Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Ambiguity or Discernment?

October 2nd, 2017, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Recently I sent a “reflection” to my own mailing list and the feedback was that it might be useful to share on CF as well. So with apologies to those receiving duplicates, here is the text:

Recently I was in an active discussion with a close friend about how ambiguity undermines truth, and how important it is for us to say what we mean and to mean what we say. We might think of it this way:

ScreenShot755Suppose in driving we come to an intersection with two traffic lights, alternating with each other, with one on and the other off.  And suppose whichever one is “on” is blinking every color of the rainbow. Then the one that is “off” begins blinking all the colors and the other one goes off.  What is the proper way to proceed through the intersection? Some would say “very carefully,” especially if our vision of the road ahead and to either side is impeded. We don’t know what we are being told to do, and we don’t know if others around us will see things the same way.

When ambiguity occurs in spiritual teaching, the most important of all teaching, one answer also might be “proceed very, very carefully.” While the teachings of the Church may not always be popular, they have usually been clear. Then it is our free-will choice to obey or not to obey. But suppose we were each to interpret a teaching differently? If we act on those differences, the Body of Christ loses ‘Oneness.’

What does the Bible say about ambiguity? In Matthew 5:37 Christ says: “Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

In the Epistle of James 5:12 we read: “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation.”

Seems clear enough? But what biblical references do we have for ambiguity? The counterpoint to Christ’s and James’ statements would seem to apply (as you probably won’t find the word “ambiguous” or “ambiguity” in the usual biblical places.) St. Paul uses not “yes OR no” but “yes AND no” to convey ambiguity. Thus we read in 2 Corinthians 1:17-19 three mentions of “yes AND no” — “Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans like a worldly man, ready to say Yes and No at once? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silva’nus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in Him it is always Yes.” 

How can something be both “yes” and “no”?  It can’t.  Ambiguity in moral matters is a danger to souls. Many in the Church today recognize the Latin word “dubia” which means “doubts.” Four Cardinals of the Church have made inquiry of Pope Francis to seek clarification of what seem to be ambiguous passages in the Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.” (It isn’t the intent here to dive into the details, but only to point out that a writer can’t decide what is ambiguous or not, only the hearers / readers, each one for himself. But the writer can certainly explain the intention of his writing if he chooses. Or approve or disagree with someone else’s interpretation.)

But what are souls to do when confronted by the confusion and temptations of ambiguity? Many years ago I knew a couple who was struggling during their engagement about all the situations they had not anticipated that they would incur during their marriage, trying to figure out in advance what they would do.  Finally, their mutual decision was to approach each crucial decision (and none is more crucial than those affecting their souls) with the aphorism “High card wins.”  While true in gaming, they saw their way to decide in advance that whichever of their positions was the “most moral” (even if both were “moral”) would be the way the couple would decide. I cannot comment on whether or not they successfully implemented that decision, but how much better to have considered their strategy for deciding in advance.

Perhaps the Faithful from Argentina to Malta, and from Germany to San Diego, might  take that young couple’s decision into account. As long as there is unresolved ambiguity, hold onto the most moral position, even if it requires suffering unnecessary sacrifice. And proceed very, very slowly to make changes while the traffic light is blinking signals we don’t understand.

Now, to reflect, what is it that I can be clearer and more truthful about among my own friends and family?



20 Responses to “Ambiguity or Discernment?”

  1. avatar raymondfrice says:

    Why Doesn’t the Pope Answer His Critics?

    This week’s big Catholic news is the release of a “filial correction” of Pope Francis by a group of theologians and church laymen. Edward Pentin reports on it here:

    This is the sixth major initiative in which both clergy and laity have expressed concerns about the Pope’s teaching, particularly emanating from Amoris Laetitia. Despite the repeated pleas and warnings of chaos and confusion, Francis has refused to respond or acknowledge the initiatives which are as follows, in chronological order:

    In September 2015, just ahead of the second Synod on the Family, a petition of nearly 800,000 signatures from individuals and associations around the world including 202 prelates was presented to Pope Francis, calling on him to issue words of clarity on the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. The signatories, from 178 countries, expressed concern about “widespread confusion” arising from the possibility that “a breach” had been opened within the Church at the previous synod.

    In July 2016, a group of 45 Catholic scholars, prelates and clergy sent an appeal to the College of Cardinals asking that they petition Pope Francis to “repudiate” what they saw as “erroneous propositions” contained in Amoris Laetitia. They said the apostolic exhortation contains “a number of statements that can be understood in a sense that is contrary to Catholic faith and morals.”

    On Sept. 19, 2016, four cardinals — Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, and Joachim Meisner — presented the Pope with dubia, five questions on disputed passages of Amoris Laetitia with the aim of obtaining clarification and resolving confusion over diverse interpretations of the controversial passages among various bishops and episcopal conferences. The Pope did not acknowledge the dubia, nor did he respond to the cardinals’ request for an audience in May.

    In February this year, confraternities representing thousands of priests worldwide issued a statement saying a clarification of Amoris Laetitia was “clearly needed” in the wake of “widespread” differing interpretations of the apostolic exhortation. They also thanked the four cardinals for submitting the dubia.

    In April this year, six lay scholars from different parts of the world held a conference in Rome in which they drew attention to the same controversial passages of Amoris Laetitia, showing the extent of concern and unease among the laity over the papal document and its interpretation.
    The Pope’s response seems to ignore and marginalize his critics. For many this is surprising since Pope Francis has always spoken passionately about the need to listen to others and engage in dialogue. It is also surprising since Austen Ivereigh–Pope Francis’ biographer–has claimed repeatedly that Pope Francis “welcomes criticism.”

    However, I think people need to understand some of the underlying currents in this discussion. The elephant in the nave is the yawning gap between the views of contemporary theologians and ordinary Catholics.
    People in the pew probably do not know that many theologians and clergy are critical of what they call “propositional faith.” Propositional faith is a faith that is grounded in rational statements and definitions. It is, if you like a religion based in an authoritative book, a creed, a catechism, a dogmatic systematic theology and, by extension a defined religious law. Those who favor a propositional faith like certainty and clarity.

    Critics of propositional faith believe that, at best, the propositions are simply a framework or structure of belief, and that the real experience is far more complicated, but also far more exciting and real. They criticize those who like a propositional faith as being rigid, legalistic or Pharisaical. The critics of propositional faith like to emphasize the more subjective “encounter with Christ.” They advocate getting away from all the debates about doctrine or canon law, rolling up one’s sleeves and getting busy doing God’s work in the world.

    Critics of propositional faith also believe that it is divisive. If “the encounter with Christ” is emphasized rather than propositional formulas of doctrine and morals, we will connect better with non Catholic Christians and people of faith and goodwill who are outside the boundaries of Christian belief. In other words, “doctrine is divisive” but if we focus on religious experience we are more likely to find common ground.

    They also feel that a “propositional faith” is, by its nature, bound to the historical and philosophical constructs of the time and culture in which the propositions were asserted. So, the theology of Thomas Aquinas (they would argue) was fine for Europe of the thirteenth century, but it is rather clunky for the fast moving, fast changing global culture of the twenty first century. A faith that is not so propositional is more adaptable and fluid.

    In reading the gospel it is difficult not to sympathize with those who criticize “propositional faith.” After all, Jesus’ main opponents were the religious people who were indeed legalistic, judgmental and bound to their laws and man made traditions. Jesus, on the other hand, waded in and “made a mess” to use Francis’ terminology. He defied the legalistic technicalities, met people where they were and brought healing, compassion and forgiveness.

    Why does Pope Francis not answer his critics? I believe it is because he is not in favor of “propositional faith”. He wants Catholics to move beyond the technicalities, the details of doctrine and the constrictions of canon law to live out a Catholic life more like Jesus’–allowing for the complications and ambiguities of real life, meeting real people who face difficult decisions and are trying to be close to God while tiptoeing through the legalities and rules of being a Catholic Christian.

    In other words, he does not answer his critics because he does not wish to play their game. He does not wish to be drawn into their legalistic arguments, but instead wants to continue to challenge them. That is why he lets his ambiguous statements stand without further clarification. That is why he does not answer the “corrections” he receives. I expect he believes the teaching of the church is clear. He has not contradicted it, so there is no further need for discussion and debate.

    Instead he wants us to live with the ambiguities and get on with the complicated business of bringing Jesus to people who are tied up in the sometimes messy business of life.

    As a pastor I understand this and am sympathetic to what I believe Pope Francis is trying to do.

    However, there is always the other side of the argument and balance is a good thing, Continue Reading at the link above

    Image Creative Commons

  2. avatar BigE says:

    Great article Raymond. I think the author is dead on as to what Pope Francis is doing and why he’s doing it.

  3. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    He wants Catholics to move beyond the technicalities, the details of doctrine and the constrictions of canon law to live out a Catholic life more like Jesus’–allowing for the complications and ambiguities of real life, meeting real people who face difficult decisions and are trying to be close to God while tiptoeing through the legalities and rules of being a Catholic Christian.

    no comment as to whether or not this accurately represents Pope Francis, but this is utter nonsense. You can’t drive a wedge between these 2 things. It’s such an obvious logical fallacy.

  4. avatar Dominick Anthony Zarcone says:

    I agree with the essence of what Ben stated above: You can’t drive a Wedge between these 2 things. No wedge can be driven between official church doctrine/ canon law and living out a Catholic life more like Jesus’ life.

    Let’s consider it this way. One encounters the Son of God in a life transforming way that includes repentance and the obedience of faith. This life transforming event begins life long conversion which includes avoiding evil and doing good/repenting of sin and growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. To repent, to exercise faith, to obey the Lord Christ, to grow in intimate knowledge of him and his sanctifying grace amounts to discipleship.

    Official Church Doctrine, Canon Law, Moral Theology etc etc etc are offered to the disciple as means and guides to fruitful discipleship. I want to be faithful to Christ my master? Then I do well to heed his Church’s teaching. While not every complicated or unanticipated problem, event, or decision to be made which surfaces in life by Divine Providence may not be explicitly laid out in Church teaching, I certainly, most assuredly know what is adultery or the taking of innocent life.

    Please, for Christ’s sake heed Sacred tradition; live thereby and be joyful in the peace and righteousness of the Holy Spirit.

    And, may God bless the Holy Father with a sense of Peter’s call to confirm the brethren in the faith. May he also be determined to be the sign of unity for which we hunger and thirst!

  5. avatar Diane Harris says:

    And in your words, dear brother Dominick, rests the inherent beauty of the Catholic Faith.

  6. avatar annonymouse says:

    I totally agree with Ben and Dominick – the article is falsely presenting an “either-or.” The One who said “if you love Me, you will keep My commands” is not some namby-pamby milquetoast like so many in our Church perceive Him to be. He loves like no other, and He has mercy like no other, and somehow His very first word (Mark 1:15) was “REPENT!” To separate mercy and judgment is a false dichotomy.

    But there is, and always has been, a true dichotomy. Missing in the original article is any recognition of the battle, yes battle, for souls that is raging. There is a devil, and there is a God, and each is fighting for souls. The greatest asset the devil has right now, it seems to me, is to blur the distinction between good and evil, and better yet, do away from any recognition of evil. I believe the devil is delighted when clerics speak of accompanying people in their “lived experience” so long as there remains no call to conversion and repentance. The most important battleground is right here in our Church. The Church is the only voice in the universe consistently teaching (at least in her writings, almost never from her pulpits) of the evils of abortion, contraception, homosexual acts, sexual relations outside marriage, and of the sanctity of one man-one woman marriage. Big E will pooh pooh that and say something like “you people have a hang-up about sex” and it’s true – for matters sexual, the very place where humans unite and with God create new human children of God, is THE battleground. If the devil can silence the Church here, the voice of the Church is forever silenced. Hence the outcry about a footnote in Amoris – slyly placed there to open a crack, a crack that is intended (I would propose, based on praxis which shows entire conferences of bishops to be driving a truck through that crack) to a flood of change in all of the above teachings. This is THE battle Our Blessed Mother spoke of at Akita: “The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres…churches and altars sacked; the Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the demon will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord. The demon will be especially implacable against souls consecrated to God. The thought of the loss of so many souls is the cause of my sadness. If sins increase in number and gravity, there will be no longer pardon for them.”

  7. avatar BigE says:

    Doctrine is easy to understand, clear, and concise. No doubt about it. Life is messy and hard. To say that the two are easily integrated for everyone without struggle and growth (both from the church’s and from individuals perspective) is ignoring reality.
    So what is the Good News of the Gospel for those who struggle with their faith or the Church’s doctrine? Our way or the highway?
    Or is it that they’re a beloved child of God? And God is calling them into relationship? And that as they work through their struggles they should never lose sight of that love? Even if they’re not where some demand they should be, either spiritually or doctrinally.

  8. avatar annonymouse says:

    The Good News is that God loves all of us, so much so that He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to free us from the bondage of sin and death, by the power of His grace. The left must, I think, doubt the efficacy of grace, for there is a great reluctance to actually call upon that grace to FREE anyone who is struggling under the yoke of sin. Better to simply “accompany” them and respect their “lived experience” than to call them to the joy and freedom Jesus died to give them!

    Father Martin, for example, would prefer not only to leave people bound in their sin, but to celebrate their sin. Lest anyone’s feelings may be hurt.

  9. avatar BigE says:

    2 Cor 12:9 – “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

  10. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    BigE, your argument is a non sequitur.

    So what is the Good News of the Gospel for those who struggle with their faith or the Church’s doctrine?

    The good news is that God never fails to supply the gift of Faith to those who truly seek it.

    Our way or the highway?

    Flip that around. Those in Hell have chosen “I want it my way”.

    Or is it that they’re a beloved child of God?

    of course.

    And God is calling them into relationship?

    of course.

    And that as they work through their struggles they should never lose sight of that love?

    of course.

    None of this implies that we should affirm people in their sin and call evil good.

  11. avatar BigE says:

    Our faith is ALL about affirming people in their sin! Is it not?
    We’re a faith built on the affirming of sinners (not sin)
    …because God loves us despite our sins,
    …and because in the end, aren’t we all sinners?
    So the Good News of the Gospel isn’t about faith being given to those who truly seek it….the Good News of the Gospel is that God loves us so much He sent his only Son to die for us; so that we, despite our sins, could also conquer death through Him.
    The ultimate affirmation for all of us in our sin! (…Praise be to God!….)

    And btw, neither Fr. Martin (or I) ever called evil good. That’s a straw man on your part…since we’re on the topic of logical fallacies…

  12. avatar raymondfrice says:

    “‘Or is it that they’re a beloved child of God? And God is calling them into relationship? And that as they work through their struggles they should never lose sight of that love? Even if they’re not where some demand they should be, either spiritually or doctrinally.”

    I choose this one !!!

  13. avatar raymondfrice says:

    A lot of people on this blog are condemning Father Martin but no one seems to be quoting him directly from any of his books. How many people who contribute or comment here have read any of his books??? or have we listened to critical arguments based on hearsay?? or emanating from closed minds?

  14. avatar annonymouse says:

    BigE, I don’t think so.

    We’re a faith that’s all about SAVING sinners. That’s why He came. That’s what He died for. SAVING, not affirming, sinners. We’re all about calling sinners to leave sin behind. “AFFIRMING people in their sin,” which you assert our faith is all about, smacks of meeting people, and welcoming them, and accompanying them, and letting them rot in their sin, without ever calling them to repentance. Yes, God loves the sinner, so much so that He sent His Son to DIE for sinners and call them to eternal glory.

    At the Catholic men’s conference on Saturday, Father Larry Richards put it very bluntly – “be a saint,” he told me, “or go to hell.” Yes, it really is that stark. In our quest to be a “nice, welcoming, inoffensive” Church, we never call people to sainthood. So it does no good whatsoever to affirm people if we also don’t realize why we’re there – to avail ourselves of His mercy and by grace, leave sin behind.

  15. avatar annonymouse says:

    Raymond – a few quotes for you:

    “Your love is beautiful” – Fr. James Martin to active homosexual Brandon Ambrosino, at Villanova University, 8/29/17

    “The teaching that LGBT people must be celibate their entire lives has not been received.” – Youtube 9/20/17 (implying that a teaching must be “received” by the sinner in order to be binding – a grave distortion of the Church’s understanding of sensus fidei)

    Homosexual marriage is “a loving act” which the Church must “reverence” – Fordham University, 9/5/17

    That’s just three (time doesn’t permit me to continue). There are many more.

    Note – Father Martin is quite careful to write nothing in his books contrary to Church teaching. The problem with his books is that he writes nothing of Church teaching. He just wrote an entire book about the relationship of what he describes as the “LGBT Community” and the Church without once touching on the Church’s firm and clear teaching that homosexual acts are objectively, gravely sinful, and that those burdened with same-sex attraction are called to live chastely. Reason? His words betray his true beliefs – he clearly thinks the Church is wrong and needs to change.

  16. avatar annonymouse says:

    BigE – you assert Father Martin never called evil good. See my first quote above. Telling a young man who is in an active homosexual relationship, objectively committing mortal sins, that “your love is beautiful” is (if you ask me) calling evil good.

    And a cleric saying such things has more to fear on judgment day, I would think, than would the young man he’s led further astray.

  17. avatar BigE says:


    1.Your quote: “Yes, God loves the sinner, so much so that He sent His Son to DIE for sinners and call them to eternal glory”….As a sinner myself; I find that pretty affirming!

    2.“be a saint,” he told me, “or go to hell.”…What about Purgatory?

    3.You do realize you can love someone without having sex with them right? That Fr. Martin can “affirm” the love between two men without condoning their sexual actions.

  18. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    Fr. Martin:

    So I hope in ten years you will be able to kiss your partner or, you know, soon to be your husband. Why not? What’s the terrible thing?

  19. avatar annonymouse says:

    Yes, we can agree on #1. Except that’s not “affirming in my sin” but maybe we’re just talking semantics here.

    On #2, folks in purgatory are destined for sanctity and eternal salvation.

    #3, I would agree except you certainly have to take in the context of Father Martin’s comment, do you not? He was speaking to a young man who is planning to “Marty” his homosexual lover. He said nothing of the need to remain chaste, that such acts are deeply disordered and sinful, that marriage is between a man and a woman and their sexual relations must be open to procreation of new life, something forever impossible in a gay “marriage.” so based on what he said, as well as on what he failed to say, I think his meaning cannot be misconstrued.

  20. avatar annonymouse says:

    Marry not Marty…stupid autocorrect

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