Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bad Catholics?

"I'm tired of Catholics telling other Catholics they're bad Catholics. The only exceptions: (a) you possess the miraculous gift of being able to see within someone else's soul or (b) you're Jesus. If you don't satisfy (a) or (b) please stop the judging, especially on this page."

Fr. James Martin, SJ, a popular Jesuit writer, recently posted this on his Facebook page. I spent some time looking at the comments that I thought he might be referring to, but since I can't figure out the full context, I'm going to take some liberties. I hope you all don't mind.

The behavior Fr. Martin is trying to curb here is certainly a bothersome one. I think Father is correct in identifying these cries of "bad Catholics" as judgements, and judgements are dangerous things. Full judgement, that is, judgement of the soul, is reserved to God alone. I'm not saying that pragmatic judgements regarding a person's actions should never be made by the proper authorities; after all, Jesus said, "Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven." (Matthew 18:18). That's a responsibility of the Magisterium, and the hierarchy of our Church must point out errors that go against the Good News. Call it tough love if you wish; simply put, we need people who spend their lives studying the Word and can point out transgressions against that Word: we call this the the Magisterium.

On the other hand, we can't all call other people "bad Catholics." It's not our place to make such judgements. The Church is a hospital for sinners, and we all have the stain of Sin on us. Some people have unique and tiresome burdens they must carry; sometimes, these people quite visibly stumble. Even people who have generally saintly lives sometimes falter; such is the taint of Original Sin. It's easy to shake your head at the drunk, until you consider that perhaps his family has a history of alcoholism and he doesn't know a healthy way to deal with the troubles of life that others might be able to shrug off. Instead of calling him a bad Catholic, perhaps it would be better to encourage him to go to AA meetings so that he can improve his life, and support him on the road to abstinence. Of course, he might fall off the wagon a few times on the road, but such is the stubborn nature of sin. He also might refuse your help, but you should be willing to extend a hand if you get the opportunity.

Paul's letter to the Galatians offers some guidance in this matter: "Brethren, and if a man be overtaken in any fault, you, who are spiritual, instruct such a one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another's burdens; and so you shall fulfil the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:1-2).

Dear Galatians: Be nice. I'm trying to convert the Mediterranean, and I'm hearing about your antics all the way over in Jerusalem.  You're not making this easy.

I think that it's important to note that I'm not saying you should see an alcoholic friend vomiting on the steps of your dorm and think, it's not my place to judge other people, and then go and leave him there. There's a huge difference here. One is not judging a person because you simply can't know the fullness of the load they must bear. The other is refusing to help a person in need.

I think it's also important to point out that some people use this lack of judgement as a license to misrepresent Church teaching. Some prominent Catholics take advantage of mercy and make false claims about Church teaching, saying that their membership in the Church allows them to make claims statements what is authentically Church teaching and what isn't. Let me be clear: this practice is destructive. It wounds the unity of the Church. There are certain things that Catholics in good conscience must not do. We have a Magisterium for a reason. I think it's completely valid to call these people out on their transgressions; in the case of elected leaders, it is in fact our duty to make our voices heard. We should say that these people are misrepresenting sacred Truth and behaving in a way they shouldn't. But let's not go the extra step of claiming that these people are bad Catholics. That's a judgement about their whole person that is beyond our capability.
[ Update: Several lines in this paragraph were badly-worded, if not completely incorrect. See comments section. A synopsis of what I was trying to say: Sometimes Catholics in prominent positions misrepresent Church teachings. While everyone is entitled to opinions, the Magisterium has final say in doctrinal matters, and we should take their guidance seriously. Since we live in a democracy, it is our duty to oppose certain policies according to our consciences informed by sacred truth with the guidance of the Magisterium. That isn't to say that I don't think reform is ever needed, or that you should disobey your conscience after you've properly formed it. Sorry if I gave such an impression. Thanks for the comment, Bob!]

BTW: Google searches and Papist ninja techniques have revealed several Tumblr notes asking people to post nasty comments on my post about post-birth abortion. I have not noticed any comments directed from these sources. This is disheartening! I demand more hearty resistance! I will be satiated by even anonymous complaints, as long as they are reasonably polite! Stop being like lukewarm milk! (Revelation 3:16)

Copyright (c) 2012 David Birkdale


  1. Having taken liberties yourself, I'll do the same with some knowledge of Fr. James' writings and speaking...I think his comments are even more unequivocal than you allow them to be. The main thing this lacks is where does conscience, properly formed, come into this?

    Many of these prominent figures you speak of who propose a rethinking of our theology or a dissent from some prelate's words, etc. do so because in their conscience they feel this is how they need to speak, act, think. As Vatican II reminds us, the conscience must ALWAYS be followed above all else for they are where we hear most directly from God.

    And seeing as we cannot view another's conscience, nor judge if they have a properly formed one, why don't we stop judging overall and just learn to love. It would seem to be a lot more satisfying and a lot less tiring. So perhaps Fr. James means just stop labeling, judging, etc. and see people as whomever they are, without condemnation.

  2. No disagreement here about learning to love everyone, but I don't think the two necessarily conflict. My last paragraph is rather badly worded, I apologize for that. I should have been more clear about what I was referring to; for instance, if a politician makes the claim that abortion is permissible by Catholic teaching and then helps to pass abortion-enabling legislation, then lay Catholics should protest abortion and such, while the hierarchy does as it sees fit regarding whether this is Catholic teaching. I'm admittedly not sure if Fr. James is of the same opinion on this. My words could be seen to say that disagreement and reform are always negative, but that's accidental.

  3. Thanks for the commment Bob! I recall a "Bob" who commented on one of our first articles about a similar issue when dealing with conscience. If you are, know I've taken care to read Gaudium et Spes, but if belief, to kinda extend on David's, is that because of the idea of someone following their conscience to be one of the most important things, judgement cannot extend to judging someone whether they are saved or not by God, except in some extraordinary cases like sainthood. We don't know how God finds others outside the Church worthy, but I'm sure he does. Nevertheless, the Church seeks proper formation of conscience, because a mistaken conscience could lead to vice (which, when it becomes habitual and is viewed as a good, no longer becomes the person's fault and isn't sin). Priority over all of this is first to love.

    I could say more, but I think you, Birkdale, summarized it very well.