Fact and Opinion: Making a Crucial Distinction

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Yesterday our Parish Priest did something in the homily with which I strongly took exception. And the oddest thing was that I, in large part, agree with his point.

In the course of a homily that stretched wide and far our priest brought up two points that he thougth related. The first of these was clearly church doctrine. He said something to the effect that society takes an out-and-out sin, such as abortion and turns it into a right. Clearly he was articulating a truth of the faith.

But then he said something that, while not destroying the first statement, certainly cast some doubt upon it. He said, the Iraqi war was evil, unjust, and should be brought to an end.

Now, I have no problem with any priest expressing this opinion clearly as his opinion. Every person has a right to look upon these circumstances and decide for him- or her- self what a just war looks like. This priest decided that it did not look like Iraq.

Since I largely agree, you may find my demurral somewhat odd. But it has two prongs. The first of these is that while every individual is entitled to his or her private opinion, a priest, serving in the role of priest, breaking open the scripture and sharing with the congregation is required to make clear if he speaks his own opinion or church teaching. For the most part, the fewer opinions that issue from the pulpit, the better. And I say that not to try to clamp a gag on the clergy, but because their role is so sensitive, delicate, and crucial to the congregation, particular as they enact the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Word and Eucharist. They are the trustees of the bounty of Church teaching. Our Priests feed us. And if what they feed us is a plethora of opinions we will starve to death. No matter how much I might agree with any given stand, it should not be presented in the same breath as something that is unarguably church teaching (the evil of abortion). This is the first half of my objection.

The second half consisted of this--how would I feel sitting in that congregation if my son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, any member of my family were serving in Iraq? How would I like to be the mother who is trying to explain to her child how she must support her father overseas even though what he is doing is evil? I know the good priest did not intend these ramifications--but while it is right and proper to convict someone of guilt in a case when we are clearly talking Church teaching, it is wrong a terrible to wave that brand when the question is debatable. As a Pastor it is the Priests terrible and glorious responsibility to uphold Church teaching in its entirety and purity, and to support the members of the congregation in following that truth. What is left to prudential judgment should not become the black mark of sin because of the preaching of Father. It should not create the internal struggle and the terrible weight it will for all of those families already burdened by the absence of their loved ones.

I didn't speak to our priest afterwards, because his point was short, and I hope because of his long tenure at this church the congregation understood clearly what he did and did not mean to say. Nevertheless, I say it here because it confounded me yesterday and I have been brooding on it for a while, trying to figure out why, when I so clearly agreed with the sentiment, I found its utterance so thoroughly out of place.

I'm not trying to lecture, merely to offer a perspective from the pews. Something I'm sure too many priests hear way too much of. But I truly think it's very important to clearly distinguish fact from opinion in so controversial and debatable a matter--both to defend Church doctrne and to support those who are so valiantly giving their lives in service to their country. They were not asked what they thought of this conflict--they stand and serve. For this they deserve our respect, our gratitude, our loyalty, our prayers, and our help. As they stand and serve, we need not to sling barbs and arrows, but to help in substantive ways the families they have left behind.

I may not agree with the war, but I have no disagree with those who chose service to their country as their life's ambition, and who now do so at the behest of our government. So long as they conduct themselves according to the laws governing such conflict situations and the laws of God, they deserve everything we can offer them, because they are offering us everything. Everything. In their service, they serve each of us with all that they have and all that they are.

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A couple thoughts. One is that he should've been saying this before the war rather than now, and perhaps he did (I obviously wasn't there). Perhaps it is more unjust to have engaged in this war than to pull out now and leave the Iraqis to fend for themselves.

Second, it would be helpful if the priest explained why the war wasn't a just one. Opinions are easy; backing them up are difficult. There are legit reasons why this war wasn't just but there are some I personally discount, and so it's helpful for me to have an idea where a person is coming from. A person worthy of respect such as a priest can help much more if they explain why they believe it wasn't just.

Dear TSO,

Thank you. And your second point actually amplifeid my main point as to why this isn't appropriate fodder for a sermon. Because the reasoning is so complex and so nuanced, it requires the time to sit down discuss and clarify. In 12-15 minutes there is only time of obiter dicta and fleshing out the Gospel; hence, political opinions that are not clearly defined in Church doctrine have no real place at the pulpit.

Which is not to say that the Priest should be denied his political opinions--rather that the forum should be carefully chosen.

Thank you.



Greetings Steven,

I am in disagreement with your position on what the Church teaches specifically on the war in Iraq.

I DO believe that it is Church teaching - Vatican approved DOCTRINE - that there is absolutely no such thing as a just application of unilateral preventative war, and that such a war is "intrinsically evil" and a grave offense against human life - like abortion.

Further, both John Paul II and Pope Benedict explictly apply that teaching to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in no uncertain terms (or, to quote JP II reiterating his position to G.W., "unequivocally" ) . Not only that, but several bishops conferences around the world, including the USCCB took the same united position. If this is not "ordinary and universal magisterium" that is "manifestly demonstrated", I don't have a clue what is.

I spell all of this out in a rather lenghty piece written months ago during the election entitled appropriately enough, Church Teaching and the War in Iraq.

This is NOT merely a matter of applying just war doctrine. To believe the war in Iraq is a just war fundamentally requires a rejection of the "strict and rigorous" requirements of jus ad bellum spelled out very clearly in paragraph 2309 of the CCC. The final clause refering to the prudential judgment of political leaders does is NOT intended as an "out clause" to bypass everything else in the paragraph.

I have also written a number of shorter articles on this very topic this week (I see you dropped by earlier today by the post below this one).

I do not believe your priest was out of line to claim his position is the teaching of the Church. It is.

Do you raise a valid concern about how to say this pastorally, considering that there are families of troopers in the congregation?

Sure. I raise the same point about the way we speak on abortion sometimes. I am adamantly and passionately against abortion, but I want to reach pro-choicers rather than repelling them or driving some women into despair over past faults. On any issue, we can always try to be more pastorally sensitive without watering down the truth.

But the truth is that though you feel that your opinion on Iraq - which is opposed to the war - is solely your personal opinion, you are incorrect on that. Your opinion on the war is NOT just your opinion. It is the teaching of the Church, which should come as no surprise, since the natural law is written on the human heart.

Those who disagree are perfectly free to do so. The teaching is not infallible, so I would not even wish to deny them communion.

However, it needs to be perfectly clear that to believe the war in Iraq is a juat war is either to be ignorant of Church teaching, or in open dissent - just like those who dissent on contraception or the host of other issues that many war supporters beat up "cafeteria Catholics" about.


I just wanted to say, Steven- it takes intellectual honesty to write what you just did. So many people fall into the trap of saying "the teaching of the Church" when they mean "my best understanding of the full applications of the teaching of the Church", and the difference can cause great harm. I've not been immune to such things.

But you get it exactly right that a priest- or anyone in ministry- needs to be careful to make the Pauline distinction of "I, and not the Lord, say..." in such cases.

And for the record, I agree with you as well that the war in Iraq violated Just War principles. But it's not an obvious conclusion, and not infallible, and treating it as such is a falsehood.

Thanks for the post!

Dear JCecil3,

I don't think we're in disagreement at all. I would agree with what you say about the particular war and I believe you have Church teaching correct on the matter (so far as I can discern in a rapid reading); however, my point is that the issue is clearly debateable. Not everyone sees the war in precisely the same way--this makes application of Church Doctrine more difficult because there is much of a prudential judgment involved here. In the case of abortion, everything is fairly clear, cut-and-dry in ordinary circumstances--the Pastor can correctly articulate the Church Doctrine on the matter and that's it.

On this matter, while you see the war as unilateral and preemptive (a matter with which, ex post facto, I am in agreement). Not everyone does. And I think there is great merit to the arguments that look at the other side here.

So, I wasn't saying that if the Priest had said, "Unilateral, preemptive war can never be just" that he would have been out of bounds. But in fact, he did not. He gave his prudential judgment as a matter of Church teaching--and that is a problem.

And, again, the Pope and the Bishops are advancing a prudential judgment on the matter. They are advising and not central to the issue in the sense of facing the combat.

We will disagree on this, but I do not believe that one can say the Church categorically teaches that this war is wrong. I believe it is, for all the reasons outlined above. But some very good, very judicious, very reasonable Priests and Bishops do not concur--their reasoning has led them to a different conclusion. I don't think this represents dissent.

But thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comments. It's always good to hear from you.




Our disagreement is obviously not over the war, nor even over the fact that it is solid Church teaching that a just war must be a last resort defense against unjust aggression already inflicted and that such agression remains imminent, grave, lasting and certain - as paragraph 2309 of the CCC indicates.

Th "prudential judgment" refers to the exacty moment that we can say we are at the last resport.

However, that moment follows an actual attack by the nation with which you seek to wage war upon your nation or its formal allies.

Iraq did not attack us or our allies. Period.

There is absolutely no room for further discussion that is in accord with Church teaching.

Now, we can debate whether the Church is right or wrong. I am extremely tolerant of dissent on non-infallible issues, and this teaching is not infallibly defined.

However, the teaching is extremely clear and called "strict and rigorous". You absiolutely cannot ever attack a nation that has not attacked you and claim to be in obedience with the current teaching of the Catholic Church.

Thus, there is nothing to debate about Iraq. The war is unjust. This is not simply a question of how to apply Church teaching prudentially. The prudential judgment issue never arises prior to being attacked. Prior to being attacked, the initiator of war is the unjust agressor by definition, and the insurgents in Iraq are the very people fighting a just war in self defense.

And John Paul and Benedict have been very clear that I am not misinterpreting this teaching, as have many bishops conferences. There is not really any room for debate. The only thing to debate is whether the teaching itself is true, and if true, how do we state it with some pastoral sensitivity and what is the right moral course for the soldier who went over there ignorant of Church teaching or in a sort of uninformed dissent.

But the war itself very clearly and unambiguously violates current Church teaqching, no ands, ifs, or buts.


Dear JCecil3,

No, we are not necessarily in disagreement. I would not go so far as you in defining those who disagree as "in dissent" because to be in dissent one must disagree to a doctrine that is infallible. If, as you imply, Just War Doctrine is not such a one, then to disagree on the matter is not dissent.

However, this very exchange underlines my main point--which is, there is a legitimate and pervasive disagreement amongst Catholics on this point. A valid disagreement that relates in part to the definitions and understandings of terms. You've defined yours clearly, but I suspect that there are others who would disagree with your very definitions, which would in turn abrogate your argument. (Don't look to me to do it--I simply have seen it done.)

Given this pervasive and legitimate difference of opinion of a doctrine which is, in itself, troubling and given the pastoral concerns of the parish Priest, it is better not to try to infallibly pronounce one way or the other on this war. That was my point. There is no disagreement on the matter of abortion--as you point out pastoral concerns must temper how the doctrine is taught. However, as you may have noted, your opinion on the war is not a majority, nor perhaps even a plurality. The Vatican statements may only be taken as prudential judgments, no matter how much I respect the persons making those judgments. (One indeed, so much that I preffered his judgments to my own--thus I find myself in agreement with you largely.)

But it is not up to the Vatican to define the terms of hostility--it is up to the elected officials of the nation making these judgments. I think that the judgment may have been wrong; however, I do not have all the information and I am not the one responsible for making that judgment for anyone other than myself.

In short, honestly, we haven't any disagreement at all (or at least it boils down to semantic differences). I speak only from the wide ranging opinions of very, very Orthodox, faithful Catholics. They can decided an issue as incorrectly as I do, but I am not in a position to say without doubt that they are wrong. The best I can manage is that in my understanding they may be wrong--which makes any statement I produce about the war ambivalent at best. And that brings us back to the question of whether it is right FROM THE PULPIT to make these pronouncements. How the priest may feel about the war is his own business, but unless the entire sermon is dedicated to showing very clearly using the scripture that the war is indeed wrong, I find it very unhelpful to fling out an anathema without backing that would result in very negative feelings among some in the congregation. In his private conversations, he can espouse any view he cares to--but without substantiation in the individual instance, he should not speak in such a way masking opinion as authority.




I'm really not trying to beat a dead horse, and I know that we are in basic agreement about the war itself.

The issue I am trying to drive home, however, is that your pastor DID accurately state Church teaching, and not merely his opinion.

In order to clarify why I say this, I do need to "nit-pick" with your choice of words a bit.

"Dissent" is not disagreement with an infallibly defined dogma. To disagree with an infallibly defined dogma is "heresy", which breaks communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Heresy is a sin against faith itself.

"Dissent" is to disagree with authentic or authorative teaching that is not solemnly defined, and this can be either legitimate dissent or illegitimate dissent.

When it is illigitimate, dissent is a sin against obedience to proper human authority.

When it is legitimate, there may not even be sin, and you may be morally obligated to voice your dissent.

Legitimate dissent arises when your disagreement is based on knowledge of what the Church teaches, and you disagree with the teaching because of an internal inconsistency in the teaching or a contradiction with a higher or more authorative principle accepted by the Church. In some cases, expressing your dissent may even be a "duty" imposed by conscience if the issue is important enough (see canon 212.3).

Conversely, illigimate dissent is when we simply disobey Church teaching based on childish rebellion, passing feelings, or principles that have no support in the Catholic tradition.

Illigitimate dissent can be a sin, but it never ruptures full union with the Church. It is not a sin against faith itself. It is merely an act of disobeience to a proper human authority.

I am in dissent with non-infallible teaching on a number of issues such as contraception, gay civil unions, and women's ordination. None of these issues have been solemnly defined, and even thoguh Pope Benedict calls Ordinatio Sacerdotalis "definitive", he has repeatedly stated that the teaching is not solemnly defined.

I believe that my own dissent on these teachings is legitimate dissent.

I respect the possibility that a person can have cause to legitimately dissent with the Church's teaching on just war. This is possible precisely because the teaching is not solemnly defined.

But make absolutely no mistake, to disagree with the Church teaching on this issue is still dissent - just like my own on other issues not solemnly defined.

The Church teaching is very clear. A nation cannot wage war with another nation until the other nation has mounted an attack.

If you do not believe that principle, you are in dissent. The only remaining question you need to answer in conscience is whether your dissent is legitimate or illegitimate - a duty of conscience or sinful childish rebellion.


Dear JCecil3,

And my point, that you seem to dodge is that all you are throwing out there are your definitions and opinions--neither authoratative. I respect you, I even agree with most of what you have said. But a good many ministers of the Church do not and the teaching has not been made authoratative. To do so they would have to solemnly declare as a doctrinal issue that this war is immoral. Instead we have prudential judgments.

You may value them highly, as I do. However, they are merely judgments.

My further point is that Just War is a defined and definable doctrine, a statement about any given war must perforce be a judgment. I believe the judgment in this case to be correct. However the church has not authoratatively taught that this war is unjust. Had they done so, a good many I know would have fallen into line--they have not.

I think this matter is a good deal more vague than say Ordination of Women, on which you say you are in legitimate dissent. (Personally, I find that whole construction a bit suspect for its matter of convenient.) For me dissent is clearly disagreement with authoratative doctrines of the Church that do not amount to central matters of faith. "Pro-choice Catholics" are in dissent, as are "Pro-women's Ordination." On the other hand, "Pro-married priests" would not be because celibacy, while honored and traditional is a discipline, not a doctrine.

In this case dissent from Church teaching would be to say that Just War Doctrine is incorrect. To dissent from any person's prudential judgment is not dissent. And for any person to present their prudential judgment as Church teaching is false and misleading.

So, again you reinforce my point. There is strong disagreeement about the matter, the Church has not spoken authoratatively in the instance, but only in the doctrine as a whole. I don't buy the prudential judgments of any individual as doctrinally binding.

There you have it. You say it is, I say it isn't--and where there is that chasm of doubt, unless you want to spend the time to carefully trace the line to prove your point, it is my contention that the statement should not be made.

Another example. If a priest were to say, "I like the celibate life, it better suits me for ministry" in the course of a homily, I would have no problem with the statement. If the priest were even to go so far as to defend celibacy as a total committment of one's life to God and service, that would be admirable. But if the priest were to say, "An acelibate priesthood is evil and sinful," he would be to do so. He has every right to that opinion, but it is clearly not defined church teaching.

So too, "Prosecution of a unjust war is evil," is a statement with which I can take no exception on the basis of Church Doctrine. "The war in Iraq is evil," is a chain of reasoning, definition, and opinion with which I may agree or disagreement, but it is a statement to which there can be vociferous and vigorous disagreement depending on how terms are defined and how one "nuances" the doctrine.

The point is, that there are as many Catholics that disagree with you as there are those in agreement. When such a split is present in the absence of authoratative pronouncement, we are better not to make it sound as though the Church has made a statement.




Added caveat to what I just wrote: the word "dissent", itself, has been used for what I defined as "heresy" by the Vatican.

However, the converse is not the case. the Vatican has never used used "heresy" in reference to disagreement/disobedience to teachings not solemnly defined.

And because of that, many theologians in good standing make the distinctions I made.

But I needed to add the caveat because someone might come back quoting some Vatican document identifying a particular heretic as a dissenter, and I am aware of this.


Greetings Steven!

I posted my caveat apparently before seeing your more recent response.

I'm going to nitpick on words again with you.

All teaching issued by the vatican is "authoratative", and especially a teaching in the Catechism.

You seem to be confused on the distinctions between levels of authority and somehow believe that just war doctrine is in a different class than a teaching such as abortion or contraception.

That's exactly what I am trying to clarify. It's not.

All vatican teaching (more precisely, "doctrine") is authoritative, and some authoritative teaching is solemnly defined with the charism of infallibility.

Now, there is a type of exhortation by the Vatican that is not a teaching or doctrine. For example, if the Pope writes a letter exhorting us to pray the Rosary, this is not itself a doctrine demanding obedience.

There are also canon laws that are considered diciplines, and not doctrines, such as mandatory celibacy for priests in the Latin Rite. We sin against obedience to proper human authority when we disobey these, but whether we agree or disagree with the discipline doesn't matter to anyone but ourselves.

But a teaching is a doctrine (by definition) and all teaching is considered authoritative when it is issued by the pope or the CDF or certain vatican offices in the curia.

The entire Catechism is a compendium of catholic doctrines. Not a single jot or tiddle of it is not considered "authoritative" or "authentic". To disagree with even the smallest part of it is a form of dissent with authoritative teaching.

If your pastor says anything in the pulpit that he can back up with the CCC, you cannot accuse him of taking his own opinion for that of the Church. It is Church teaching if its in the CCC.

Now, I don't agree with everything in the CCC, which is obvious. Not everything in the CCC is solemnly defined, as I've already pointed out. One cannot dissent with solemnly defined doctrine without falling into heresy, by definition.

However, to dissent with anything in the CCC is dissent with authoritative doctrine, by definition!

Which has been my point all along.

The CCC is very clear that a just war is defense against damage inflicted by an unjust aggressor. Therefore, it is authoritative doctrine that you cannot wage a just war unless your country has been attacked.

The prudential judgment clause does not mean one decides which conditions of just war apply, or whether to apply any conditions. Rather, it means that one must use prudential judgment to determine if all the conditions have been met in a given real-life instance.

Both John Paul and Benedict have been explicit in the case of Iraq that this is the correct interpretation of the authoritative doctrine.

To think otherwise is not heresy, but it is dissent!


Dear JCecil3,

But you still ignore the point that we're not talking about your opinions or your definitions. As you can read in the Catholic world at large there is a large variety of opinions on this matter.

And, in point of fact, the Catechism does not require that you be attacked, but that the danger of attack is a clear and present danger. This is the point on which many disagree.

Let's put it politely. I am not more confused about levels of authority than you are about what constitutes dissent. You define it the way you do--however not every statement out of the Vatican is authoratative in the denotative sense of that word. If so I would have to believe all sorts of nonsense that floats out of there from time to time, either through mistranslation or through misexpression.

To say that every Vatican statement is authoratative has about as much meaning as saying every one of my statements is. Yes, they all have as much authority as I can give them, but the level is occasionally so low as to be nonexistant.

Let's face it JCecil, you're not going to convince me that there is no valid difference of opinion on this matter. And my stand is that when there is a valid difference of opinion it is essential that opinions are not issued from the pulpit. The Vatican has NOT defined this war as unjust--they have released wise opinions as to its justness--but as I understand the whole doctrine, they simply haven't the authority to do anything other than advise. It is their considered advice and opinion that this is not a just war. That does not make it so.

(And it's really kind of silly to argue about it, because it misses the entire point as to whether or not Just War Doctrine itself is even valid in the modern world. I happen to think that the vast majority of all wars, and particularly wars in our time are of their very essence unjust--that is, that since Medieval times, conditions have grown to the point that the conditions required for justness are almost never met. That said--so long as there is a doctrine and definition, there is the possibility for disagreement, and no one is bound by another's prudential judgment.

Thus, we'll continue to disagree on this.




You se4em to missing the most critical point - except for refraining from calling heresy dissent in order to distinguish it from that form of dissent that the Vatican calls dissent, but not heresy, nothing - absolutely nothing I am writing is merely my opinion - nor yours - nor your pastors.

It is not merely MY opinion that the Church teaches that you absolutely cannot have a just war ever under any circumstances that is unilaterally waged as prevention prior to attack.

It is a 2,000 year tradition firmly rooted in scripture, patristics, the doctors of the Church and explicitly and clearly spelled out in the CCC and affirmed numerous times by the Popes and affirmed by several bishops confetrences - with not one single bishop ont he entire planet voicing dissent, not to mention the majority of religious leaders, and the majority of the world's Catholic population.

In other words, anyone who disagrees int he slightest with what I am writing is not stating a CATHOLIC opinion that is recognized as such, either by the authority of the magisterium, or by your pastor, or by me, or by most Catholics world-wide.

Therefore, just as I have to constantly demonstrate the logical consistency of my own dissent, those who claim the war in Iraq is a just war must offer a very rigourous and detailed arguemnt that goes beyond vague references to prudence and diviserty of opinion.

And, YOU really should demand more of them than that given that you give assent to the Church's teaching.

This is not something to be wishy-washy about. It is a life issue, right up there with abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and so forth. This is very serious business. Those who think this war is just must defned their position - and defend it with more vague notiosn of pluralism and strong feelings about what a bad guy Saddam Hussein is.

Don't be wishy-washy, but do be pastorally sensitive and even merciful.

The goal is not to drive peopel out of the Church, but to bring about a conversion.

Prior to today's post on my blog, I have been trying to reach the pro-war side through other arguments than Church authority. I have been trying to empathatically reach them on the emotional level and describe why I think following the Church teaching is a more effective strategy. I have also tried appeals to natural law reasoning. But I don't need to go through all of this with you, because you already agree.

I am not trying to persuade you that the war is wrong. We agree upon that.

And, when I am not stating Church teahing accurately or find myself in dissent, I'll be the first to admit it - you know that about me.

So, when I tell you that I am not in dissent, and not merely applying a personal intepretation on a Church doctrine, take whaty I have to say seriously. Thjose who think unilateral preventative war is ever just do not have a leg to stand upon in Church doctrien that I have seen.

So far, from what I can tell from reading the likes of Weigle, Novak, Deal, Shea, and so forth, they have seriously departed from the tradition in defending the Iraq war - in a much more aggregious way than I openly admit that I depart from some issues.

And bear in mind that if you simply do not trust my ability to know the teaching of the Church, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and the USCCB letter to President Bush explicitly say in almost the exact same words that I am right!


Dear JCecil,

No, you miss the critical point. The Pastor was not talking about doctrine he was talking about a particular war. I have never denied your essential point about "justness" of war.

But I will continue to deny that there is anything like consensus on the rest of your points. I agree with what you say. Many, much wiser than I am, do not. I cannot gainsay their knowledge. Fight with them, not with me, because my only point is that there is opinion and opinion and interpretation differs, and not everyone agrees with you--therefore there is room for disagreement.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 29, 2005 11:48 PM.

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