A Certain Attitude about Incorrect Ideas

There is a certain attitude causing a great deal of trouble in our society today.

1. It begins with the idea that one’s own opinions and understanding on a controversial topic are correct, and the opposing views are wrong. Well, that’s not so bad. We each choose our opinions based on what we think is right, and that would imply that the contrary view is incorrect. But we err when we impute an excess of certitude to our own understanding. Is it not possible that one’s own opinion is wrong and the opposing view is substantially more accurate? Out of pride, people give their own understanding a greater degree of certitude than may be warranted. And this same pride suggests that those who disagree are not only incorrect, but very wrong. There is both an excess of certitude about who is right and who is wrong, and an exaggeration as to the harm that is supposedly caused by these wrong ideas.

2. Then this error progresses to a second error, which is the conclusion that those who disagree are not merely incorrect in their opinions, but bad persons. They are wrong because of some fault for which they are personally culpable. The erroneous idea is this: Those who are wrong are also bad, otherwise they would surely see the obvious truth to the correct point of view. The idea is that, if you were a good person, both intelligent and caring, you could not help but see that our view is right, and our opponents are wrong. But since you have adopted the wrong point of view, you must be unintelligent or uncaring or worse.

3. And then it gets worse. The third error of this attitude is a result of the other two. It is the conclusion that persons who have the wrong opinion are not only bad persons, but persons who deserve to be treated badly. In this way, people justify name-calling, attribution of bad motives, and all manner of exaggerated accusations.

The combination of these three errors is expressed thusly: “Our opponents hold and express the wrong opinions because they are bad persons, therefore they deserve to be treated badly.” That is the three-part error that is harming society and which also has seeped into debates and disagreements within the Catholic Church.

We see this in politics very frequently. Liberal Democrats do not see Republicans as good persons with erroneous political views. Instead, Republicans are seen as having ideas that are not merely incorrect, but very harmful, and this is assumed to be the result of being a bad person, not merely holding a wrong idea. The result is that they justify treating political conservatives very badly.

But of course, the same applies in the way that political conservatives treat liberals: the assumption that conservatives can’t be wrong; the claim that liberals are somehow bad persons for having the “wrong” ideas; the justification of exaggerated accusations and name-calling.

And this occurs not only in politics itself, but within social controversies that extend beyond politics. If you do not adopt the preferred point of view, then you are called something-phobic or a hater or some other term. The assumption is that one’s own ideas are obvious facts, and anyone who denies these allegedly obvious truths must be bad persons, working from bad motivations, and therefore they deserve to be treated badly.

The Church

This attitude problem has been carried over to religious controversies. Conservative Catholics assume that liberal Catholics have nothing of substance to contribute to our understanding of the Faith. They assume that the correct answer to every theological question is the conservative answer. They assume that liberals are working from bad motivations. And it works the other way around also. Liberal Catholics have adopted much the same set of errors, in the way they treat conservatives.

But this problem has a particular severity when it affects the way that conservative Catholics treat a liberal Roman Pontiff, namely Pope Francis. They assume that they are right and he is wrong, even when he exercises the ordinary papal Magisterium. They can’t imagine that their own point of view, which is that of the conservative Catholic subculture, could err. The subculture is assumed to be inerrant, and the Pope is assumed to be unreliable as a teacher and leader, in everything he says and does, because he is liberal. The extent of the errors possible is exaggerated, so that he is even accused by some of heresy. They attribute bad motives to him; they think he may be working to undermine Church teaching deliberately. They believe he has gravely immoral motives. They then justify calling him names, making exaggerated accusations, and working to oppose him at every turn.

They justify treating the Vicar of Christ badly because of this attitude, the same foolish attitude at work in secular politics. They have been heavily influenced in their religious views by bad examples from sinful secular society. And so many persons are acting under this influence, the result could be a conservative schism.

The papal critics are acting just like political commentators in secular society. They assume their own understanding cannot be wrong. The fact that they are part of a group reinforces their surety that they have understood everything correctly. The Pope is then judged in his decisions on doctrine and discipline based on the majority opinion of that group of conservatives. The Pope has the role from God to teach and correct them. But instead they presume to teach and correct him. They write open letters, petitions, and the like, attempting to reverse the roles, so that they would teach and correct the Supreme Pontiff. This is all based on the first error: the exaggerated surety that your understanding is right and the opposing view is wrong.

And when the Roman Pontiff does not stand corrected, but continues to teach and act in the same manner, the second error occurs: they impute bad motives to him. They assume that he may be acting with deliberately immoral intentions, such as to undermine and change past true teachings, and to encourage grave sins. They believe their own point of view to be so clearly correct that anyone who thinks otherwise must be a bad person. They consider that perhaps the Pope realizes that he is “propagating heresy”, that he does so with a substantial degree of awareness, not inadvertently. They call him a bad Pope, one of the worst Popes in history, a lost Shepherd, a dictator Pope, a false prophet, etc.

And this is the third error: treating those who disagree badly. But in this case, they are treating the Vicar of Christ badly: making accusations, engaging in name-calling, joining together to oppose him, and even speaking about the removal of a supposedly-heretical Pope. They have in mind to reject him so thoroughly that he would be declared a heretic, and they would refuse submission to him and refuse communion to those who support him.

This is not the work of the Holy Spirit. For it is exactly the same type of error that plagues modern politics. And we see how sinful it is for politicians to behave in this manner. Yet the papal critics do not see that they have adopted the same set of errors.

The Correct Attitude

A. Pope Francis is the valid Roman Pontiff, and no valid Roman Pontiff can teach heresy, nor commit apostasy, heresy, or schism.

B. When conservatives disagree with the Pope, they should admit that they could be the ones in error.

C. Disagreements with the Pope should not be exaggerated, neither in the surety of one’s own understanding, nor in the degree of supposed error in the Pope’s position.

D. Never oppose the Pope. Whosoever opposes the Pope, opposes Christ. His alleged limited errors are not sufficient reason to treat him as an opponent.

E. The errors possible in the conservative Catholic subculture are great, and the errors possible in any Roman Pontiff are small. So the conservative Catholic subculture should accept correction and not speak as if it could never err.

F. Popes are not subject to the authority of Cardinals, Bishops, other individuals, or groups of any kind on earth (per Unam Sanctam). The Cardinals and Bishops cannot remove a Pope, nor can they declare him to be in the state of heresy.

G. Popes are subject to possible mild humble correction, based on theological arguments, absent any prideful assumptions that the Pope is wrong. But if he does not stand corrected, the faithful cannot take any further steps.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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