“We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”
— G.K. Chesterton; “The Catholic Church and Conversion”
There’s a character that every Catholic apologist worth his salt has come across pretty often. It’s the so-called “freethinker.”
A freethinker will generally tell you all about how the Catholic Church wants to stifle Reason. Namely his reason. He will boast of “thinking with his own head,” of “questioning everything,” and not allowing the obscurantist, irrational, superstitious Church to “do violence against his intellect.”
This is a fascinating breed, in that all freethinkers seem to think alike. They seem to repeat all the same slogans, all the same catchphrases, all the time. As paradoxical as this scenario may be, they are like a hivemind of different drones chanting in a perfectly synchronized choir: “I think for myself. I am an individual.”
When you answer them, trying to address their concerns with perfectly reasonable and logical arguments, they will often retreat into their shell and not engage you any longer. Rather, they will tell you to shut up through a tirade that will consist in one or more from these: “Crusades, Inquisition, Galileo, Pedophilia”. It is worth noting that only these four examples are mentioned. They will never invoke the bloody Wars of Religion that swept through 16-17th century Europe. No, they will only refer to the Crusades. Because only the Crusades are enshrined in the Freethinking Playlist. In order for them to invoke the Protestant-Catholic Wars, they would need to think outside the Freethinking Playlist. But if they did so, well, they would not be real freethinkers, would they?
When you present yourself as an apologist and meet someone who self-identifies as a freethinker, you can pretty much anticipate how the conversation will go. The real freethinkers generally never identify as such, because they reject preconceived labels… labels like “freethinker.”
Which then begs the question: Are these so-called freethinkers really so concerned with what they call “violence against the intellect”? If they were, they would certainly be able to identify a reasonable opponent and engage him, no? If they did, they would all think differently, right? They would arrive at different counterarguments, they would provide different examples, they would disagree between themselves on certain points… That’s not what happens most of the times. Rather, if you’ve seen one “freethinker,” you’ve seen them all.
Parroting tired memes and strings of propaganda like a scratched disc always seemed to me to be a greater “violence against the intellect” than subscribing to a venerable tradition of ancient wisdom, tried by the centuries and perfected by trial and error, instead of putting an absolute trust in one’s own opinions, which may be biased and prejudiced. In fact, science itself (which “freethinkers” worship) warns us to be always vigilant of your own opinions, biases and prejudices. That’s how real Reason moves forward.
What I have written so far is largely uncontroversial in Catholic circles, especially those that employ apologetics with a more “traditional” leaning. However, I needed to bring this up because I think these sectors of the Church have started to tread on a similar path of error. The name of the error is different, but the nature of the error is the same. Instead of “freethinking,” they call it “prudential judgment.”As soon as they read this, surely many people closed their internet tab… or at least closed their minds. They will hear me no more. If you’re still with me, even if you disagree on the face of it, and if you are reading to understand and not merely to debunk, congratulations. You’ve earned my respect. I’ll sincerely try to be worthy of it.
Now, I must say this plainly: I am not against prudential judgment. It is an integral part of Catholic doctrine, a way to ease the tension that exists between the Catholic take on the inviolability of individual conscience and the need of each person to submit to the Truth. This tension is part and parcel of what makes our doctrine so rich and complex, just like the apparent tension between Christ’s humanity and divinity.
No, what I’m against is not prudential judgment per se, but how prudential judgment has been misapplied by a large sector of the Church. Currently this misapplication happens mostly in two arenas: politics and assent to Amoris Laetitia.
Regarding politics, “prudential judgment” is invoked to dismiss every non-abortion, non-LBGTQ policy that conflicts with a certain ideology. These prudential judgments will generally be justified with the “5 Non-Negotiables” pamphlet from Catholic Answers or with a private letter from then Cardinal Ratzinger about not all issues carrying the same moral weight as abortion. Of course, the “5 Non-Negotiables” pamphlets carry no magisterial authority, and Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter does not mean that we can just blow off the rest of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). However, these people will put these examples (and only these two examples) forward again and again, absolutizing them to the detriment of everything else.
This thinking generally goes like this:
- Abortion is evil and is the most important political issue today
- The Democrat Party (or the left-wing pro-choice political party of your country) is in favor of abortion
- Therefore we must vote for the Republican Party (or any right-wing political party of your country that supports, even if only in a nominal way, legal restrictions on abortion)
- Therefore the Republican Party must be defended at all times and at all costs, lest it loses popularity and votes
- Therefore everything the Democrats defend is wrong and must be opposed
Now, I think that any reasonable person can see that this kind of logic is flawed. Conclusion no. 5 does not necessarily flow from premise no. 1. However, even if people say that they do not think like this, in practice their actions will be as such. It is understandable: As years go by, defending the right-wing stance on abortion as the right way to do things on the most pressing political issue of the day, the temptation is just too great to start seeing politics in a Manichaeistic way, whereby we have the good guys on one side and the villains on the other. Soon, our sympathy for the “good guys” will overflow through osmosis to anything they do and say and think. It’s human to fall into this trap… it is also wrong.
Things are then complicated by the fact that Church doctrine cannot and will not ever align itself with any political force. Because we live in a fallen world and only the Church carries (not by Her merits, but by the gift of God) the fullness of Truth. Ideally, it should be the political forces that should align themselves with the Church’s teachings, constantly attuning themselves to Her wisdom at the minimum deviation. However, in practice, we see the opposite… Catholics demanding that Church doctrine aligns with their preferred political forces.
Again, the evolution of the error goes like this:
- The Church teaches that support for abortion is not Catholic
- Political Party X abhors abortion
- Therefore Political Party X is the one that adheres to Catholic principles
- Political Party X is in favor of policy Y
- Therefore policy Y is good
- The Church teaches that policy Y is not Catholic
- Ergo: The Church is not being Catholic regarding policy Y
So, how do Catholics that want to call themselves faithful resolve this dilemma? They invoke “prudential judgment” whenever their party is challenged by Church doctrine.
Now, let me state that they have every right to do so. However, I would like to point out that “prudential judgment” here is not being used to avoid “violence against the intellect,” but to excuse it.
These people are putting the doctrine of the Church under close scrutiny… but they are not scrutinizing their political party’s electoral manifesto in the same way. You’ll see them criticizing the Church for going against their party, but you’ll never see them criticizing their party for going against the Church. They do not question their party’s values, even when those values do not square with Church teaching, rather they defend those values with a passion. They are dismissing CST, so that they may embrace their party’s agenda without a thought. They are not crying “prudential judgment” in order to exercise their own judgment, but that others (their political leaders) may exercise judgment on their behalf.
Which begs the question: If you are to uncritically accept everything that someone is saying to you, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to give this prerogative to the Church that has the divine seal of indefectibly instead of to a mere politician out to get your vote to ascend on his career, secretly sworn to protect God-knows-what lobbies?
The other major point where disgruntled Catholics invoke “prudential judgment” is in the assent to Pope Francis’ teachings, namely the controversial 8th chapter of Amoris Laetitia (AL).
Again, these Catholics will understandably be confused by what they perceive as a contradiction between AL and the teachings of previous popes and councils. They will try to solve this jigsaw puzzle by adhering to the traditional teaching and dismissing Pope Francis on account of prudential judgment.
However, if I was in their shoes, if someone came to me and said: “Hey look, that contradiction that is troubling you can easily be explained”… well, then, I would be delighted! I would gladly hear what that person had to say! To be faithful to the pope is the dream of any Catholic with a properly formed conscience who struggles with a papal teaching!
Alas, that is not my experience. Attempts by faithful Catholics to explain how AL can be squared with orthodoxy are met, not with interest, but with contempt. These attempts are viewed, not as steps that can help one solve a crisis of faith, but as obstacles that need to be removed so as to continue on the same path. They need not be heeded, but refuted.
Nowhere is this more evident than in their appeal to clarity. “Clarity” has become a meme, a slogan, a catchphrase, that gets touted by all those who want to dissent from AL. Whenever you see a Catholic demanding “clarity” (or decrying its antithesis: “The Confusion”), you may already guess with a certain degree of certainty what his positioning regarding Pope Francis is. They will claim (and it is true) that AL doesn’t directly say that divorced and remarried people can ever receive Communion. They will go on lauding the dubia cardinals, Raimond Arroyo, Professor Seifert or Fr. Weinandy for their demands that Pope Francis “clarifies” his stance.
The trouble of this approach is… it isn’t authentic. They don’t want clarity at all. You see, the pope has clarified. He has said that the interpretation from the Argentine bishops, that allow Communion for the divorced and remarried in certain exceptional and well-discerned cases, is the only correct interpretation.
If these folk really wanted clarity, they would say: “Oh, OK. The pope has already stated what the real interpretation is, so let’s try to uphold it”. But they don’t. Rather, they will try to find excuses to not uphold it. They would claim, for instance, before the publication of the Buenos Aires interpretation on the Acta Apostolicae Sedes, that the clarification was made on the Vatican website, which doesn’t mean it is binding. And after the letter was published on the Acta Apostolicae Sedes, they would find another excuse to dismiss it.
In other words, they are more interested in whether they are bound by the clarification than if the clarification was made. Because they don’t want a clarification, they want a validation of their claims. They don’t want the pope to answer their questions; they want a retraction from him.
After that they will go on about “clarity” and “confusion” as if nothing ever happened. In fact, they will even double down. They will ask and ask and ask until they get the answer they want and nothing else will suffice.
Just as it happens with political dissenters from the right, most AL dissenters will use “prudential judgment” as a way to give their undivided assent to other people who bear no magisterial authority. They will give the assent that is owed to the pope to a number of authors from certain sources like EWTN, 1 Peter 5, LifeSiteNews, Crisis or the Vortex, with which they will wholeheartedly agree.
Like “freethinkers”, who have the “medieval”, “misogynist”, “homophobic” and “obscurantist” labels, they will use worn-out derogatory terms to designate anyone who disagrees with them, irrespectively of whether those terms are appropriate for that person or not. What matters is labeling their opponents, in a way that says: “This person is not worth listening to”. Right-wingers will have “librul”, “libtard”, “kommie” and “socialist”. AL dissenters will have “papolator” and “ultramontanist,” even “heretic”. They will never take the time to even think in new, original insults to hurl at other people.
And, just as it happens with “freethinkers”, the arsenal of arguments that these AL critics use to justify their dissent is extremely scant. I estimate that we can sum up 90% of these arguments in 3 lines:
- Honorius, Liberius, John XXII
- Paul, Catherine of Siena, Athanasius
- Canon 212; Canon 915
That’s it. You’ll have to dig very deep to find any other argument on their camp. All of these arguments have been dealt with extensively by faithful apologists. They needed only google to find them. But they won’t. Because these arguments serve a clear function: to justify their dissent from an authoritative document with which they disagree.
Finally, just like it happens with “freethinkers”, AL dissenters have their own mantra to shut up anyone who disagrees with them. “Freethinkers” have the “Crusades-and-Inquisition” mantra. AL dissenters have the “Father Martin” mantra. Even in matters where Fr. Martin is not directly implicated, he will be brought into play, because he serves a higher purpose: “Why are you condemning my rants against the pope, when you should be condemning him?”. This is a fallacy called tu quoque. A political distraction maneuver known as whataboutism. Or, to put it plainly, it means: “shut up.”
Mark Shea usually quips that there are people who ask questions to find out, and there are people who ask questions to keep from finding out. The latter can’t invoke “violence against the intellect” as a way to justify their reluctance to accept uneasy answers to their questions. Because they are not letting themselves be led by the truth to wherever place truth may take them (even if it is an unexpected, uncomfortable place), but rather are sitting comfortably in the seat of their own opinions and trying to find new ways to be validated, to hear what their itchy ears already want to hear.
At the end of the day, isn’t this the true violence against the intellect?
[Photo: Detail from “The School of Athens“, Raphael, 1509-1511 AD]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.