Joseph Shaw

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When does a difference of opinion become a ‘break with the pope’?

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September 17, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — The canon lawyer and journalist Edward Condon declared to his Twitter followers the other day, ‘If someone tells you the only way to be authentically Catholic is to break with the pope and the bishops, they are — at best — a Protestant’.

I and many others asked him to explain what he means by ‘break with’ the bishops or the pope, but to no avail. Mr Condon prefers to keep it vague, but he presumably means something which applies or might apply to real people, people who continue to think of themselves as ‘authentic Catholics’.

Perhaps I can help him out. Like Condon, I believe that Jorge Bergoglio was validly elected as pope and reigns today, as a matter of the law of the Church, as Pope Francis. Also like Condon, who has written extensively and often very well on recent crises in the Church, I have some concerns about some of the things which Pope Francis has done and said. Perhaps he and I also agree that it would be good if Pope Francis were to clarify some of his more puzzling remarks, even if Condon prefers not to clarify his own. We and countless others who speak and write about Church affairs have had to navigate the guidance of Canon 212.3:

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they [baptized Catholics] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

Presumably, one can criticize bishops and popes with ‘reverence’, appropriate concern for the ‘dignity of persons’, and without giving such scandal that it would undermine the common good, but exactly how far one can go, and how exactly to express oneself, is a ticklish matter of judgement.

So my interpretation of Condon’s phrase ‘breaks with’, which he might like to adopt if the matter arises again, would be this: people ‘break with’ the pope, and are therefore ‘at best, Protestant’, if they exercise their rights under Canon 212 with less restraint than I do myself.

I don’t mean ‘I’ as in ‘Joseph Shaw’, I mean ‘I’ as in ‘whoever is talking’. Each one of us can feel justified in condemning as crypto-Protestants everyone who takes things just an inch beyond where we have taken things ourselves.

As for those who have not gone as far as we have, we can naturally criticize them as well. We can say those who do not feel able to criticize those things which (we think) need criticism in the Church are failing in the duty mentioned in Canon 212. Perhaps they are not ‘authentic Catholics’.

The net result of saying that people with stronger criticisms of the pope than I make are ‘at best, Protestant’ and those who have weaker criticisms of the pope than I are not ‘authentic Catholics’ is to reduce the Church to just me. Each of us will, on these principles, imagine that the Church is composed of just one lucky and virtuous person.

Perhaps Condon thinks that this would be going a bit far. He would be correct. What is missing from this understanding of the line separating real Catholics from those who are ‘at best, Protestant’ is any sense that there is such a thing as legitimate differences of opinion, given that our generation has been plunged into a crisis as bad as any the Church has experienced. That in a situation in which the most learned, morally serious, and devout Catholic intellectuals and commentators are (sometimes eloquently) at a loss for words, when we see around us ongoing, and simultaneously, a crisis of demonic sexual depravity and the most profound doctrinal chaos, with doses of financial corruption, infighting, and political influence over the Church, thrown in for good measure: in such a situation, is it just possible that those who disagree with our own nuanced assessment of what we should and should not say from day to day, might be allowed a little slack? And that perhaps they are motivated, not by Protestantism, but by its opposite: a concern for the unity of the visibly manifested Mystical Body of Christ, in which Protestants do not believe, which is being torn into shreds and trampled into the mire before our eyes?

It is not at moments of crisis that we see anyone at his best. Perhaps I am being unfair to focus on Edward Condon, who has striven to serve the Church in his work as a canonist and in his writing, but my charity towards him needs to be extended more widely, and by him and by everyone. This is not the moment to condemn our brothers and sisters as ‘at best, Protestant’ for going farther than, right now, we think is justified. We need, if we can, to reassure them that their, in our view, exaggerated criticisms or conclusions are not necessary — just as we ourselves long to be convincingly reassured that things are not as bad as we ourselves have judged them to be.

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.