian faithful, especially from among those dedicated to the various disciplines of sacred theology, we, whose principal duty is to confirm the brethren in the faith (Lk 22:32), consider it absolutely necessary to add to the existing texts of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, new norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church, and which also establish related canonical sanctions. […] All Christian faithful are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.
It is clear from this brief overview of sacred Scripture and the sacred Tradition of the Church that Fr Rosica was mistaken to speak disparagingly of ‘self-appointed guardians’of doctrine and liturgy. Quite the contrary, God’s revelation imposes the solemn obligation on all the faithful to repudiate errors introduced into the life of the Church by those seeking to pervert the gospel of Christ.
In our guardianship of the Faith we are called to repudiate error that threatens the gospel of the Lord, but we are also called to embody the truths of faith, becoming Children of the Light who bring Christ’s saving and healing light to all trapped in darkness. As Pope Francis said:
“We must carry the light of Christ with the witness of a genuine love. The Christian must be a luminous person who carries the light, a light that comes from one that is not his own, but a gift of God, a gift of Jesus. We carry this light forward! If a Christian loses this light, his life doesn’t make sense. He is a Christian in name only. I want to ask you now, how do you want to live? As a lamp that is lit, or one that is off?” (Angelus address. 9 February 2014).