Sunday, November 09, 2014

A Counterblast: Discord and Contention

One of the interesting things about the current state of affairs in mater ecclesiae is watching the way people are bending over backwards to square the circle regarding the messages coming from Rome - trying to explain how everything is fine, calm down, relax, nothing to see here, move along, etc. etc. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

A major threat to the "nothing to see here" mentality is of course the stubborn persistence of traditional Catholic bloggers who insist loudly that there is in fact quite a bit to see here, and that this is not business as usual. This can be disconcerting to the worldview of some Catholics, I admit; how could it not be? The implications, if accepted, could be very troubling. It would mean nothing less than that the Church herself is responsible for her sorry state of affairs - not the world, the media, or whomever else. To admit this would constitute a revolution of Copernican proportions for many Catholics.

Therefore, it often prompts anger, confusion and resentment, characterized by lashing out at "rad trads" and Catholic bloggers who dare to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Many of you have been on the receiving end of this. I know I have.

We traditionalists are all terribly sick of the "shoot the messenger" nonsense. The bishops of the world dally around with changing two millennia of pastoral practice, with devastating consequences to doctrine, and we are the kill-joys for pointing it out! After seven and a half years of blogging, I am still banging my head against the wall trying to figure out how the problem is not that there are priests, bishops and cardinals actively trying to destroy the faith, but that I am writing about their attempts to destroy the faith. Their perfidity merits a shrug - after all, who am I to judge? But our writing about their perfidity merits condemnation.

Recently, I heard a new take on the "traditionalist Catholic bloggers cause disunity" assertion. The argument relied upon St. Thomas Aquinas' definitions of the sins of discord and contention. Let me phrase the argument in the context in which I heard it:

Catholics should be unified. Unity is one of the hallmarks of Catholicism. Catholic bloggers who frequently write about things wrong in the Church can damage the unity Catholics are supposed to have (because posts about scandals, heresy, etc. can damage the faith of other Catholics, lead to a loss of hope, and be done without charity). It can create a climate of bickering and dissension within the Church. This is bad.

And not only bad, but sinful, perhaps mortally so. Here were invoked the sins of discord and contention as defined by St. Thomas in the Summa. Discord was defined as obstinately clinging to your own way of thinking. Contention was defined as putting such discord into speech or writing.

I don't want to retread a lot of old ground, but let's at least look at whether Aquinas' definitions are being used correctly. In the Summa II-II, Q. 37, Aquinas deals with the question of discord and whether it is a sin.  Discord is defined as a disunion of wills (Q. 37 art. 2). Unity of wills can be destroyed by discord two ways - directly or accidentally. Hence Aquinas distinguishes between active and passive discord, the first consisting in actively willing to cause discord, the latter in which discord happens in a way accidental to the intention of the agent. In other words, to cause discord for the sake of creating discord - as when family members create discord by gossiping simply because they relish drama - is certain sinful. This is active discord. 

But passive discord occurs when human disagreement arises from two people disagreeing about the best way to attain a certain good. The object of such discord is not discord as such, but a certain good about which the parties disagree. One co-worker at the office wants pepperoni on the pizza for lunch, the other wants pineapple and ham, and they have a disagreement. Yes, there is discord in the office, but it is of an accidental nature. Aquinas states:

"Hence when several intend a good pertaining to God's honor, or our neighbor's profit, while one deems a certain thing good, and another thinks contrariwise, the discord is in this case accidentally contrary to the Divine good or that of our neighbor. Such like discord is neither sinful nor against charity..." (Q. 37 art. 1)

Passive discord is thus not really discord in the fullest sense, since it is not so much a disunion of wills as much as a disunion of opinions. And there is no mandate for unanimity of opinions. Again, Aquinas:

" an effect of charity, a union of wills, not of opinions." (ibid)

We all want the good of the Church. We all want to bring souls to Jesus Christ. Our disagreement is on the prudence of what is going on in the Church today. Catholic bloggers - speaking for myself at least - do not will disunity or discord and do not blog in order to create it. When disagreements arise, then discord arises accidentally because we are all of different opinion on these matters. But as Aquinas states, this sort of discord is not sinful nor against charity.

Another sin was mentioned - contention or contentiousness. This was defined as putting our discordant opinions into speech or writing. St. Thomas takes up contention in II-II Q. 38. Again, he agrees that contention is a sin, and that is principally consists in tending against someone or something in speech or writing. 

"To contend is to tend against some one. Wherefore just as discord denotes a contrariety of wills, so contention signifies contrariety of speech." (Q. 38 art. 1)

He says such contentiousness is mortally sinful. Is this the end of the story? Should all traditional blogs finally shut down under the weight of the argument that we can never express our misgivings in writing? Hardly. Aquinas goes on:

"Now contrariety of speech may be looked at in two ways: first with regard to the intention of the contentious party, secondly, with regard to the manner of contending. As to the intention, we must consider whether he contends against the truth, and then he is to be blamed, or against falsehood, and then he should be praised." (ibid)

Contention cannot be understood in isolation from what is being contended against. If it is falsehood against which one is contending, it is not sinful; on the contrary, it is praiseworthy. Clearly in the case of Catholic bloggers, we contend not against truth but against error and cannot be charged with the sin of contentiousness.

In the case of both discord and contention, Thomas notes that even if we do not sin in intention or content of our words or writings, we may sin in the manner or mode in which they are delivered; i..e, if our mode of delivery lacks charity. Agreed. I have always agreed to this, as do almost all Catholic bloggers I know. Of course, we have different opinions on what is charitable and where the line is. But we all agree that our opinions must be expressed in an attitude of charity, and that this charity is due even to those we find ourselves in vehement disagreement with.

So, like other variants of the "you bloggers should just knock it off because you are wounding unity" argument, this one from Thomas' definitions of discord and contention fails as well. It fails because it does not allow for Aquinas' distinctions between active and passive discord or whether the blogger contends for truth or falsehood. The failure to make necessary distinctions is a common modern pitfall.

Yes, traditionalist bloggers do upset people occasionally; as long as this is because of the content alone and not because of the manner in which it is delivered, I do not apologize for this at all. This is part of what disagreeing is about. And having disagreements about prudential things is not necessarily bad. If pointing out certain evils leads some to lose faith, this is very unfortunate - but ultimately the guilt for these sorts of things lays with those committing these scandals, not the messenger who merely reports they are happening.

Finally, this whining about there being too much polemics in the Church really ignores the fact that the second greatest amount of writing in the history of the Church has been polemical in nature (spiritual works being first). Anyone who has really studied the history of the Church understands this implicitly. St. Paul against Judaizers. St. John against the Docetists. Irenaeus against the Gnostics. Tertullian against Marcion. Athanasius against the Arians. Cyprian against the Pope and Stephen against Cyprian. Jerome against Jovinian. Jerome against everybody. Augustine against all sorts of people. Irish monks against Roman monks. John Damascene against the Moors. Benedict against lazy monks. Cluniacs against Cistercians and Cistercians against Cluniacs. Secular against religious clergy. Mendicants against secular clergy. Aristotelians against Averroists. Bernard against Abelard. Aquinas against the Gentiles. Nominalists against Realists. Jesuits against Dominicans. Spiritual Franciscans against Conventuals. Guelphs against Ghibellines. Molinists against Thomists. And on and on and on. The vast majority of ink ever penned by Christian hands has been polemical in nature.

The "traditionalist bloggers cause disunity" is just a trope that some Catholics have latched on to. Polemic - done in charity - is the way we move forward.

Related: Are Trads Guilty of Pharisaism?


Unknown said...

Fantastic article and it is right on. I don't know how many times I have merely written the truth in defense of the faith only to have it flung back at me with the charge of being uncharitable.

European Swallow said...

Pizza in the office? I don't like it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful article! Someone with clarity on this whole "controversial" issue.

Marie said...

You forgot to mention Santa Claus punching the heretic Arius in the face.
LOL! Great article, thank you, thank you. And God bless you.

Anonymous said...

One way I know they're wrong is that THEY are the ones suggesting that I ignore my conscience and keep clinging to what I want. Who are they to judge?
I was raised secularist so I know all about my favorite sins. I came to the Church in large part because I figured it would be the place where I could learn to do what God wants instead of what I want. Now they're telling me I'm clinging to what I want because I won't just shut up and be happy that they're telling me it's ok to keep sinning as long as I never offend anyone by defending the Faith.

Boniface said...

Cling to the Faith; even if you cling to it like a board adrift in the ocean.

Long-Skirts said...

Brilliant. Deo Gratias!!

Anonymous said...

That is just the problem!

Pizza, as a concept, is Margherita. Cheese, basil, & tomato. The conservatives claim that pepperoni is "traditional," while the liberals clamor to introduce novelties like ham and pineapple.

Um...I'm back soon!

c matt said...

Uncharitable, disunity, contentious, discord - these kind of strike me as playing the "race" card. When you can't refute the argument/observation, play one of the above cards

Boniface said...

Good point, c matt.

Funny thing is, I have read a TON of Christian polemic from all eras of the Church...and you NEVER see the Fathers, medievals, etc accusing their opponents of being "uncharitable.' I've never run across it. Even when Pope Stephen and Cyprian were bitterly arguing and practically calling each other heretics, neither defaulted to the "You're being uncharitable" argument. That's because it is no argument at all and the ancients recognized it whereas we make it the be-all-end-all of disputation.

Anonymous said...

Boniface, let me say you've always been very charitable in your arguments, which I appreciate. And as Chesterston said: "... it's as if any stick will due to beat Christianity up with." The same applies to those within the Church that don't want hear the Truth. And if you're a traditional Catholic, they will really pull out the big stick. Keep up the good work

Anonymous said...

....and I might add, the Church of Nice (Shea, Keating, Fischer, Patheos, CA, and disturbingly now EWTN, NC Register, etc.), who place Church authority over Truth, are especially adept at using any old stick to beat up Traditional Catholics with.

Anonymous said...

Here is something for those who love truth, and want the Cardinals to have occasion to put their love of it into action

I invite all to sign this petition, to put the doubts to rest..

G. Romano

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Swear off Shea, seriously, He gets paid by the click on his articles. Don't feed the troll

O, another great post, Boniface