Is Doubt a Sin?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Perhaps there is no moral issue which is more confusing to people than what is demanded of the intellect with regard to faith. It is an especially big problem in the West, among young people most of all. One hears from time to time, “I’m not sure I believe in the Church’s teaching on x,” where x is more often than not some moral teaching which rubs against the grain of progressive Western values of “tolerance” and “compassion.” One also hears occasionally, “I just struggle to believe y,” where y is some article of faith or a close derivative, with the supernatural character being particularly clear, such as the bodily resurrection of all the dead at the end of the world. Last of all, one also hears the blunter sort of statement, “I don’t believe in z,” where z could be either a moral or speculative doctrine taught authoritatively by the Church. In all three cases, if the doubter had previously called himself Catholic, it is unlikely to be any different after such announcements. He will still most likely simply say that he is “Catholic, but…” Whence the pejorative title of “cafeteria Catholic” comes.

Catholicism is not a culture. It is not a race, either. The Pharisees of old confused Judaism for a culture and their natural lineage for a spiritual one – descendants of Abraham in the flesh do not necessarily inherit his spiritual blessings. As someone put it once, God has no grandchildren. Excepting those who cannot use their reason (like infants), following Christ must be a personal choice which at least formally subjects everything else to Him and His will, meaning, at least in principle, despite failures from weakness, one wants to do His will no matter what.

This not only includes believing what God has said through Christ and His Church, it begins with this belief. Faith, which is not a mere collection of spiritual feelings or some arbitrary belief in spiritual realities but is rather trust in God’s Word as revealed in Christ and through His Catholic Church, is the condition for having a real spiritual life in the first place. (This can be implicit – see Hebrews 11:6 – but we’ll leave aside the special case of those who have not really been preached to sufficiently.) One who does not take God’s Word for truth, on the authority of God, and subsequently recognizing His voice in the Catholic Church when such becomes possible, can do nothing to please Him. The Scriptural evidence for the necessity of faith for salvation is copious – a reading of Hebrews 11 should suffice to give you the picture, along with the Lord’s statement in the Temple at the start of Holy Week: “Then Jesus cried out, ‘Whoever believes in Me does not believe in Me alone, but in the One who sent Me. And whoever sees Me sees the One who sent Me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in Me should remain in darkness. As for anyone who hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I have not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects Me and does not receive My words: The word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. I have not spoken on My own, but the Father who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it. And I know that His command leads to eternal life. So I speak exactly what the Father has told Me to say.'” (John 12:44-50)

To disbelieve any part of the teaching of God is to cut oneself off from Him, by implying that He is either confused or, even worse, lying. God demands that we perceive that He knows all and never lies. To disbelieve that the Church faithfully carries and announces God’s teaching is to reject those whom the Lord sent out to do precisely that, just before His Ascension: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘Behold, all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.'” (Matthew 28:16-20; cf. the sending of the 70 in Luke 10:16 – “He who hears you hears Me,” etc.)

To be a Catholic in law is to be sacramentally Catholic. If one was baptized as a Catholic, one is legally a Catholic. However, this does not mean that one truly belongs to the Catholic Church in an effective sense. That requires faith in the teachings of God through the Catholic Church, namely, the creeds and dogmas proposed for belief (i.e. the Trinity, the Resurrection, the Assumption, etc.), and also intellectually holding to their clear derivatives as proposed by the Church since, even though such data is not explicitly revealed by God, the Church enjoys protection in interpreting revealed truths whether through the Her ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. Were the Church not able to exercise both of these functions, that is, infallibly stating what is revealed by God directly and infallibly interpreting the immediate consequences of that data, there would be no real significance of the Church as a teacher. This would even extend to the necessity of throwing out Scripture – as otherwise the Church would not infallibly teach what belongs in Scripture in the first place.

So, are pro-choice politicians, for example, even able to be Catholics, over and above the legal sense? As it turns out, strictly speaking, yes. The illicitness of abortion does of course belong to Catholic doctrine, but it is not a datum revealed by God per se. The 5th Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is revealed by God, but its application to cases where there is even the slightest bit of clarification needed from an additional science renders the conclusion non-revelatory, even if definitive and infallible, which is the case with abortion. One who denies this teaching on abortion, presupposing an awareness of what one is actually talking about (a theme we will return to momentarily), is a mortal sin indirectly against faith, in addition to being (sometimes) a mortal sin of both formal and material cooperation in the evil act of abortion and (sometimes) a mortal sin of scandal. So it should not be any consolation that one happens not to sin so egregiously against faith that it actually constitutes heresy, resulting in the loss of interior moral membership in the Church – it is actually to one’s greater shame, as St. Peter indicates: “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.'” (2 Peter 2:21-22)

I base my analysis here on Fr. Cartechini, SJ’s wonderful chart on theological notes. I have referenced it before – it might be a little bit too rigorist in my opinion, and the legal framework it is based on (the 1917 Code) renders some parts a bit obsolete, but it is very good at setting up the theoretical side of the problem. See also Dr. Feser’s nice explanation of the 5 types of papal teaching, which maps onto this schema easily enough. In truth, the world of systematic/dogmatic theology, especially when touching morals, is not exactly as straightforward as most think it is. In fact, one might be able to make the case that the Church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion belongs to a higher note than mere Catholic doctrine, especially given that Pius IX’s dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception does indeed treat of Mary’s conception, not of her “quickening” or any other antiquated embryological terminology. (Gynecology had really just begun to take off shortly before the 1854 proclamation on Mary’s conception.) Given that Pius IX used “conception” in Ineffabilis Deus, rather than some other term, (like “existence,”) did he thereby allow a theological demonstration of the humanity of a conceptus, given that he clearly means to ascribe humanity to Mary in such a state, as only humans can be preserved from the stain of original sin? If so, it would be easier to make the case that the illicitness of abortion is a truth of “ecclesiastical faith,” the second highest kind of doctrine. (It would still certainly not be of Divine and Catholic faith, the highest degree, nor would it be situated as proximate to faith, it seems.) But I am not convinced by that argument – it very much strikes me as still not closely enough connected with revelation. I could be wrong. It might be that those who reject the teaching of the Church on abortion aren’t Catholics. But it is somewhat academic… However, since certain politicians have made it so abundantly clear that they think they are still Catholics (devout!) and push the most ghoulish kinds of pro-choice legislation, maybe more study of this issue is called for. (Friends of mine looking for a good Licentiate thesis topic – this could be a good one.)

All this is basically to say that intellectual disobedience, whether through heresy in the strict sense or less serious kinds of dissent with what the Church understands as being binding upon the minds of the faithful with regard to faith OR to morals, is material sin. The intellect’s relation to other elements will determine its formal character, as we will see.

So what of our x, y, and z cases? What about that vocal kid in youth group who says he supports gay marriage? What about that couple that puts an “ordain women” bumper sticker on their car? What about that friend who’s just not sure if there really is a resurrection of all humanity at the end of the world and has just decided not to take a stance on the question? What about, what about, what about…

As we have seen, sometimes it can be tricky enough to situate the object itself into the proper category. Is it a denial or doubt of something directly revealed by God? Is it something merely closely connected with revelation? Or merely something taught infallibly by the magisterium? Or something else?

The next question is what the subject’s relationship really is to the object. This can be even trickier, as we can’t read minds.

First of all, doubt, as a moral category, lies underneath of rejection or “dissent” but above mere hesitation or anxiety. Doubt is a choice to suspend belief, whether by a positive act of deciding not to believe one way or the other, or by a deliberate failure to address a hesitation or anxiety over a matter requiring assent by not moving the mind in one direction or the other. Sometimes it is not particularly clear, even to the person himself, what is going on in his intellect.

Second, we have to evaluate the subject’s understanding of what he is considering. This is the most difficult aspect, and it is divided into two parts. Briefly… First, there is the attention given to the doctrine’s source qua authoritative source, and, second, there is the ability of the intellect in this particular moment to grasp the doctrine as something intelligible.

As to the second part, those who are suffering from some anxious movement of the mind can be so overwhelmed by the apparent strangeness or natural impossibility of doctrines that they start to seem disconnected from reality. Souls ought to be counseled not to worry themselves should they seem to consent to such temptations – the fact of the anxiety means that they are resisting somehow, and their minds cannot be expected, at least not under grave precept, to withhold all such assaults. But more on this below.

As to the first part, we could consider the example which St. Thomas gives when asking whether venial sin can be in the higher intellect when directing its own proper acts (as opposed to whether it can have sin when directing outward actions or interior movements of the will). Suppose a person begins to consider the resurrection of all the dead at the end of time, and he immediately thinks this to be untrue, as he is only thinking of things according to natural processes and empirical evidence. This is venial sin, as he should have his mind always sufficiently turned toward the truth of the Faith such that this would not occur. However, if he begins to consider that this doctrine is proposed by the Church as an Article of Faith, or that it is taught by Christ Himself, and subsequently that it is the doctrine delivered by God, then he arrives at the point at which he will either return to intellectual assent (belief) toward the doctrine, or he will enter into a mortal sin directly against faith, thus losing the virtue of faith altogether, by not assenting. One is obliged seriously to learn the basic tenets of the Faith, and should some subtler point be at issue then those with less learning ought to consult those who are more learned (and most trustworthy). The obligation increases with the recurrence of such thoughts of dubious orthodoxy, and with the significance such thoughts have for one’s life – certainly, one who takes it upon himself to become an activist, such as for “equality in the Church” of various sorts, has a serious duty to know first what he is talking about before setting himself against those who propose the opposite position and can point to any number of authoritative sources which affirm their claims. Failure to do such would, it seems, entail a loss of the virtue of faith. Even merely “being vocal” is serious business. The wisdom literature suggests that silence brings wisdom and preserves one from sin for a reason.

Implicit assent would be enough in normal scenarios for those battling some temptation towards doubt or even dissent. In his classic work, The Spiritual Combat, passages of which were read daily by St. Francis de Sales, Dom Scupoli gives the advice to those struggling with anxious thoughts over matters of faith to make general acts of faith, rather than fixating on whatever particular doctrine is bothersome. “I believe all that the Church teaches because it is from God.” Scupoli suggests that if these thoughts are coming at the behest of the Devil, and he prods one to explain what the Church teaches, it will be very mortifying to the Evil One to respond, “The Church teaches the truth,” and leave it at that. Should the response come, “What is the truth?” the reply should be, “What the Church teaches!” Thus will anxious persons escape confusing themselves and ultimately losing their faith, and they will torture the Devil in the meantime.

In the end, as these two aspects (awareness of the authoritative source of a doctrine, and clearness of mind toward the doctrine) decrease, the sinfulness will decrease. More serious offenses, of course, ought to be confessed, especially if they became outward statements or activism – whether it was last weekend at youth group, or during the local synodal meeting, or on the campaign trail.

There is a lot more to talk about, but I will save it for a book I’ve been working on related to this theme (and connected issues). Don’t wait up for it, it will take a very long time still to come to publication, if it ever makes it…

Poland post coming in the next few days.

The 10 Reasons for Clerical Compromise on Divorce and Remarriage

Eamonn Clark, STL

I had been preparing a book on a certain post-synodal apostolic exhortation, but maybe it will never see the light of day. Instead, I might just share here a few bits and pieces with small edits. Here is one of them.

The first set of errors can be called “Jesuit legalism,” making the law to be the ideal. (Jesuits have classically seen morals through the lens of “criminal law,” where the bar is high to convict the defendant.)

  1. Underestimation of the power and universality of grace
  2. Overestimation of the ability to be ignorant of the natural law without blame
  3. Lack of understanding of the extent of “epikeia” in formulations of natural law found in the Decalogue
  4. Overestimation of the mitigation of culpability in difficult cases (i.e., “temptation excuses from sin”), especially by conflating habitual intentions with individual actions
  5. General consequentialism or proportionalism, frequently ending in a kind of “situationalist ethics” when other errors inform the application

The next set of errors could be summarized by the phrase “empathy-driven jurisprudence,” which bases the order of public welfare around one person or group’s difficulties.

  1. Conflation of public and private reception of Sacraments
  2. Forgetting/ignoring the rights of the putative spouse and children 
  3. Over-application of the internal forum solution of the (vanishingly rare) “conflict-marriage” case
  4. Neglecting the freeing characteristic of objective due process in ecclesiastical courts
  5. Underestimating the damage caused by undue dissimulation/neglect of the prevention of scandal

The possible roots of clergy teaching this doctrine are:

  1. Bad seminary formation
  2. A generally overly empathetic pastoral mindset which clouds prudence, especially with respect to the importance of the courts and due process
  3. To account retroactively for mistakes they have made in the past about correcting the faithful in this matter
  4. To remove or soften their obligation to do the difficult work of calling sinners to repentance 
  5. To mount an indirect defense of lax moral lives of their own

We must always pray and fast for clergy, especially bishops – the bad ones most of all.

Marital Sexual Ethics – An Analogy with Baking

Eamonn Clark, STL

Continuing on in articulating my developing thoughts in what increasingly seems to me to be a deeply neglected field, I would like to propose an analogy for understanding some of the basics about chastity within marriage.

There are some well-known Catholic authors, especially contemporary ones, who promote a sort of “anything goes as long as it ends the right way” approach, and they sometimes don’t even get that minimalist principle quite right. Instead, pulling from figures including the Salmanticenses and St. Alphonsus, let me offer the following example by which to understand some of the honest boundaries of the marital embrace.

The idea is to bake some bread with an oven and some dough. What is sure is that the oven should be pre-heated, which could take a while and may involve some adjustments. The dough might require some kneading as well, but probably not very much. Once the dough is ready, the kneading should stop, as it is now excessive and unproductive – and it is not really part of baking. The dough should certainly not be put in the sink or in the garbage, even if that might seem interesting and fun, as that would not really be baking, even if the plan is to put it in the oven later – just as it is really not baking in one’s own kitchen to use someone else’s oven for a few minutes with the plan to finish the bread in one’s own oven, so too it is not baking to put the dough in places not ordered toward making bread. Nor would keeping the oven at the right temperature without putting the dough in be baking; rather, it’s playing with the oven. And once the dough is baked, it is time to turn the oven off – to keep it running after the bread has been made is also not baking, it is also playing with the oven.

I hope this analogy can be especially useful for pastors and confessors in helping couples to understand appropriate and honest boundaries in the marriage bed. It is not easy to do so – but an image like this is probably one of the best ways. 99% of couples will get the message, at least. Certainly, the laxist doctrines ought to be condemned.

Comments are closed.

A good chastity video to watch

So I watch a lot on this channel – he has a series (he argues it is the longest running show on YouTube, which is probably actually correct) that is mostly him giving relationship advice to high school and college kids, and it is absolutely hilarious – but this one was a bit more serious. And as a major cultural-pastoral concern of today in the West, I thought I’d share. (The original video he’s reacting to is here.)

See my other posts on chastity here:

Practical chastity, principles for chaste relationships 1, part 2, and part 3 (parts 4 and 5 coming soon)

Matt Fradd (who wrote a book on the topic) also has a nice interview which I was watching the other day… also worth watching (he has several other similar interviews, as you might imagine):

The Best Book Available on Catholic Social Teaching

A break from the satire for a moment (thank you for the positive feedback!)…

I wish to promote and endorse this book – by a German bishop (*gasp!*) – which is a wonderful introduction into the world of Catholic social teaching. It is by the late Joseph Cardinal Höffner (d. 1987), Archbishop of Cologne.

Here, in English, online for free: Christian Social Teaching

Some other languages are available online as well.

From the foreword, by Lothar Roos…

Cardinal Höffner’s “Christian Social Teaching“ is surely the Catholic Church’s most successful textbook on this subject. The German version was first published in 1962, but over the next twenty years or so (up to 1983) eight more editions, some enlarged, appeared and it was translated into six languages (1964 English and Spanish, 1967 Japanese, 1970 Portuguese/Brazilian, and 1979 Italian and Korean). This fact, too, shows its unique importance for theChurch’s global mission. The ‘secret’ of the author’s success lies in a similarly unique combination of qualities. Joseph Höffner was a historian and systematist, theologian and economist, researcher and ‘populizer’, professor and bishop all in one person.

Slope Slipped: the Normalization of Polyamory

Eamonn Clark, STL

People sometimes make the defensive claim that “what happens in my bedroom is none of your business.” In one sense that’s correct. However, it turns out that how the next generation comes into existence is of massive public interest, because that generation constitutes the make-up of the future society. Bracketing the question-begging argument that they will likely be taught bad marriage/sexual behavior, one wonders what the psychological effects are of certain innovations are. For example, IVF and surrogacy constitute a sort of commodification of children – as if a child is a product, something to buy. While this is not how most would explain their behavior or their lived experience of being such a child, it stands to reason that the desperation which drives one to such a procedure is not the well ordered procreative generosity and trust in God’s providence proper to marriage but rather a kind of spirit of self-determination which is bold enough to presume to rip human life out of God’s hands. How does such an attitude spill over into other facets of life, and of child-rearing? I leave that question aside today. My main focus is something which still, thankfully, is a taboo in Western society – polyamory.

The first time most people heard the word “throuple” was on HGTV a few years ago.

There you go. HGTV is not exactly deep in the world of on-demand cable. It is pretty mainstream. (Watch the video on YouTube, and scroll through the comments. It is enlightening.)

Some readers (as one commenter pointed out) might be asking themselves about certain polyamorous Biblical marriage arrangements, among the patriarchs and some of the kings. There are a few points to make about this.

1 – The arrangements frequently lead to trouble of some sort. Pick up your Bible!

2 – The point of the concession/dispensation, or rather restraint from the development to a more refined application of the natural law (on its social level), was to allow for the propagation of the human race and especially God’s own people, the Jews. There is no longer such a need, so the concession ends and the developed state of society requires the full development or application of natural law. (More can be said on how this works – but it suffices to leave it at this for now. You can read St. Thomas on the question here… but I have summarized it for you.)

3 – The arrangements are always one male with many women – NEVER anything else. This follows from point 2… women are less fertile than men. Just as well, the payment of the marriage debt could be significantly impeded by pregnancy, whereas a man can be ready at almost any time. Furthermore, we always know who the mother is in any arrangement (leaving aside IVF etc.), but it does not follow that we (easily) know who the father is. That creates problems for the inclination towards caring for one’s children, one of the fundamental precepts of the natural law.

Now, just today I have seen this short reaction clip, which inspired the present post:

The way the pair explains themselves so calmly and confidently, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, is, to me, bone-chilling. They happened to have social misfortune of being picked up by a major political and cultural commentator, but otherwise they would have almost certainly been faced with nothing but well-wishes and heart emojis.

There’s a whole lot of this stuff online, some videos getting hundreds of thousands of hits. In one playlist on a channel (“Truly”) with almost 10 million subscribers, there are over 100 videos wherein one can peruse the various forms of polyamory and other odd arrangements – including a poor woman who says she is in love with a chandelier. (I didn’t link to it, as the lead video features a woman who seems to fear wearing clothing that properly covers her.)

These ideas are now being offered to your children as they browse the internet. Do you know what your kids are up to online?

I wrote a post a while ago critiquing a certain cardinal on his poor argumentation against one of the other last remaining sexual taboos, incest. (I can think of only 6 real, visceral sexual taboos that remain in the Western world at large – in no particular order, they are: incest, polyamory, zoophilia, necrophilia, pedophilia, and rape.) If we don’t really know how to talk about marriage to our kids, our students, our friends, our congregations, then HGTV will inform them that they have nothing to fear from throwing one more person into the relationship. After all, more love is better than less love, right? Who could deny that!?

These days, since aristocracy and monarchies are not so common, incest seems to be a problem primarily for the lower class. Polyamory, however, seems to be primarily for rich people. It is real decadence – a kind of “sex club” that one might get to join if they are just right.

As we careen toward the end of the line of sexual perversion, (and thankfully we are likely getting close to reaching it,) we can notice the effect it is having on children. Such behavior as polyamory is deeply narcissistic – that narcissistic tendency fits together with other behaviors and trends which destroy the authentic meaning of human sexuality, which is life-giving and self-demanding. The more one turns in on oneself sexually, the more will one be blinded and weakened in other parts of the moral and spiritual life, especially in prudence and in spiritual perceptiveness. The daughters of lust are split evenly between afflicting the intellect and afflicting the will. They are: blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred of God, love of this world, and abhorrence or despair of a future world. These anti-values exhibited by parents will deform their children (if they have any), either through the kids imitating their parents or by the kids simply being left to themselves to figure things out. And so sin multiplies upon the earth. Thankfully, many such people don’t have children to corrupt, and if they do, their children might become so corrupted that the chain of sin ends with their own sterility, whether by self-mutilation, homosexuality, or a general inability to find someone willing to have children with them. In itself, it is tragic, but insofar as it is a case of evil slowly destroying itself, it is something to rejoice about.

In his second best known work, the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas lays out the full argument for monogamy in marriage. In surrounding chapters, he goes into other dimensions of why marriage is what it is as well. Study up, my friends. The Devil knows the arguments – we need to as well.

St. Mary of Egypt, pray for us.

Adventures in Casuistry: Episode 1 – Sanchez on the Marital Debt, Part 1

Eamonn Clark, STL

May I draw your attention to my newly expanded “research” tab, above on the top right. (Email readers, you have to go to the website itself to see). I have added many links to old manuals of moral theology. The authors are listed in no particular order, and they are mostly files accessible through Google Books. The first volume of what I think is the most relevant moral theology text is what I link to, but other volumes and works are searchable below in the “related” section. It is incredible what is available to all, for free.

Almost all of them are in Latin. And they are generally enormous books, meticulously organized, quite searchable, and, for someone whose mind is “wound tight,” they are extremely satisfying to read.

I have known of the manuals for a while, but only in the past few weeks have I really become seriously interested in working through them – in part because I discovered many of them are available for free online, but also because I have been working on some questions related to sexual ethics… I am astonished to find the wisdom on this topic in the older authors being so rich, so vast, and so entirely forgotten. It is a tragedy. (The blame mostly falls on the myriad of things going on in the 19th century, including, we must admit, the rise of neoscholasticism. The manuals in general started to fall out of favor around this time.)

Therefore, in order to make a small contribution to the recovery of the manualist tradition, which ought to be revived to some extent, and to help expose new students like myself to these treasure troves of theological acumen, I will be posting some texts from them once in a while, with a translation, maybe even a few comments.

Today, flowing from my studies on marriage and sexuality, we dive into Thomas Sanchez, SJ’s immense work on marriage, De Matrimonio, which is one of the most important texts on the topic in the history of theology. It is a HUGE work, divided into 10 books over 3 volumes, with hundreds of questions addressed. Today, we are looking at the introduction to Disputation VIII, in Book 9 (On the Marital Debt), which we find on page 193 of Volume 3.

I am working on my Latin… I start, I admit, with Google Translate, and I go from there. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all my translations, so be aware of that. If you are a Latinist and want to help, please reach out! (NB: I also might skip over some of the citations which authors make, for simplicity’s sake. You can always just look at the text yourself if you want to know references.)

Sanchez, De Matrimonio, Liber IX, Disputatio VIII (Tomus III, 193) [“Introduction”]

Disputatio VIII: An actus conjugalis vitietur ratione finis ad quem referetur? Et specialiter si solum exerceatur propter bonum sacramenti: nempe, ad significandam conjunctionem Verbi cum carne aut Ecclesia?

Disputation VIII: Is the conjugal act corrupted by reason of the end to which it is referred? And especially if it is exercised only for the good of the sacrament, namely, to signify the conjunction of the Word with the flesh or the church?

Hactenus in genere disputavimus, qualiter sit licitus, et obliget conjugalis actus. Jam de circumstantiis, quibus vitiari solet, agendum est. Et primo de finis circumstantia, quae in actibus humanis primum locum obtinet. Et potest esse multiplex finis illius actus, nempe, prolis, reddere debitum, significatio unius Christi cum Ecclesia, aut cum carne, sanitas corporis, vitatio fornicationis, voluptas, aut alius finis extraneos. In praesentiarum disserimus conjugalis licitus est, relatus in bonum prolis, aut in fidei bonum: nempe, dum exercetur gratia prolis habendae, aut servandae fidei alteri conjugi reddendi ei debitum. Conclusio tanquam certissima statuitur a Magistro 4. d. 11 et D. Th. ili q. 2 . a. 2 et universis Theologis: et ab omnibus utriusque juris professoribus cum Gloss. e. Quidquid 31 q. 2. verb. Ab adulterio. Et constat de bono prolis. Quia cum Deus ad multiplicationem generis humani matrimonium instituerit, illo utens ad hunc finem peccare nequit: alias Deus aliquid illicitum instituisset. De bono etiam fidei constat. Quia tenentur conjuges ex justitia ad debitum sibi mutuo reddendum. Quia ergo, ut huic satisfaciat obligationi, ad conjugem accedit, tantum abest, ut peccet, ut potius opus virtutis et obligatorium faciat.

So far we have discussed in general how the conjugal act is lawful and how it binds. We shall now treat of the circumstances under which it is wont to be vitiated. First, the circumstance of the end, which takes place first in human acts. And there may be a manifold end of that act, namely, children, paying the debt, signifying Christ’s oneness with the Church, or with the flesh, the health of the body, the avoidance of fornication, the pleasure, or other external ends. In the present discussion, a married person is allowed to join in the good of the child, or in the good of faith, namely, when he exercises the influence of having a child, or of keeping the faith in return to the other spouse due to him. The conclusion is established as the most reliable by the Master 4. d. 11 and St. Thomas in q. 2 a. 2 and by all theologians. And it is clear about the good of the child. Because when God instituted marriage for the multiplication of the human race, one cannot sin by using it for this purpose: otherwise God would have instituted something unlawful. It is also evident of the good of faith. Because married couples are bound by justice to pay the debt to one another. And because, in order to satisfy this obligation, the man goes to his wife, so far from being a sinner, he rather does an obligatory work of virtue.

Observare tamen oportet minime sufficere, quod actus conjugalis culpae venialis immunis sit ex finis circumstantia, ipsum referre ad bonum prolis. Nam si in prole sistatur, desiderioque habendi successorem ea intendatur, culpa venialis erit: sed proles intendi debet ad cultum Dei amplificandum. Ratio est, quia alias staretur in creatura, nec bonum esset faeramenti. Natura enim bonum prolis intendit, ut in ipsa species conservetur: bonum autem sacramenti exposcit, ut referatur in Deum. Nec inde inferre licet motum naturae malum esse, sed esse imperfectum; nisi ad aliquod sacramenti bonum referatur. Sic D.Th. 4. d. 31 qu. 2 a. 2 ad. 1 Gerson. p.1 in compenio Theologiae tract. de sacramento conjugii, alphabeto 27 litera O. Tabiena Matrimonium 3 q. 2 s. 3

However, it is far from sufficient to observe that the act of a conjugal act is immune from venial guilt, from the circumstance of the end, that it relates to having a child. For if it is ordered towards having offspring, and it is motivated by an intense desire simply to have a successor, it will be a venial sin; but having offspring should be directed to enlarging the number of those worship of God. The reason is, that otherwise it would be only about creatures, and thus would not be well done. For while it is true that nature intends the good of the offspring to be preserved in the species itself, the good of the sacrament demands that it be referred to God. Nor is it lawful to infer from this that the motion of nature is evil, but only that it is imperfect unless it is referred to some sacramental good. Thus St. Thomas 4. d. 31 qu. 2 a. 2 ad. 1.

Nec tamen reminisci opus est in actu ipso conjugali alicujus ex finisbus licitis, sed satis est, si habitu referatur ad illos. Sicut juxta communem. Theologorum senten. id satis est ad meritum. Atque ita D.Th. et Tabien. num. praeced. allegati dicunt erigi, ut proles actu vel habitu referatur in Deum. Ita docent Veracruz 3 p. Speculi, art. 16. concl. 5. Matienz. lib. 5 recop.t.I.rubr.glos.I. n. 105. Led. 2 p.4.q.5 1. ad fi. Quare satis est, si a principio conjuges matrimonium inierint propter hos fines, nec intentionem ipso actu contrariam habeant, ut actus conjugalis in ipsos relatus censeatur. Ut bene docent Led. et Veracr. ibidem, qua de causa dicit Led. excusari conjuges a multis venialibus. Quod optime etiam explicuit Sylvest. verb. Debitum, quaest. 12. vers. 2 ubi dicens ut actus conjugalis meritorius si, referendam esse prolem ad Dei obsequium: subdit id esse verum, licet de obsequio divino nil cogitetur, sed solum de successore. Quia ex quo conjux est in gratia, nec malum finem intendit, virtute refert in Deum.

However, there is no need to remember anything from the lawful ends of the conjugal act itself, but it is enough if it refers to them in habit. It is approximately the general opinion of the theologians this is enough for merit. And St. Thomas and Tabien. say the same. Surely the preceding say that the procuring of offspring may be referred to God in act or habit. Therefore, it is sufficient that if couples from the beginning had entered into marriage on account of these ends, and they did not have an intention contrary to the act itself, then it would be considered related to their conjugal acts. See Veracruz, (ibid.). And it is for this reason which reason Led. says couples are excused from many venial sins. Sylvest. also explains this very well, where he says, that if the conjugal act were meritorious, that the offspring should be referred to the service of God, he adds, that it is true, even if nothing is thought of divine obedience, but only of a successor. Because since he is a partner in grace and does not intend an evil end, he refers the act virtually to God.

Next time, we will continue on with Sanchez and see what conclusions he draws from the foregoing.

Happy Easter, dear readers!

What is a “just cause” for using natural family planning?

Eamonn Clark, STL

I am on a really deep dive right now into the source material and several questions surrounding the use of “natural family planning” (NFP). There is a LOT on my mind… many questions, many distinctions, and maybe a few answers. While I will wait to share my findings – primarily, whether and why this practice as broadly taught is in principle legitimate, illegitimate, or needs more qualification – here I want to explore what a “just cause” is for the use of periodic continence or NFP in the first place.

Before looking at the documents, to summarize briefly, NFP involves tracking the fertility of the woman in order to know when she can conceive. The idea is that abstaining from relations during those fertile times, or, conversely, trying especially hard to conceive during the fertile times, will be more conducive to the familial goals of the spouses. There are a number of ways to do this, but the specifics of the methods are beyond the scope of this post.

The texts which will be quoted are going to make the point, in various ways, that only serious reasons justify the recourse to the exclusive use of natural infertile periods. (To give you a sneak-peek of my other work on this question, part of my hypothesis is that NFP can be compared with speech in various ways – broad mental reservations can be justified by legitimate reasons, but one needs to have a good reason for speaking in the first place, or else it is idle speech. Thus, NFP needs not only a serious reason in principle but also in the individual case of its use, i.e., the legitimate need for the relaxation of concupiscence, not just “recreation.” But I am getting ahead of myself.) These come after several responses from the Sacred Penitentiary about the issue, twice in the 1800’s and once in 1932, slowly opening the door to the practice. But here we are only concerned with “just causes” for the use of NFP, not the liceity of the practice in itself. (It is true the 1932 decision refers to “just and grave causes,” but there is no elaboration.) Here they are, in order of appearance. Emphases added.

Pius XII, Address to Italian Midwives, October 29, 1951:

“However if the limitation of the act to the periods of natural sterility does not refer to the right itself but only to the use of the right, the validity of the marriage does not come up for discussion. Nonetheless, the moral lawfulness of such conduct of husband and wife should be affirmed or denied according as their intention to observe constantly those periods is or is not based on sufficiently morally sure motives. The mere fact that husband and wife do not offend the nature of the act and are even ready to accept and bring up the child, who, notwithstanding their precautions, might be born, would not be itself sufficient to guarantee the rectitude of their intention and the unobjectionable morality of their motives.

The reason is that marriage obliges the partners to a state of life, which even as it confers certain rights so it also imposes the accomplishment of a positive work concerning the state itself. In such a case, the general principle may be applied that a positive action may be omitted if grave motives, independent of the good will of those who are obliged to perform it, show that its performance is inopportune, or prove that it may not be claimed with equal right by the petitioner—in this case, mankind.

The matrimonial contract, which confers on the married couple the right to satisfy the inclination of nature, constitutes them in a state of life, namely, the matrimonial state. Now, on married couples, who make use of the specific act of their state, nature and the Creator impose the function of providing for the preservation of mankind. This is the characteristic service which gives rise to the peculiar value of their state, the ‘bonum prolis’. The individual and society, the people and the State, the Church itself, depend for their existence, in the order established by God, on fruitful marriages. Therefore, to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life.

Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called “indications,” may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to the full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.”

Pius XII, Address to the National Congress of the Family Front and the Association of Large Families, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, DC, November 27, 1951:

On the other hand, the Church knows how to consider with sympathy and understanding the real difficulties of married life in our day. For this reason, in Our last address on conjugal morality, We affirmed the legitimacy and at the same time the limits – admittedly far-reaching – of regulating offspring, which, contrary to so-called “birth control”, is compatible with God’s law. One can indeed hope (but in this matter the Church naturally leaves judgment to medical science) that medical science will succeed in giving this licit method a sufficiently secure basis, and the most recent information seems to confirm this hope.

St. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968

“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained. Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the latter practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2368

“For just reasons (de iustis causis), spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality.”

So those are the most relevant texts about motives for NFP. Here’s Christian Brugger’s take.

Here’s mine.

First, one ought to note the distinction between the use of periodic continence and abstinence. The documents do not drill into this difference, and it is a potentially significant difference. In the Speech to Italian Midwives, Pius XII seems to address both of these practices under the same aspect, but it is not clear that they are morally equivalent. For the sake of simplicity, we will only address the use of periodic continence, that is, the “normal way” of using NFP, which is not total abstinence, though it seems to me there is an extension of this argument, if only partial, into the use of total abstinence as well.

Second, the only malleable or truly subjective consideration seems to be the economic factor. There are broadly 4 kinds of things which can legitimately influence the decision to use periodic continence.

  1. Economic (we will come back to this)
  2. Social and psychological (considerations like: are you possibly facing a divorce? is there nobody helpful emotionally in your life? are there sources of psychological and emotional distress which you cannot escape from and which already impede your normal functioning?)
  3. Physical and medical (considerations like: is pregnancy dangerous for the woman? is it dangerous for the child, whether by miscarriage or by serious birth defect or congenital illness? are you too unhealthy to raise a child well?)
  4. External and eugenic (considerations like: is there a “one-child” policy that would force you to obtain an abortion? is there some other regime which would radically endanger your child, such as a warlord looking for child soldiers? are you in a war zone? does your spouse intend on doing some strange genetic modification treatment/experiment on the child if the child isn’t “right”?)

The economic factor is the most interesting and most subjective consideration. Clearly, all the factors listed require some amount of “phronesis,” or “practical wisdom,” meaning a kind of judgment based on experience and reasonable estimation of what the possibilities are in the future.

Most couples in the developed world, I would suggest, are infrequently facing issues 2 through 4, although they do exist – and when they obtain, it is relatively clear, though there could be some ambiguity.

The economic factor is what most couples probably think about. “Can we afford another child?” This is the question. By this, almost nobody in the developed world who lives above the poverty line means, “Can we actually feed, clothe, and house this child, and provide for his or her medical needs,” it is rather something more minor… “Can we still do all the things we enjoy, in the way we enjoy them, if we have another child?” This is prescinding from the first few years, which absolutely excludes any sort of frequent extended leisure for almost every couple except the “1%”.

Some would say, “You do not need another television/car/house/vacation,etc., be more generous,” and that is their whole solution. While plausible, I think that there is a better or at least more nuanced path forward. That path is an application of the doctrine of St. Thomas and the manualists following him on the distribution of one’s wealth, through almsgiving and justice.

Justice demands that we pay fair taxes on our wealth and financially help those closely connected to us when they are in extreme indigence. Charity demands that we give some small amount of our excess wealth to those whose need, while not extreme and urgent, is serious, whether directly or through some intermediary (like a philanthropic organization). However, this giving based on charity does not ever need to disadvantage one to the point where he or she would live in a way that is unbecoming to his or her social class. To live in a way that is unbefitting is actually sinful on St. Thomas’ account, and to give that which would risk putting one in such a situation can only be justified by extraordinary circumstances, such as the clear choice to change states of life (i.e., entering religious life, giving all of your property away), the extreme need of an individual or the common good, or the case where one could foresee the easy recovery of adequate wealth to live in the way one is generally accustomed to.

I would cautiously suggest the following thesis, which I may modify in the future… Justice demands that the married couple is open to life in virtue of being married, and, insofar as economics bears on the question, charity – even the virtue of religion – demands that they try to have children (or at least not try to avoid having children) when they would not be moved down a social class thereby. Charity and religion demand us to love our neighbor – and by extension, our potential neighbor – on account of God’s love for them. Religion demands fitting sacrifices for the glory and honor of God, which in this case means that couples always have at least a habitual intention to raise children to be pious worshipers of Christ. Justice means rendering the other what is due, which means both the mutual self-giving of the spouses’ bodies to each other, and also the “legal justice” (one of the three types of justice) of providing for the common good of the community by having and raising children.

Nobody ever regrets having a child. It only goes in the opposite direction, whether by not having one or by the even more tragic decision to kill them in the womb. But sometimes the peripheral effects of having a child are regrettable and even warrant the avoidance of what would occasion them, even though children are the primary point of marriage as an office of nature. This is an act of prudence and magnanimity… To be reckless here can be imprudent and presumptuous. Even though God will always provide the child what he or she needs for salvation, it is the role of the parents to participate appropriately in that task, which task can be greatly complicated in some cases. It does not become impossible to do the will of God in such circumstances, but one does in fact sin by putting themselves into a situation which is beyond their natural means and habitual graces, which are the primary tools of discernment here.

A corollary is: if you aren’t ready to have kids, don’t get married…

There is so, so, so much to talk about in this minefield of issues. I have plenty more to say. But I will just let this bomb drop for now. I am running an unofficial survey right now on people’s attitudes towards NFP in view of some other writing, including eventually here on these pages. Please leave a comment below telling us what your thoughts are. Do young married people of this generation “just not get it”? Are the documents missing something which could help illuminate the problem? How is NFP presented in your parish and diocese? Tell me everything, I am interested to hear. You can use the “Contact” tab too, if you want.

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Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part III

Eamonn Clark, STL

See parts One and Two

The third great principle: the emotions are not the body.

At this point in our series, some might be thinking, “This is totally unrealistic! You are saying it’s wrong to have feelings!” No, not quite. Let’s dig into the distinctions even further.

Seeing “her” or thinking of “him” is going to cause an emotional response. This emotional response will have its physical effects – the heart, the face, the knees – and there might be an automatic sexual impulse (arousal), or even a kind of “pre-sexual” impulse or pleasure which is even more preparatory, in the body as well that comes along as a result. Insofar as it is not specifically being desired, or there is not some special reason one ought not to be having such thoughts, it is not going to be a moral problem. How to distinguish, then, between the allowance of some feelings and not others? The ego, or the psyche, has its own proper objects for pleasure in a certain way. Consider the thrills which accompany the following statements: “She wants to go out with me!” and, “Maybe he and I really could have a life together!” When mixed with the blameless perception of the good of that individual “as” masculine or feminine (what was described above as “love”), some “overflow” of the emotions into the organs is natural and normal and without blame in itself, as it is simply generally unavoidable when romancing, just like salivating and starting to feel hungry with the cheeseburger. Sometimes, just being around the cheeseburger is enough to get one going.

The emotions experienced by the hope of being paid attention to by HER, or the chance of being emotionally affirmed by HIM, let alone the actual experience of these things, is principally an experience of one’s psyche, of the other person as such, which then overflows into the body in other ways. As long as the point remains to experience the other person socially rather than to have increasingly intense physical experiences within one’s own body, leading to a sexual experience of the other person (even if not yet “physically intimate”), that is, by experiencing the person for the sake of that sexual desire which is growing, one will generally be doing alright.

Rational goods, which all of lower human powers exist to serve, are principally two: truth, corresponding to our intellect, and friendship, corresponding to our will. We will come back to this later, but it is important to note here that the pursuit of these things, in this case the special kind of friendship which romance entails, is what we are created for. All of our emotions, and even our bodies, exist so that we can pursue the truth in a community of friends. This is only perfectly fulfilled in Heaven. But for now, we have our broken world, in which we can find a slice of what is to come in good and solid human friendships, including the intense kind of friendship called marriage, which implies a preparatory and penultimate friendship of courtship or dating.

But there is risk, we should note. The distinction between the social and the sexual leads in the context of the fallen world in which we find ourselves calls to mind the risk of sin, and this takes us onward to the fourth great principle, “risks can be justified by proportionate rewards.”

Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part II

Eamonn Clark, STL

After an inappropriately long break, we are continuing our moral analysis of romance. First post here, on the principle “distinguish between the passions of love, desire, and delight.” I am preparing some lectures on a related topic for some of my students – so I have these things on the brain a bit. I may publish some of those notes another time.

The second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.

We were talking about an analogy with food…

It’s not obligatory to finish the cheeseburger. We are much more masters over our own bodies in terms of regulating our self-preservation than we are masters over how to regulate the preservation of the human race. We can, for example, choose to eat more or less in one “instance” of eating. It is not exactly the same with the sexual faculty. It is true one can choose to engage in sexual activity or not, but it is not so true that one can licitly decide ahead of time to “half eat the cheeseburger,” or even “eat the cheeseburger and then spit it out.” Nor may one deliberately enjoy the feelings that come with “pretending to eat the cheeseburger,” as we have said in our discussion of morose delectation.

While the Council of Vienne declared that kissing is not intrinsically immoral (yes – this was an issue brought up at an ecumenical council, in the 14th century, due to the odd teachings of various beguinages), let’s read St. Thomas on this point (II-II:154:4), as he makes a helpful (but challenging) distinction, namely, that while not sins in themselves, kisses and touches can be mortal sins from their cause. Let’s carefully consider the following text (it is not a simple one, despite its appearance): “Now it has been stated above (I-II:74:8), that it is a mortal sin not only to consent to the act, but also to the delectation of a mortal sin. Wherefore since fornication is a mortal sin, and much more so the other kinds of lust, it follows that in such like sins not only consent to the act but also consent to the pleasure is a mortal sin. Consequently, when these kisses and caresses are done for this delectation, it follows that they are mortal sins, and only in this way are they said to be lustful. Therefore in so far as they are lustful, they are mortal sins.”

We have already unpacked a lot of this in the foregoing section. What this Article means is the following, at least on my reading of it (together with supporting texts, including the Article referenced – Article 8 of Question 74, which is rather complex)… After the first passion (love), the second passion (desire) begins soon enough. The third passion (delight) can then be taken in the second passion’s act itself. If this is willed deliberately, there is mortal sin, as the appetite has been conformed to a mortal sin, even though one is not actually committing the sin for whatever reason (others are watching, inconvenience, etc.). The more closely one is simulating actual sexual union, including by engaging in its accompanying acts, the more likely it is that one is taking delight in the desire for mortal sin, as evidenced by one’s clear intent to arouse the passion of desire for the sake of the pleasure it brings.

Thus we can start to get a grip on how to understand what is going on morally in various kinds of pre-sexual recreation (including, unfortunately, many things which go on at an average high school dance). Some amount of “kisses and touches” are indeed appropriate, especially given the societal context (our psychology being wired by our environment to expect courtship to contain certain signs of affection), but there are some more or less objective lines that we can draw. To reiterate, the more an action looks like it belongs to the marriage bed, the more dangerous it is, and one must also consider carefully the possibility of slipping into further acts – or occasioning this in the other person. Some of these lines are a little less clear.

What is certain, however, is that recreational simulation of sexual activity planned ahead of time with the intent to derive pleasure from the desire to “go further” is totally without excuse – they are acts that simply are lustful “from their cause,” as St. Thomas explains. One uses the other person for the sake of a sexual fantasy that he is conforming his appetite to by willfully enjoying the pleasure which that fantasy brings. These are also actions which have a definite trajectory – real sexual union, right now, and it is precisely this trajectory which makes them so enjoyable. They cry out to be finished, and we know from experience that playing with fire in this way eventually leads to being burned.

With married couples the case of “mere” kisses and touches is different, as there is at least an habitual desire and licit ability to finish the trajectory – however, looks, touches, kisses, etc. should be done in relation to this habitual intention towards actual sexual union, rather than done only for the sake of the pleasure of the moment. In other words, such things should be ordered towards building desire for an actually possible future sexual act, rather than simply as an isolated event for its own pleasures, lest it become autoerotic – for sure, to start the actual process of direct stimulation with the intention not to complete the trajectory would come under this unfortunate category. Thankfully, sincere and pious couples typically fall into this chaste mode of action rather naturally.

TL;DR: To try deliberately to have the feeling of anticipating sexual union (“desire”) is to want to have the appetite conformed to a mortal sin, which is mortal sin itself (morose delectation), and outward acts that cause this feeling (kisses, touches, etc.) must be treated very carefully, especially if they are very closely associated with actual sexual union (i.e. heavy petting). To “make out” or otherwise touch or even look at someone specifically to derive this pleasure of “wanting to go further”, with sufficient deliberation, is to use the other’s body to engage in the mortal sin of morose delectation of fornication (or whatever species of lust, i.e. adultery, an unnatural act, etc.).

This leads us to the third great principle – the emotions are not the body. We’ll explore that soon…