No News is New

A Catholic view on old heresies in the news

Category: Donatism

I Am My Brother’s Keeper.

The above blog post is about a poll that found about half of Catholics believe bed and breakfast (B&B) owners should “be allowed to refuse accommodation to people based on their sexuality”.  I think this type of belief borders on Donatism.

The Donatists thought that for priests to validly administer the sacraments, they needed to be perfect.  The sin of a priest would nullify the sacrament.  In a similar way, the suspected sin of tenants of a rented room would be enough to nullify the teaching of the Church that, “Every sign of unjust discrimination in their [i.e., homosexual people] regard should be avoided.”

The argument that the blogger makes is that it is a just discrimination to help people avoid a near occasion of sin.  If you know I have a problem with a certain sin, it is your responsibility to help me avoid that sin.  Unlike how Cain thought, you are your brother’s keeper.  This is a good and correct argument.

However, I don’t think this argument holds in this case because if it did, Catholic hotel owners would be required to not rent rooms to heterosexual unmarried couples, to divorced and then remarried people on their honeymoons, and so forth.  The fact that this particular set of B&B owners wasn’t in the news earlier for rejecting an unmarried couple out on a tryst I think indicates that their discrimination against a same sex couple is unjustified.  Further, if we must help others avoid near occasions of sin, Catholic hotels wouldn’t be allowed to have internet access, as most men I know struggle with pornography.  This seems draconian and contrary to what our Pope has said, “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently”.  Instead of building a bunch of small rules about who we do and don’t give shelter to at night, we need to focus on the big rule of God’s love.  As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “When you break the big laws you do not get freedom. You do not even get anarchy. You get small laws.”  We would be wise to follow the big laws to avoid the small ones.

An example of a small law.

An example of a small law.

The obligations we have to different groups of people are different.  To children, it would be justifiable to separate them into different rooms if they bring home partners they aren’t married to (same sex or otherwise).  Likewise it would be justifiable to discriminate based upon age and not give children internet access because of what they might seek out.  To adults, our obligation is to enlighten their consciences, not to force them.  As with Ezekiel, we must speak out about what injures people, but then allow them the flexibility to make their own decisions and then exist with the consequences of their good or evil actions.

Which brings me full circle, in that the B&B owners shouldn’t be forced to violate their consciences, but rather we should help enlighten their consciences so that they refrain from unjust discrimination in the future by their own free will rather than the heavy hand of the law.


Syria and Just War


This article discusses biological warfare in Syria, and why we see it as so horrible even though fewer people have died from it than from bullets.  I chalk this up to still adhering to some of the aspects of Just War Theory enumerated by none other than the Dumb Ox himself, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The 100% true to life picture of Thomas Aquinas.

The 100% true to life picture of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The start of Just War theory actually goes earlier, to St. Augustine.  He explained how it is just for the State (AKA, the Western Roman Empire) to use force against heretics because the Church may make use of earthly power to gain valuable spiritual ends.  In particular, he justified the use of State power to quash the groups of Donatists trooping around northern Africa and killing Catholics.

St. Aquinas elaborated and defined what a State is bound to in the military enforcement of good spiritual ends that St. Augustine taught was acceptable.  They are as follows:

  1. The aggressor needs to threaten to cause lasting, severe, and certain damage.
  2. All other approaches to resolve the conflict must have failed or be certain to fail.
  3. The defender must have a good chance of winning.
  4. The war must not create greater evils than the harm being fought off.

This last point is what condemns chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare.  Bullets and bombs can have very limited scope, whereas gasses and nuclear fallout cut a much wider swath and are more likely to kill innocents — such as children who have nothing to do with the fighting.

But why is the Pope opposed to US military intervention in Syria if chemical weapons are so evil?  It goes back to Just War theory.  For the US to join the fight to defend the rebels from poison gas, Assad must threaten lasting, grave, and certain damage, and it is not clear that he will do this.  He ran the country for some time without running it into the ground.  Also, attempts at dialogue with Assad and the rebels hasn’t really occurred.  We have failed to put a lot of diplomatic pressure on both groups to talk it out rather than fight it out.  Next, the US doesn’t stand a good chance of winning.  The talked about plan is to bomb some stuff and then leave, which won’t put the conflict to an end.  These are all reasons why the US joining the Syrian civil war would be unjust.

So while it is clear there is some holdover from Catholic Just War Theology it is also clear this holdover is limited.  The opposition to chemical warfare is good and right, but how we live out that opposition with the other aspects of Just Warfare seem much less so, at least in our President.  The low number of supporters for US intervention shows while maybe our society cannot articulate Just War Theory, we might still intuit it well as a holdover from our Christian past.  I pray with Pope Francis that this intuition pushes us back from joining the war.

Amnesty is the American (and Catholic) Way

This article seems to forget Catholics are catholic.  Catholics think of the universality of the Church.  While one may be more Gallican or Ultramontanist, we always remember our common ancestry of Adam and Eve.  We are all siblings, but we divide our land into many nations because we are not homogeneous.

What this means is that Christ wasn’t meant just for the West, he was meant for all.  There is no fear of societal suicide or a pillaging of wealth because we are a family.  The intention of the Church is not to condemn the West but rather to remember that with the great privilege inherent in being born white or in the industrialized West comes great responsibility to our neighbor.

We might banter about what the best way to aid our neighbor is, but we must seek to aid them.  Amnesty is one way to aid them.  Another would be helping develop their home countries.  Welcoming pilgrims into our land seems like the easiest way, and fits with the American ideals expressed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

To have clergy support such an American ideal as accepting the poor refuge from another land as well as recognizing our common union is hardly a call for the extinction of the West.  The heresy that the Church should only be concerned with a few elect rather than all people is close to the heresy of Donatism.  Sinners were excluded in donatism, and in the linked to article it is people of color and poor people who are excluded.  The “True Church” is considered western Christianity, and Christians not so lucky to be born in the West or of the right skin color are considered heathen.  This is heresy denies the Catholicity of the Church.

The 2000 year old news that priests sin

The big story is that a priest solicited a prostitute.  This is actually no big news because, after all, St. Augustine did write, “Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman”.  Most guys find women somewhat irresistible and this priest is, after all, a guy.

St. Augustine knew that people had a hard time resisting sin.  His most famous prayer is perhaps, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet”!  This great saint saw the danger in thinking some people could go through life without sinning in major ways.  He verbally fought against the Donatists, who argued that only a priest who is without sin could validly work a sacrament.

The argument St. Augustine made is that the Sacraments are an act of the Church, not of the man.  Further, the Church is holy because it was founded by Christ and serves a holy end.  It is not the priest who consecrates the Eucharist or Baptises, but rather it is Christ.

This was a good insight, because when your first Pope denies Christ three times (John 18) in your holy book, it’s kind of hard to think that your religious leaders are without sin.  2000 years ago we learned our clergy will (through human weakness) occasionally deny Christ in word and deed.  Even Pope John Paul II went to confession weekly, because we all fall down, even the best of us.

The controversy with the Donatists was ended in 405, when the government helped the Catholic Church outlaw Donatism.
The Church some 1600 years ago explicitly acknowledging our clergy are not elite, but sinners like the rest of us.  This is wonderful news, because it keeps the clergy from becoming first class perfect Christians while the rest of us have to muck around as second class sinner Christians.  The division the Donatists would have created was stopped, and the trembling equality of inferiority we all have when the perfect and almighty God gazes upon us is recognized.

Hopefully this history puts the article into perspective.  While it’s a scandal for a priest to fail so hard, it’s not unexpected.  It’s not even good that we rarely hear these stories because it is important to remember priests are people too.  They are not set apart from us to be better than us or more sinless than us, but to serve us.  While a Donatist might read this article and think, “This proves the Church is evil”, a Catholic reads this and thinks, “Lord have mercy on him, but praised be to God that priests are not superior to us and instead face the same troubles with sin that we do.  Thank you God for treating all people equally and fairly.”