Dr. Joseph Shaw Apes “Reformers” (“Ambiguous” Catholic Documents)

Dr. Joseph Shaw Apes “Reformers” (“Ambiguous” Catholic Documents) October 11, 2017
The Good Ol’ “Ambiguity” Card Utilized with Regard to Both Vatican II and Amoris laetitia
[my own blue highlighting throughout]
I’ve contended for over 20 years that radical Catholic reactionaries (see my carefully delineated definition and rationale for coining the term) think a lot like Protestants and like Catholic “progressive” dissidents / modernists: both of whom despise authoritative Catholic utterances and/or arbitrarily pick and choose which of them they will accept and which they will reject.
The description of the documents of Vatican II as “ambiguous” is a very common feature of reactionary thought. For example, [quintessentially reactionary] “Remnant” website writer Christopher Ferrara, a signatory to the recent Filial Correction, pontificated in 2009:
The Council, for all its vexing ambiguity, excessive irenicism, and wholly unwarranted optimism about “the modern world,” imposed no new doctrine or dogma on the Church and thus could not have proposed any doctrines contrary to prior Church teaching. Ambiguity, optimism and irenicism do not a single doctrine make. . . . the Council’s ambiguity-laden Sacrosanctum Concilium.. . .
I noted this hallmark or leading characteristic in my book, Reflections on Radical Catholic Reactionaries (Dec. 2002: almost 15 years ago, by my math). I devoted an entire 14-page chapter to it. I wrote:
Radical Catholic reactionaries believe that Vatican II was deliberately and perniciously ambiguous in its conscious teachings. Actual examples of the assumed devious and diabolical modus operandi are rarely given, so that the charge has little objective meaning. The proponent merely assumes what he is trying to prove, and tries to authoritatively and magisterially assert it, while not providing any “meat” or evidence to back up the ubiquitous charge. (p. 99, #227)

We are informed that God did not prevent Vatican II from falling into the hands of evil schemers and heterodox conspirators, though only in the sense of ambiguity, not formal heresy. [Reactionaries] apparently believe that all previous councils were authoritative and binding, whereas Vatican II is a mess. What did God do, forget His promise, or go to sleep? We are to believe that all the other ecumenical councils somehow managed to escape this fate? (p. 102, #229)

I guess Holy Scripture also suffers from these same manifest deficiencies of “ambiguity.” How many falsehoods it has spawned! Look at Protestantism, the “Bible Only” version of Christianity, with all its rival schools of thought. Away with the Bible, then! After all, so many heretical cults have derived false doctrines from various “ambiguous” interpretations of the biblical texts. If it weren’t for the Bible, surely they wouldn’t even exist. Therefore, the Bible must have caused them. (p. 102, #230)

The “ambiguity” argument is exceedingly nebulous and subjective by its very nature. If one points out that such-and-such a doctrine can be shown to have an orthodox pedigree and consistent development, the [reactionary] replies that the conciliar conspirators placed ambiguous language in it, in order for it to be subverted later. In other words, their cynical interpretation is always the “winner” because they have the simplistic, sloganistic, and easy sleight-of-hand of “ambiguity” always ready and at their disposal. (p. 103, #234)

The tried-and-true “ambiguity” card has recently been pulled out again, for use with reference to Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia. Filial Correction signatory Joseph Shaw is using it to maximum effect. In describing the thought of an earlier critical letter to Pope Francis from 45 scholars (July 2016), he wrote:

“We are not accusing the Pope of heresy,” said Joseph Shaw, a signatory of the appeal who is also acting as spokesman for the authors, “but we consider that numerous propositions in Amoris laetitia can be construed as heretical upon a natural reading of the text. Additional statements would fall under other established theological censures, such as scandalous, erroneous in faith, and ambiguous, among others.”
Likewise, in a recent debate with Dr. Robert Fastiggi and Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein, Dr. Shaw seemed to back off his earlier harsh statements about alleged heretical passages of Amoris and stated:
The contention of the Correctio Filialis is that the statements of Amoris which concern us are ambiguous: they can be read in accordance with the Ordinary Magisterium, which we would obviously accept, or they can be read as contradicting the Ordinary Magisterium.
Writing on his blog on 12-6-16, Dr. Shaw waxed along these familiar lines, but much more subtly and cleverly (not to mention speculatively!):
One thing to note is that Pope Francis’ native political culture is Peronist, in which the artful creation, maintenance, and timely dissolution of ambiguity and internal conflict – crisis management – is a perfectly familiar way of getting things done. Indeed, you don’t need to be a Peronist to see the advantages of this approach. People will accept things as the price to resolve an escalating crisis, which they will not accept under normal conditions. . . .
For practical purposes there has been a ‘back flip’ (in Cardinal Pell’s phrase) of teaching, but this can’t be said clearly at the highest level, at least at first. When the new position has been implied by layer after layer official ambiguity, semi-official hints and nudges, and unofficial teaching and practice, then they’ll be ready to come out openly and say it officially: at least, I assume that this was the plan, or at least the hope.

The situation with Amoris laetitia isn’t so very hard to understand, when seen against this background. On the one hand, there is a well-trodden path of allowing conflict and confusion to make something which is totally unacceptable first imaginable, then possible, and then actually the best we can hope for to avoid complete disaster. On the other hand, there is an even better-trodden path of saying officially something which is arguably not at odds with the traditional teaching of the Church; which will be glossed semi-officially as, you know, pointing in a particular direction, and let’s just not say anything about the old teaching; which will be taken by priests at the coal-face, genuinely seeking the good of souls, in a way which simply and plainly contradicts—never mind Trent—the words of Our Blessed Saviour.

Are we going to get a clarification? Only if there is a policy reversal—not to be expected under Pope Francis—or, alternatively, if the policy ceases to attract opposition. While there is some opposition to speak of, while there is anyone of significance annoying enough to point at those old texts setting out the old teaching, and taking them seriously, then it will not yet be the right time to disambiguate the situation at the official level.

Is this a cynical reading of recent history? I think it is a charitable reading. I’m not saying anyone involved has had any but the best intentions.

How, interesting, then, that in preparing a paper on an unrelated topic today, I discovered that Protestant “reformer” (Luther’s successor) Philip Melanchthon used the same terminology and same reasoning that Dr. Shaw and the reactionaries do, with regard to the Council of Trent. He wrote in a letter to Archbishop Cranmer (c. April Fool’s Day 1548):
The Council of Trent makes its crafty Decrees, in order to protect its errors by ambiguous expressions. Such sophistry ought to be far away from the Church. [source / Latin source: Lib. iii., Ep. 42 bis, col. 523: Latin  = ambigue]
Likewise, John Calvin used the same reasoning, in his Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote (1547). Writing about the canons on justification, he exclaims “amen” to Canons 1-3. But when he gets to Canon 10, his usual anti-Catholic affinities take over:
Could these anathemas take effect, all who are not versed in the sophistical art would pay dearly for their simplicity. They formerly asserted in their decrees that the righteousness of God was the only formal cause of Justification; now they anathematize those who say that we are formally righteous by the obedience of Christ. But it is in another sense. I see it or scent it. But how few are there who will not be misled by the ambiguity? Although it may be that having met with the sentiment somewhere and not understood it, they boldly condemn it. For as it were impious to say that the righteousness of Christ is only an exemplar or type to us, so if any one were to teach that we are righteous formally, i.e., not by quality but by imputation, meaning that our righteousness is in relation merely, there would be nothing worthy of censure. The adverb formally is used in both senses.
Along the same lines, Martin Luther regarded one of his primary debate opponents, Erasmus, as a conniving, sneaky, “ambiguous” thinker. Luther wrote of him:
This observation fixes in me a determination (let others do as they please) not to believe Erasmus, even if he should openly confess in plain words, — that Christ is God. But I would address to him that sophistical saying of Chrysippus, ‘If you lie, you lie even when you speak the truth.’ . . . Our king of ambiguity, however, sits upon his ambiguous throne in security, and destroys us stupid Christians with a double destruction. First, it is his will, and it is a great pleasure to him, to offend us by his ambiguous words: and indeed he would not like it, if we stupid blocks were not offended. And next, when he sees that we are offended, and have run against his insidious figures of speech, and begin to exclaim against him, he then begins to triumph and rejoice that the desired prey has been caught in his snares. (Letter to Nikolaus von Amsdorf, 11 March? 1534)
Luther biographer Martin Brecht describes Luther’s belief in Erasmus’ relentless “ambiguities” in ways that are uncannily similar to the highly cynical, skeptical attitudes of the Correctio signatories towards Pope Francis:
Luther distrusted Erasmus’s oblique, slippery form of speaking, which was neither rhetorically nor theologically permissible, because it shook religion altogether. He considered it imperative to interpret Erasmus critically instead of complimentarily; otherwise, nothing could be considered a heresy and nothing would be certain. . . . . He had no intention of continuing to suffer “the tyranny of Erasmus’s ambiguity.” . . . Luther thus assumed the freedom to condemn the tyranny of these ambiguities in a two-fold manner, first by interpreting them against their author, and then by denouncing their use  in his deficient, likewise ambiguous commentary. Erasmus should be regarded as the evil enemy sowing tares among the wheat. (Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, 1532-1546, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993; paperback edition 1999; translated by James L. Schaaf; p. 81)

Luther apparently believed (in conjunction with the above descriptions) that Erasmus had denied Christ’s divinity and the Holy Trinity, which is patently absurd. In other insults, he ridiculously calls Erasmus an atheist.

Note the viciously circular and hopelessly subjective nature of Luther’s hyper-jaded, ultra-cynical (and demonstrably false) opinion of Erasmus. This relentless subjectivism is also characteristic of the Filial Correction and Dr. Shaw’s own thinking as regards Pope Francis, as Dr. Fastiggi and Dr. Goldstein noted over and over in the recent debate between these parties (separate statements below; indicated by spaces and asterisks):

Shaw’s claim that Pope Francis doesn’t want orthodoxy, however, is based on subjective impressions derived from mostly non-authoritative statements of the Pope. This does not seem to be a very strong foundation for accusing the Roman Pontiff of promoting false teachings and heresies.


You are correct that “impressions” are subjective. Our point, however, is that your subjective impressions regarding papal words and actions are not shared by all.
[Y]ou argue in a way that concedes the main point we are making. In so many words, you acknowledge that all you can present is your subjective belief that Pope Francis is doing what you claim he is doing, viz., effecting the propagation of heresies in the Church. You, of course, are entitled to your opinion, but we find your accusations unjust and excessive. . . . you and your associates have accused the Roman Pontiff of facilitating the spread of heresies, and all you can present are some references, assertions, and subjective beliefs, which are all open to question.
You are using subjective impressions and interpretations to accuse the Roman Pontiff of propagating heresies. The force of your argument is that you believe your impressions are true. This, though, will be convincing to those who share your impressions but not to those who don’t. It seems to us that you are arguing in a circle. Your impressions are true because you believe they are true. You admit that others disagree with your impressions, but this does not falsify your impressions because you believe they are true.
We believe, however, that the accusations contained in the Correctio are excessive and based on subjective impressions that are highly questionable.

In effect, you are saying that you are reading into Pope Francis something subjective that others such as Cardinal Müller do not see. This only proves the point we made in our last reply. You are relying on subjective impressions that you believe are superior to the impressions of others.

Subjectivism itself is a major characteristic of modernism: the framework of “progressive” / dissident Catholics. Dr. Shaw retreats, in debate with Fastiggi and Goldstein, from saying that Amoris laetitia obviously contains heresy. They inquired of him (this is an uninterrupted citation):

We are delighted that you agree with Cardinal Müller that Amoris laetitia has “no new doctrine … but an acceptance of the doctrine of the Church and the sacraments.”
We wonder why, then, you include twelve passages of Amoris laetitia in the Correctio, which you say— “in conjunction with acts, words, and omissions” of the Holy Father— “serve to propagate seven heretical propositions.” * We also wonder why you mention—in the first paragraph of the Correctio—the propagation of heresies “effected by the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia and by other words, deeds, and omissions of Your Holiness.”
If the propagation of heresies is, in part, “effected” by Amoris laetitia, then it would seem that the papal exhortation is a cause for the dissemination of heresies. But if you agree with Cardinal Müller’s assessment of the exhortation, then you should revise the Correctio and omit any mention of Amoris laetitia as a cause for the spread of heresies.
Dr. Shaw then replied (directly to the sentence followed by an asterisk above):
Because that is the case. This really isn’t so difficult: AL could be read in an orthodox sense, but the interpretation being given it doesn’t allow it. I think I’ve said that often enough now.
In other words, he himself bounces back and forth (if not presently, over time: less than a year ago) between Amoris containing clear heresy, and not containing heresy at all. I guess that is the “ambiguity” being applied: on his own part, in this instance. It’s the switch from objective analysis (reputedly heretical passages in Amoris) to a purely subjective one (the “ambiguous” Amoris could — at least possibly — be interpreted in an orthodox fashion, but the pope doesn’t want it to be interpreted that way).
His own ambiguous seeming self-contradiction having thus been highlighted, he quickly brought the debate to an end: “I think we’ve both said enough . . . ” — which logically followed his earlier silly swipe at his scholarly debate opponents: “I am getting the impression now of a small child with his fingers in his ears.”

Error (both heretical and schismatic or quasi-schismatic or rigorist) so often has the same mentality, even down to many particulars, such as the notion of deliberate ambiguity examined presently. What goes around, comes around. Nothing new under the sun . . . How Protestant “reformers” Melanchthon and Calvin regarded Trent as “ambiguous” is how Catholic reactionaries today (like Dr. Joseph Shaw) regard both Vatican II and Amoris laetitia. How Luther thought of Erasmus is, in this way, quite similar to how Dr. Shaw and Correctio signatories view Pope Francis. “Ambiguity” and rampant arbitrary, non-conclusive subjectivism rule the day. Once again, they think — in a very important area, involving Catholic magisterial authority — strikingly like Protestant revolutionaries and “reformers” who opposed the Church almost 500 years ago.


Related reading: 

Radical Reactionary Affinities in Filial Correction Signatories (9-28-17)

Filial Correction of Pope Francis Compared to the Criticism of June 2016 from 45 Scholars and Priests: Significant Reactionary and General Overlap (Facebook, 10-3-17)

Dr. Robert Fastiggi Defends Amoris Laetitia Against Critics (10-3-17)


I informed Dr. Shaw in a combox on his blog, of the above paper. Our interactions follow (his words in blue):

Dear Dr. Shaw,

I have made a reply of sorts to some of your remarks, particularly in debate with Dr. Fastiggi and Dr. Goldstein:

[linked to this paper]

I’m a professional Catholic apologist (ten published books to my name and currently a regular columnist at National Catholic Register).

God bless you,


You think it is significant that Luther thought that Trent was ambiguous, but you don’t explain why. Just because he thought that of Trent, hardly perseveres AL of ambiguity five centuries later. 

You need to do better, I’m afraid.

I didn’t analyze Luther’s reaction to Trent (he died on 18 February 1546 and the council began just two months before that, on 13 December 13, 1545, so I doubt that he wrote much about it), but rather, his reaction to Erasmus, leading me to wonder if you actually read my article. Did you?

Moreover, my present argument is not at all whether Vatican II or Trent or AL are ambiguous (that’s your burden of proof, since you claim it: at least for AL), but rather, to note the analogy between the opinions of three Protestant “reformers” regarding ambiguity of Catholic councils or major Catholic scholars (Erasmus), and your own, regarding Catholic apostolic exhortations and at least one pope.

All analogies are (I’m pretty sure) partial in nature. I never claim more for mine than exactly what I am highlighting in a given argument.

Yeah I skimmed it because it’s verbose and not really worth responding to. My point stands. Someone argues that X is F in the 16th Century. We argue that Y is F today. That’s not an analogy, that’s just two historical observations. So what?

Part of why your screed is not worth responding to is that you’ve clearly not bothered to read (or absorb) any of the principle authors of the view you criticise, otherwise you’d not say that they don’t give examples of ambiguities in Vatican II (or in Amoris, come to that). Their works are full of examples.

So you might say I’m returning the compliment by not reading you very thoroughly. 

So you condemn me for supposedly not reading certain folks in question, all the while refusing to read my post (which we know for sure because you confirmed it, by both error and assertion). I do appreciate the comedic irony there. Have a great day and may God abundantly bless you.

Exactly. You can’t be bothered to write a properly researched critique, you don’t get taken seriously. 

High time you learned that lesson.

Oh, I’ve learned a lesson alright, but it’s not at all what you think it is.


Photo credit: Fractal by “Ken”, described as “Star Field: a zoomed-in treatment of Cosmic Ambiguity with adjustments.” [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]


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