Saturday, April 30, 2005

Greg Mockeridge, I. Shawn McElhinney on "Legitimate Diversity of Opinion"

The late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said that not even one hundred people hate the Catholic Church, but millions hate what they mistakenly think the Catholic Church is. Undoubtedly, the actions of Catholics themselves have helped create many of these misconceptions. One way such a misunderstanding can be created is to distort the difference between doctrinal imperatives and disciplinary requirements with that of prudential judgments. Those Catholics who make such distortions often ascribe magisterial status to their own opinions and cast aspersions on the fidelity of those who express contrary views. It doesn’t matter whether or not those contrary views are well within the diversity of opinion enjoyed by loyal Catholics. Some of the most common issues where this kind of misunderstanding is perpetrated are waging a just war, application of the death penalty, and economic justice. . . .

Thus begins a "must-read" guest-editorial by Greg Mockeridge, with additional commentary by I. Shawn McElhinney at Rerum Novarum, about which I'd like to express a few thoughts.

* * *

The point of Greg's debate is a simple one, a matter of common sense, but lost on some parties to such a degree that it bears reiterating:

One may have legitimate differences of opinion over the war in Iraq, the application of capital punishment, and various economic policies.

One may also marshal the support of the Holy Father's encyclicals and the vast body of Catholic tradition in the defense of one's position on these matters. A good illustration here being the ongoing debate between what David L. Jones describes as "Whig Thomists & Augustinian Thomists" over the compatibility of Catholic Christianity with "the American experiment," or liberal democracy. (The focus of RFC-affiliate website The Church & the Liberal Tradition).

But so long as the Church has not spoken authoritatively on these matters -- so long as these issues, however controversial they may be, remain in the area of prudential judgement, about which one may have a "legitimate diversity of opinion" -- one may indeed respectfully disagree with a fellow Catholic, or priest, or Bishop, or even the Pope for that matter -- and yet remain squarely within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy.

  • It was for this reason that I challenged the Zwicks for their hatchet job on Michael Novak, Fr. Neuhaus and Cardinal Avery Dulles in the pages of the Houston Catholic Worker (Against The Grain August 19, 2003); and likewise countered the suggestion of a reader that I "follow Ratzinger's lead" with respect to the war in Iraq and my interest in "the neocons" (Against The Grain Nov. 18, 2003).

  • It was for this reason that Russel Shaw, even as he himself opposed the war in Iraq, defended the right of his fellow Catholics to disagree with the Holy See on the matter -- without being unjustly tarred with the label of "dissenter" (Iraq, Weigel and the Pope Catholic Exchange, March 31, 2003):

    Given the limits of human knowledge, even prudential judgments by prudent people can be mistaken. In the present instance, the pope and Catholics who differed with him - conscientious and informed people like Novak, Weigel and Hudson - based their stands on an assessment of likely consequences of different courses of action. Since the assessments of what was more or less likely to happen in the future were different, so were the conclusions about what course of action to take.

    To disagree with the pope in this manner is not dissent. It's not as if Pope John Paul II had taught a definitive moral principle (e.g., direct attacks on noncombatants are ruled out) which the disagreeing Catholics rejected. They agreed with the principle. They disagreed about something contingent and by no means certain: what the future outcome of complex, competing scenarios was likely to be.

  • It was for this reason that Archbishop John Meyers recognized the right of Catholics to disagree over the war, while pointing out other fundamental moral issues which do not allow for differences ("Pro-choice candidates and church teaching" Wall Street Journal Sept. 17, 2004):

    . . . Consider, for example, the war in Iraq. Although Pope John Paul II pleaded for an alternative to the use of military force to meet the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, he did not bind the conscience of Catholics to agree with his judgment on the matter, nor did he say that it would be morally wrong for Catholic soldiers to participate in the war. In line with the teaching of the catechism on "just war," he recognized that a final judgment of prudence as to the necessity of military force rests with statesmen, not with ecclesiastical leaders. Catholics may, in good conscience, support the use of force in Iraq or oppose it.

  • And, it was for this reason that our Holy Father, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarified the areas of "legitimate diversity of opinion" in addressing the proper conditions for the reception of communion ("Worthiness To Receive Commmunion: General Principles paragraph 3).

Greg's editorial, and I. Shawn McElhinney's commentary, address the excessive speech and grave distortions of one particular member of our online Catholic community, Stephen Hand of TCRNews, who appears "unable or unwilling to engage in any substantive discussion" on these issues, forgoing "passionate, intelligent and charitable dialogue and debate" to instead engage in deliberate misrepresentation and calumnious attacks of a nature that mimic the very 'radtrads' he had so deftly criticized in the past. As Greg observes:

. . . he dogmatized his opinions on these issues to the extent of maligning those who hold different views within legitimate Catholic parameters, while those same individuals have gladly extended to him the same courtesy that he has so viciously tried to deny them.

I would note here that Stephen Hand is one who I have offered qualified praised in years past, and whom I regard as a friend and comrade in this loose-knit online Catholic community.

And, as friends are sometimes called to correct each other with respect and charity, I trust that Stephen will give due consideration to the concerns expressed by Greg and I. Shawn McElhinney at Rerum Novarum.

As Stephen said himself in TCRNews' Mission Statement:

"We are partisan to the Church's Magisterium alone and respect truth wherever it is found. With the Church, and subject to her correction, we seek to transcend the old polarities of right and left, whether political or theological, knowing that the Church both conserves and develops in time. In point of fact there are no "conservatives," "liberals," or "traditionalists," there are only those who obey the living magisterium of the Church, which alone may interpret the scriptures and the Church's tradition---and, alas, those who do not.

It is true that where the Church has ruled formally and authoritatively, she brooks no dissent. (Incidentally, this was the point raised by Catholic Answers in its recognition of "non-negotiable" moral issues (Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics) which should be taken into consideration when voting for a presidential candidate).

But, as Greg points out, there are other indeed issues for which the Catechism and the Holy Father allow for legitimate differences of opinion. Like it or not, the issues mentioned by Greg -- capital punishment, the war in Iraq and the WOT, and economics -- fall within this area. And in such cases we best be cautious in our posts -- lest we assert our own interpretations as if they were on par with, and carried the weight of, the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium.

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