Written by Kelly Michaels
How many times do we in the Church hear these things: how many times! ‘But that priest, that man or that woman from the Catholic Action, that bishop, or that Pope tell us we must do it this way!’ and then they do the opposite. This is the scandal that wounds the people and prevents the people of God from growing and going forward. It doesn’t free them. . . . This (is the) healthy realism of the Catholic Church: The Church never teaches us the ‘or this or that.’ That is not Catholic. The Church says to us, ‘this and that.’ . . .This is not Catholic, this is heretical. (Pope Francis, June 9, 2016, Radio Vaticana)
Sorry, but no. That is all one can finally say in response to the remarks of the Holy Father during Holy Mass at Santa Marta recently. Even by Bergoglian standards, these assertions go too far—and that is saying quite a bit. After pronouncements like this one, you start to wonder if his strategy is to wait for us to throw our hands in the air and walk away. Walk away . . . from what? “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (Jn. 6:68) So let’s start untangling the latest load of mind-mangling rhetoric once more.
We can do it, too. After all, words mean things. If I tell my toddler, “Stop!” as he is about to run into the road, I mean for him to stop and not go. He is to halt where he is rather than continue moving into a flow of traffic that may injure or even kill him. Any time we use one term rather than another (unless the terms themselves are considered synonymous), we express not a single, solitary meaning but two different ones. Come to think of it, that’s the whole point of words in the first place. If they all meant the same thing in the end (like, for instance, mercy and presumption), there would hardly be any purpose in the entire linguistic endeavor in the first place, now would there?
The word heresy means something, too—something important; something quite serious, with which even being run over by a Mack truck cannot compare. Does it matter that the Holy Father elected to employ the adjectival form of the “H” word here? Yes, it does. If not, he shouldn’t have used it.
Grammar, moreover, exists so that individual units of meaning can be combined into larger ones. Because of it, there is such a thing as verbal ambiguity, with unclear antecedents being a common culprit. If I say, “between oranges and bananas, they are my favorite,” I do not succeed in communicating anything effectively because the third person plural pronoun they could refer equally to the oranges or the bananas. One must distinguish; and one must follow the rules of grammar in order to do so to the mental satisfaction of other people. On this, the success of Pope Francis’ favorite endeavor—known as dialogue—depends in the first place. When it comes to grammar alone, the remarks above are nothing short of Augean. Once again, thanks to the Holy Father, we have our work cut out for us.
What are we to make, then, of the assertion that “the Church never teaches us ‘or this or that.’ . . . This is not Catholic, this is heretical”? Even after three years of papal pronouncements ranging from the befuddling to the outrageous, here we have one that takes the proverbial cake. What is this this that merits labeling with the “H” word, no less? Remember when the fate of the nation hung on what the meaning of the word is is? Now the very imputation of heresy itself depends on the meaning of the word this.
Is this this, as in “This isn’t Catholic . . . this is heretical,” the same this in, “or this or that”? In that case, the heretical this would mean the taking of one side a proposition as opposed to another. Alternatively, the this in “this is heretical” could refer to the teaching of “or this or that.” Now, the proper correlative conjunction to go with or isn’t another or, but rather, either. But never mind. Whichever word actually serves as the grammatical antecedent, the Holy Father’s contention seems to be the same. He contends that the drawing of distinctions—not the distinctions themselves, which are left conspicuously unspecified—is seriously theologically problematic.
One wishes Pope Francis would substantiate his claim that the Church “never” teaches anything that could be characterized as, “or this or that.” It seems at first blush much closer to the truth to say that it always does. Heaven or Hell. Good or evil. Truth or falsehood. Salvation or damnation. Accepting Christ or rejecting Him. Believing in God or not believing in Him. Which of these antitheses—or, perhaps, all of them?—are we supposed to abandon now that we need to realize that the Church “never” teaches them?
And what about the antithesis upon which the above remarks attributed to the Holy Father are, themselves, based? If the teaching of “or this or that” is not Catholic, then only the teaching of “this and that” is (is Catholic, that is). In other words, to be Catholic, according to Pope Francis the First, is to embrace the Hegelian dialectic. It is to reject the “or this or that” in favor of the “this and that.”
The only problem is that, if that is what this means, the Holy Father is himself drawing a distinction between the Hegelian dialectic and all that is outside of it. He is teaching, in other words, that there is a difference between the “or this or that” and the “this and that,” and that the “or this or that” is to be rejected in favor of the “this and that.” According to him, then, it’s either one or the other, and to avoid the charge of heresy, we have to go with the other.
But in the meanwhile, making people choose between one or the other is precisely what Pope Francis is busy denouncing in the first place. In other words, logically, the teaching he has just given us about what is and is not heretical is, according to his own definition, heretical. The infinite regression at the core of the liberal mindset can get really tedious at times.
If the Holy Father is going to go so far as to call something heretical, he ought to have the courtesy of spelling out for us what it is. Instead—mirabile dictu—we find ourselves scratching our Bergoglian bald spots yet again. In the absence of any other viable interpretation, and in light of the many tongue-lashings Pope Francis has given those who dare to disagree with him, we are left with the distinct but still plausibly-deniable impression that heretical, to him, simply denotes failing to toe the line drawn by the new Vatican regime in any respect whatsoever.
Let’s leave aside the towering irony of being lectured by him, of all people, that having “a very creative vocabulary for insulting others” is a sin, and just concentrate on the avoidance of being branded heretics, shall we? Evidently, we must go brainlessly Bergoglian if we don’t wish to be so charged, even when it is impossible to decipher what the man is saying in the first place. Which never was, isn’t now, nor ever will be anything remotely like what the “H” word actually means.