If you’ve followed Catholic news much over the past year, you know that there has been a lot of attention give to the Amazon region. Pope Francis convened a synod to explore the needs of the people and what the Church should do in response.

On most people’s minds, there was only one question that mattered: will the pope allow married men to be ordained priests in a region that desperately needs sacramental ministers? This is what the news covered almost entirely, and so for many people, it was seemingly the only issue at hand.

Thus, when Pope Francis remained silent on the issue, many moved on without giving much attention to the post-synodal document. This is a shame, to say the least.

In this week’s Catholicism In Focus, I unpack what the pope actually did say, and why it matters to us. It is a short document (relatively speaking) and so I strongly encourage everyone to read through it yourself. You can find it in its entirety here.

This week’s video is a lesson in public discourse and attention to detail. That’s not what the video is actually about, but the reaction to it warrants that lesson.

You see, my videos often deal with complex topics of philosophy and meaning, things that can never be taken at face value. My titles and thumbnails are designed to attract viewers, and if one is not careful to listen to the actual words I’m saying, they might be misled into hearing what they think I’m going to say, rather than what I’m actually saying.

In this case, I made a video about the role of traditions in our Church. The purpose of the video was to show that traditions are never static, that they never have a purely objective, unchangeable meaning to them, but rather that their place in the Church and how they are perceived grows and adapts as the culture around them does. What something meant to a people in 1200 is necessarily going to be different than what it means to people today.

As an example, I pointed to the cassock. There was a time when it was the main clerical garb of priests. Everyone wore it. It was normal. Today, that is not the case. The same garb, largely unchanged, is perceived differently in our Church and world because it is now the minority expression, because it represents a particular ecclesiology, because it is distinct.

The way traditions are expressed and experienced changes over time. There’s nothing controversial in saying that, and I was not in any way criticizing those who choose to wear it. I could have very well chosen to highlight the latin language, rosary, Franciscan habit, Friday fish fries, or any other tradition, as their role and perception has changed dramatically over time as well.

And that’s fine. There is no judgment one way or another.

My point in sharing this was to move away from a rigid, static understanding of the world, one in which we believe that supplanting a tradition from the past into our world will capture everything that that tradition meant in its time. You simply cannot recreate the past today; the world around the tradition has changed.

This is not to say, though, that I am against traditions, that old things can’t be renewed. In fact, my inspiration for the video was to show the complete opposite! Old things can and should be brought back from time to time with a renewed life to them, repurposed for our world today. The habit may have fallen out of favor with many religious because it came to be associated with clericalism and entitlement, but that’s not how the tradition is being experienced today. The world has changed, and many young people yearn for public witnesses. Unlike those of previous generations, they do not see it as a sign of separation, but rather a sign of evangelization, availability, and commitment. The tradition of old has disappeared because the world that defined it has disappeared, but the action itself has taken on a new life.

Hence the title: you can’t bring back old traditions. As that world fades away, the way the tradition is lived and experienced will necessarily be new. And that’s a good thing!

But that’s not how people read the title. They missed the subtly of the point. Instead, they saw a modernist who hates tradition. They saw someone with a contradictory point because he wears a habit but “belittles” the cassock. They saw a heretic looking to ruin the Church.

And they didn’t hold back from telling me such.

Yes, this video was intended to be about the new life of old traditions, but what it turned into was a lesson in public discourse and attention to detail. It served as a reminder that sometimes things aren’t always as they first appear, and when we jump to judgment and condemnation, we undermine our lives as Christians. I wrote the below message to my subscribers to draw attention to the problem:

“If you believe that I’ve said something that contradicts our Catholic faith, is mean-spirited, or illogical, especially on a highly nuanced theological topic (especially if you don’t have training in that topic) maybe ask for clarification before you jump to calling me heretic or unsubscribing.  I’m pretty good at responding to questions. With a little patience and offering me the benefit of the doubt, you might come to see that what I’m saying isn’t actually contradictory, mean-spirited, or illogical.”

In some ways I find the response appalling. Literally hundreds of comments in less than 24 hours questioning my priesthood, angrily yelling at me, or calling me an idiot. Plenty of others got the point I was making perfectly, repeating it back to me with confusion: “why are people so angry? They’re completely missing the point.” It has left me frustrated and a bit cynical, wondering if it’s even worth presenting complex takes on theology if the masses are going to misconstrue my words. Is it my responsibility to be concerned with how people will misunderstand my comments and be led astray by them? Even if many got the point exactly? Isn’t that on the ignorant, not me? Frustrating, difficult questions.

And yet, what an interesting opportunity. So often, all we do is preach to the choir. So often all we ever hear is positive feedback from those who already agree with us. Had I made this video or not, there would have remained plenty of ignorant people on the internet, plenty of people with underdeveloped, fuzzy, or even incorrect theologies. With a video that angers people to respond—even if that response is a bit inappropriate—there is an opportunity for dialogue. I have responded to many of my accusers and have clarified my words. I’ve listened to their complaints and have attempted to speak to their experience. Have I changed the world? Hardly. At times, I was not as charitable as I would have liked to have been. But some connections were made. Some people began to see things a bit differently, to grow in understanding.

And ultimately, wasn’t that the point of the video in the first place?

Fundamentalist Christians don’t have a lot of nice things to say about Catholics. According to them, we know nothing of the Bible, create false doctrines, are wolves in sheep’s clothing while being the embodiment of whore of Babylon, run a secret society in league with the Free Masons and Satanists, and of course, we’re idolaters.

Pretty impressive résumé if you ask me.

Sadly, we cannot take credit for any of these things as they live more in the imaginations and misconceptions of our literalist and pre-critical brothers and sisters in Christ. They are based on misinformation, fear, and downright disdain, rather than the facts, and serve to galvanize their own people against a common enemy.

And it’s effective. Surely, it is. When you can look to a popular and successful entity and explain away their success by undermining their credibility, one can feel much better about their own efforts. When there is someone to blame for the problems of the world (especially when that someone is incredibly influential and ever-present) responsibility for such evil is greatly lessoned. What can we really do when they are doing so much evil?

Of course, we are not their enemy. As brothers and sister in Christ, we may have a different approach to some things, but we are still one in baptism and so one in the Lord. We are not their enemy.

In this week’s Catholicism in Focus, I look at one of the greatest points of conflict between fundamentalists and Catholics, the use of images in worship. Largely the result of major misconceptions, I hope to shed light on what we really believe in order to show our critics that we are on the same team, that this is not the first time we have faced this issue, and the Church has answered it clearly.

For more information on the topic of supposed idolatry in Christianity, the name of this criticism is called “Iconoclasm” and it was addressed in the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sin is “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.'”

And as far as definitions go, that’s great, very clear. Except…

All are sins the same? When is something a sin and when is it not? Are there exceptions? Are we always responsible for sin?

The fact of the matter is that sin is a very murky subject, filled with ambiguity and requiring much critical thought. In this video, I look at what the Church says about the morality of human acts in article 4 of the Catechism’s chapter on the Dignity of the Human Person. According to the Church, there are actually three factors that go into the evaluation of morality: object, intention, and circumstances.

What was the first sin? Not what was the first act (eating of the fruit), but why was the first sin a sin and what did it do?

While it might seem like an easy question, there are a number of ways of looking at it. Some might see it as an act of disobedience against God, that humanity sinned in breaking God’s law. Others might see it as a poor use of the intellect, that it was the act of choosing something that was not pure and true, turning away from the source of Truth. Others, still, might see it as an act that affected future generations, breaking down the ways of a perfect society to create a world of injustice. All of these things are true, and yet they reveal a different operative theology.

This week on Catholicism in Focus, I look at the work of Justo Gonzalez, Roger Schroeder, and Steve Bevans, theologians that suggest that there are three types of theology for which all theologians generally conform. These types identify how we may begin the theological process from a different assumptions and values, and how this leads us to a different conclusion.

Take, for instance, the role of evangelization. What is mission and why should we engage in it? For those of Type A (sin as disobedience), the outside world is depraved and without the light of Christ, so we must save souls by informing them of what they do not know, namely, that Christ saves. For Type B (sin is untruth), the truth of Christ can be found everywhere and so we must ask questions, engaging in mutual discovery with all of creation. For Type C (sin as social disorder), the kingdom in which we live is far from the Kingdom of Heaven and we must undertake the process of bringing, proclaimed and lived by Jesus, of reconciliation and justice.

Are all three of these answers capture an important aspect of our theology. All three of these answers have defined our mission theology for centuries. And yet, all three of these answers end up at a completely different place with widely divergent expectations.

And for me, that is not only fascinating, but encouraging. When we think of Catholic theology, we must fight the temptation to think of it as a singular relation of answers and open ourselves up to the true meaning of “catholic”: we are a universal Church. When we look to the full history of our Church, we see that we consist rather of Catholic theologies, many perspectives that offer a deeper, more universal take on God and our reality.