On the Fernández Document: PART I

Eamonn Clark

The Rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, has published a summary defense of the apostolic exchortation Amoris Laetitia, which he helped draft. (English) The Archbishop is widely believed to be a close confidant of the Holy Father.

Though I had said in a former post that CRM would not be engaging further in debate on Amoris Laetitia, given that we have gone through some internal changes, and given the extremely significant defense which has been written by Abp. Fernández and the dearth of exhaustive and substantial counterarguments launched at this document specifically thus far, I publish here a commentary and exploration of this article in 3 parts, using the English translation linked to above (courtesy of Andrew Guernsey – used with permission).


After several months of intense activity by sectors that oppose the novelties of the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia – minorities, but hyperactive ones – or of strong attempts to disguise them, the war seems to have reached a stalemate. It is now worth pausing to acknowledge that which is concretely what Francis leaves to us as an irreversible novelty.

The claim about who is really the majority is debatable, but it should be remembered that in any case truth is not at the service of democracy. On we go then, into the body of the article to examine the “irreversible novelty.”


If one is interested to know how the Pope himself interprets what he wrote, the answer is very explicit in his commentary on the guidelines of the Bishops of the Buenos Aires Region. After discussing the possibility that the divorced in a new union live in continence, they say that “in other, more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be feasible.” They then add that

“nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment. If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. AL 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351) (Bishops of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires, “Criterios básicos para la aplicación del capítulo VIII de Amoris laetitia” [Basic criteria for the application of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia], Buenos Aires, September 5, 2016, 6)).”

It is not clear what the Buenos Aires guidelines intend from the text. What do they mean with regard to a declaration of nullity not being possible to obtain? If they are speaking about so-called “conflict marriages,” which a tribunal is not really built to investigate (albeit some progress is being made on the point), or where some situation makes approaching a tribunal literally impossible or extremely difficult due to external factors like distance or danger, that could be stated easily enough (and would surely make for an interesting conversation). If they are speaking about someone who petitioned a tribunal and received a denial of his or her request for a declaration of nullity, then the entire authority of the law and court is undermined and the rights of the other party in the prior union are trampled. How do mitigating factors for objectively wrong acts change the application of c. 915, which is not about subjective guilt? Do the bishops only have in mind private reception? How would the good intention of protecting children change the adulterous act itself, without falling into a consequentialist vision of normative ethics (condemned by the Church)? How would a person have firm purpose of amendment sufficient for absolution without at least formally intending to avoid adulterous acts, even though he or she sees the real possibility of failure, given the expectation of duress? What kind of complex circumstances do the bishops envision in their exceptions? Does “not feasible” mean “very difficult” or “impossible”? There are many questions and few answers in the Buenos Aires guidelines.

Francis immediately sent them a formal letter stating that “the document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia.” But it is important to note that he adds: “There are no other interpretations” (Letter from the Holy Father to Mons. Sergio Alfredo Fenoy, Delegate of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires, September 5, 2016). Therefore, it is unnecessary to expect another response from the Pope.

Because the Buenos Aires guidelines are ambiguous (and they themselves are interpreting the also ambiguous Footnote 351), it does not seem possible to make a reasonable claim that there is nothing left to discuss or explain.

It could be called into question that the pope would clarify his interpretation in a letter to a group of bishops. But, in fact, this has happened other times. To give an example, let us recall an incident about the interpretation of Vatican Council I. The German bishops responded to Chancellor Bismark, who argued that a Roman centralism had been defined that weakened episcopal authority. With their response, they rejected that interpretation of the Council. Pius IX endorsed the interpretation of those Bishops with a letter (March 12, 1875) and with the consistory of March 15, 1875 (DH 3112-3117). In a footnote to Lumen Gentium 27 the letter of Pius IX to the German Bishops is quoted, whereby its hermeneutical authority is confirmed.

Surely, nobody is questioning the competency of the pope to comment authoritatively on his own document. What is in question is whether this private letter legislates new law, or a binding and authoritative interpretation of existing law. I suggest that this has certainly not occurred – the Pope’s letter to the Buenos Aires region bishops has not even entered into the Acta, the normal place to promulgate such authoritative interpretations and legislation. But again, even if it were, there is such a lack of clarity in the Buenos Aires guidelines that it is impossible to draw a definitive conclusion about what the text actually means even if it were promulgated authoritatively. The Holy Father could indeed write such legislation or give a new authoritative interpretation of existing law which contradicts past authoritative interpretation, or he could answer the pending dubia (laden as they are with citations which would adequately settle the matter), which, for whatever reason, he has chosen not to do.

Obviously, a letter from the Pope does not have the same weight as an Encyclical, but, as we see, it can have a great practical, decisive importance to explain the correct interpretation of a text of greater weight. If the Pope has received a unique charism in the Church in the service of the correct interpretation of the divine Word – the charism given to Peter to bind and to loose and to confirm his brethren in faith – this cannot exclude his ability to interpret the documents he himself wrote.

Here, the Archbishop draws a comparison between “the divine Word” and “the documents [the Pope] himself wrote.” There is some analogy, insofar as the pope can indeed write infallible documents. The proper object, however, of papal infallibility is nothing other than what has already been at least implicitly revealed by God through Scripture or Tradition and is in the deposit of Faith. The charism is usually used because there is some controversy that requires an infallible definition for the good of the faithful. (Normally, this is done through an ecumenical council.) The proper object of infallibility would certainly not extend to interpreting the pope’s own documents except inasmuch as they are themselves expositions of the deposit of Faith. This means that a pope could fallibly interpret his own intentions, let alone produce fallible utterances when enunciating anything other than the deposit of Faith in a universally binding way which does not contradict past teaching. In short: no, the pope is not infallible here. 


St. John Paul II’s proposal to the divorced in a new union to live in perfect continence, as a requirement to make access to Eucharistic communion possible, was already an important novelty. Many resisted this step. Still some today do not accept this proposal because they believe it leads to relativism. On the other hand, we must note a later novelty in the language of Benedict XVI. While Pope John Paul II asked them to “assume the commitment to live in full continence” (FC 84), Benedict XVI proposed to them, more delicately, “to commit themselves” to live “as brother and sister” (SC 29b).

In the judgment of Pope John Paul II, this was permissible only if the possibility of scandal was morally certain to be excluded, in accord with the true spirit of c. 915 which aims at preventing the sin of scandal (and only indirectly at the sin of sacrilege). It certainly may be unwise for a couple to separate civilly, though one or both remain in another bond according to Divine and ecclesiastical law. John Paul II was also insistent, as was Benedict XVI, on continence. One is led to some head scratching by the Archbishop’s implied dichotomy between continence and living as brother and sister. Surely, brothers and sisters ought to be continent in their relationship, yes?

Francis recognizes the possibility of proposing perfect continence to the divorced in a new union, but admits that there may be difficulties in practicing it (cf. footnote 329). Footnote 364 gives a place to administering the sacrament of Reconciliation to them even when new falls are foreseeable. There, Francis calls into question priests who “demand of penitents a purpose of amendment so lacking in nuance that it causes mercy to be obscured by the pursuit of a supposedly pure justice” (AL 312). And there he takes up an important statement of St. John Paul II, who held that even the anticipation of a new fall “should not prejudice the authenticity of the resolution” (Letter to Cardinal W. Baum, 03/22/1996, quoted in the footnote.). Against this cautious precision of St. John Paul II, some seem to demand a kind of strict control of what others do in intimacy. We must heartily congratulate those who manage to live in perfect continence, enriching their daily cohabitation in various ways. But that does not imply ignoring that others have serious difficulties in achieving this.

There is nothing wrong with this except the implication that there is any opposition between the firm purpose of amendment necessary for absolution and “strict control of what others do in intimacy.” A confessor would indeed be bound to “control strictly” that a person not be “intimate” with someone other than his or her spouse according to Divine and ecclesiastical law. If there is not an intention to try to avoid this sin, there can be no absolution – the penitent does not have true purpose of amendment.

When the need to avoid scandal is spoken about, we must note that this only happens when people “flaunt” their situation as if it were correct (cf. AL 297). Otherwise, scandal would also be given when the first marriage has been declared null, since probably many who see them go to confession and communion do not know about the annulment. For that matter, neither could they know whether they live as brother and sister or not. The objective fault is not “manifest” insofar as it cannot be confirmed from the outside, and all deserve the benefit of the doubt. Let us leave this matter – in fact, unverifiable – to the intimacy of the discernment of the member of the faithful with his pastor.

The Archbishop’s argument is difficult to see through if one does not understand this key principle behind c. 915: the reasonable suspicion of obstinate perseverance in grave sin based on a reality which is generically publicly available knowledge. The primary concern of c. 915 is to prevent scandal, and its object, apart from those under some penalty, is those persons whose sufficiently manifest and exterior (or “objective”) conditions would be reasonably assumed to imply obstinate perseverance in grave sin if those conditions were actually known. To be sure, “good faith” ought to be applied in the distribution of the Sacraments. A priest ought not barrel into a litany of questions about the personal lives of every individual in his parish, confessional, or Communion line, but when an irregularity becomes known it must be addressed in a certain way which will indeed depend on the reality of what occurs in private – if they are continent, then they must be ministered to privately, or provision must be made to preclude scandal. If they are living “more uxorio,” then they must be helped to understand that they cannot present themselves for Holy Communion, for, if their irregular status were to become known (even if known only independently of their activity), which is certainly possible given human nature and the public character of civil marriage, then there would be grave scandal given and likely taken. If the couple has obtained an annulment, and they have a convalidation to regularize their union, then they have publicly removed the possibility for giving scandal in this way. That scandal may still be taken is possible, and adequate provision can and should be made, but there is no longer an irregular situation to discover or actually know: they are indeed not irregular, so no revelation or knowledge is possible to the contrary. The couple who practice continence in an irregular union have themselves the obligation at least to be sure that the possibility of scandal is excluded before their public reception, lest it become known that they are in an irregular union; people would have the reasonable assumption that they would indeed be living as married people, and scandal would be taken. It is the reasonable assumption of the grave sin that generally goes with such adultery, contingent upon the reasonable possibility of revelation of irregularity, which c. 915 aims at avoiding here – “flaunting” as the Archbishop envisions it need not occur for either to happen in most parish settings. (I have never been to Argentina, and so perhaps there is some unique situation there which allows for what the Archbishop says to make some practical sense.) Publicly civilly remarrying after a divorce without an annulment, and publicly receiving Holy Communion, certainly do seem to be “flaunting” in a way that is sufficient to cause plenty of gossip, loss of respect for the Sacraments and their ministers, and even imitation, should part or all of the truth come out.

The great resistance that this issue provokes in some groups indicates that this question, beyond its importance in itself, breaks a rigid mental structure, very concentrated in issues of sexuality, and it forces them to broaden their perspectives. This is why Francis asks pastors to help the faithful “to treat the weak with the logic of compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements.” (AL 308).

The claim that the “conservative” approach has a concentration on sexuality is easily dismissed on account of the consistency of that approach with respect to other sorts of sins. On the contrary, the “liberal” approach seems fixated – it is only the sexual sins which warrant this special exemption from the timeless understanding of c. 915 and its predecessors. Why, for instance, does the somewhat secretive abortionist who has no other means of feeding his family not qualify for the same kind of exception as the divorced and remarried? He may indeed be faced with much pressure, have no easy options, and see a great good to be obtained by doing abortions, such as feeding his family. It would be immensely difficult for him to stop, and he could probably get away with nobody finding out that this is his business, if he doesn’t “flaunt” it, but instead goes to a parish far away from where he more openly practices his business… If he explains his situation to Father, could he too discern that he can go to Holy Communion, despite intending to continue performing abortions? Hopefully, it is clear that this would be totally inadmissible, not only because of the grave sin which is likely on his soul, but also because of the risk of someone discovering what has occurred – and that scandal being both taken and given due to the reality of such a decision by the parish priest who decided to give him a pass and implicitly confirmed him in his wicked practice. How much damage could be done! Further, we can ask if the abortionist could receive absolution without a firm purpose of amendment, viz., a real intention not to perform any more abortions? No. Presumably, the Archbishop would agree, but why then is there such a fixation on the 6th Commandment? In fact, the Archbishop will soon go on to argue that there are exceptions to the 5th Commandment (and the 7th), in addition to implying that there is one for the 6th. Why, then, can distressed abortionists not discern on the internal forum that they can present themselves publicly for Holy Communion? If we are going to be looser on c. 915, then we ought not be fixated on the sexual sins, right?


Amoris Laetitia brings back a teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas on the application of the general principles: “The more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter uncertainty” (AL 304). Francis does not affirm that general moral laws cannot provide for all situations, nor that they are incapable of impeding the decision of conscience. On the contrary, he says that “[they] set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected.” However, “in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL 304). It is the formulation of the norm that cannot provide for everything, not the norm itself. And this applies not only to positive laws, but even to our way of formulating the natural law in its various expressions. In this line, the International Theological Commission, within the Pontificate of Benedict XVI, stated: “Natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making a decision” (International Theological Committee, “In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law,” Rome, 2009, 59.).

The teaching of St. Thomas being applied here is found in the Summa Theologica II-I, q. 94, a 4. In this Article Thomas is explaining, among other things, that the natural law is not always easily formulated in general principles which can account for every case. His example is the placing of goods in trust, which would normally require the holder to return those goods upon demand, though some wicked intention of the retriever might render the relinquishment of the goods unjust (cf. II-II q. 120 a. 1). The general formula “return entrusted property when asked to by the depositor,” does not account for the murderous intentions of one retrieving an entrusted sword. Needless to say, it would be quite easy to misapply this idea to suit one’s own purposes: one can simply claim, “The law doesn’t apply to this case.” The burden of proof, then, is upon the one who would claim that some widely accepted general formulation of natural law would not apply in a particular case. One situation which the general formulation against adultery would not seem to obtain would be the reasonably presumed but not entirely certain death of a spouse. Is it really a requirement of justice and chastity that one be absolutely sure that his or her spouse is dead? The Church does not seem to think so (see c. 1707), and attempting to remarry and living “more uxorio” while one’s spouse is hopelessly stranded on a desert island would not be the sin of adultery except in a material sense, with no guilt whatsoever. It remains to be shown, however, how the general principle fails in what seems to be its clearest application by Our Lord and by the Church throughout 2,000 years of legislation and moral theology, namely, to divorce and live “more uxorio” without proper certainty of nullity or dissolution (Pauline and Petrine privilege, etc.). One must also wonder if St. Thomas would agree with this application, given his brief and uncompromising treatment of adultery in the same text.

The absolute norm in itself does not admit exceptions, but that does not imply that its succinct formulation must be applied in every sense and without nuances in all situations. “Thou shalt not kill” does not admit exceptions. However, it raises this question: should taking life in self-defense be included within the term “killing” prohibited by the norm? Should taking food from others to feed a hungry child be included within the term “stealing” prohibited by the norm? No one would doubt that it is legitimate to ask whether these concrete cases are actually included within the narrow formulations of the negative precepts “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not steal.”

While there are cases where killing becomes legitimate, the 5th Commandment, despite popular translations, is definitely not simply about “killing” (“matar”), but about a specific kind of killing. The Hebrew “ratsach” does not mean to execute lawfully, nor does it mean to kill in moderate self-defense. It means, roughly, “to slay,” which is done through malice or negligence. Even if not fully clear in the text of the Decalogue itself, it is clear in its interpretation within Scripture and the constant authoritative interpretive tradition surrounding it. As for the 7th Commandment, there is no possibility of theft when the principle of the universal destination of goods makes into momentarily common property some object which is another’s property according to human law. We understand that taking a ladder from a hardware store without paying is not stealing if it is urgently needed to save a child from a burning building – even if there is no possibility of returning the ladder or making reparation. So these analogies do not seem to work so well… As John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor, the negative precepts of Divine law, when properly understood, do not admit of exceptions (see par. 52 and 56).

For this reason, it is also licit to ask if the acts of a more uxorio cohabitation should always fall, in its integral meaning, within the negative precept of “fornication”. I say, “in its integral meaning,” because it is not possible to hold that those acts in each and every case are gravely immoral in a subjective sense. In the complexity of particular situations is where, according to St. Thomas, ‘uncertainty increases.’ Indeed, it is not easy to describe as an ‘adulteress’ a woman who has been beaten and treated with contempt by her Catholic husband, and who received shelter, economic and psychological help from another man who helped her raise the children of the previous union, and with whom she had new children and cohabitates for many years.

It is certainly odd that the Archbishop uses the word “fornication” (“fornicar”) rather than “adultery,” seeing as we are presumably not speaking of a couple with both partners being free of other presumed marital bonds (which, by the way, would not come under c. 915’s scope unless the fornicative cohabitation were sufficiently notorious or “manifest” and there was obstinate perseverance). The difficulty of the situation the Archbishop describes is granted – but one must wonder why such a woman did not approach a tribunal for a declaration of nullity so that she might marry the second man. In any case, the Archbishop is now walking back the proposition that there is an “exception” as for the 5th and 7th Commandments – now he is simply saying that there might not be sufficient culpability for grave guilt. So, which is it? Is there an exception to the rule, or is the rule simply not broken in a grave way?

The question is not whether that woman does not know that cohabitation with that man does not correspond with objective moral norms. It is more than that. Some claim to simplify the matter in this way, by saying that, according to Francis, “The subject may not be able to be in mortal sin because, for various reasons, he is not fully aware that his situation constitutes adultery.” (This is what Claudio Pierantoni stated in a recent conference, very critical of Amoris Laetitia in Rome on April 22, 2017.) And they question him that it makes no sense to speak about discernment if “the subject remains indefinitely unaware of his situation” (Ibid.). But Francis explicitly said that “more is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule” (AL 301). The issue is much more complex and includes at least two basic considerations. First, if a woman who knows the existence of the norm can really understand that not abandoning that man – of whom she cannot now demand a total and permanent continence – is truly a very grave fault against the will of God. Second, if she truly can, at this point, make the decision to abandon that man. This is where the limited formulation of the norm is incapable of stating everything.

Surely, it is difficult to imagine a baptized, sane adult not having internal access to the moral law against divorce and remarriage, as set down in all four Gospels, though perhaps a seriously deficient moral education could cause a Christian to be invincibly ignorant. A coherent explanation of such ignorance would have to be harmonious with the clear sense of, among other important texts, Romans 1(On the other hand, a person certainly could be invincibly ignorant of ecclesiastical law or matters of fact; for example, if an individual was unaware of his/her baptism and subsequently violated canonical form in attempting marriage, this would render the marriage invalid but not morally problematic in a subjective sense.) Instead of developing this point, he seeks to introduce a conflict of obligations – a situation which sometimes, it is true, can only be solved by recourse to one’s own practical wisdom. It remains to be shown, however, that there is not an objective hierarchy of obligations which can be appealed to; it seems that there is, as adultery comes under a negative Divine prescript, while care of children comes under a positive Divine prescript. This means that the former must never be done, while the latter should be done as far as possible without violating other more serious duties – like not committing adultery, which is itself contrary to the welfare of children in a variety of ways, lest we forget.

In any event, the specific and principal proposal of Francis, in line with the Synod, is not concerning the considerations on the formulation of the norm. Why then is this question part of his proposal? Because he calls for much attention to the language that is used to describe weak persons. For him, offensive expressions such as “adulterer” or “fornicator” should not necessarily be deduced from the general norms when referring to concrete persons.

The prudence of this is at least questionable in light of the uncompromising and “offensive” language of Our Lord. Nobody, of course, would suggest that “name calling” is an effective approach to saving souls, but delicate euphemisms are not always appropriate either.

But his emphasis is rather on the question of the possible diminution of responsibility and culpability. Forms of conditioning can attenuate or nullify responsibility and culpability against any norm, even against negative precepts and absolute moral norms. This makes it possible not always to lose the life of sanctifying grace in a “more uxorio”cohabitation.

That there is a possibility of mitigation of culpability for individual adulterous acts has not come under serious criticism as far as I know, although one should certainly be wary of overextending this possibility (which is surely not hard to do). What is different from individual instances of such behavior, however, is the intention to continue in it. When that intention occurs apart from some grave duress (or other mitigating factor), it seems that this would always constitute mortal sin (excepting those cases of invincible ignorance). It should also be noted that mere temptation does not constitute a mitigating factor, and the loss of some good (like financial support) is itself merely an external temptation until it actually damages the soul’s ability to function properly in decision-making. Further, we should recall that “subjective guilt” for such acts is not matter for c. 915, only for c. 916. Finally, we should at this point draw the distinction between a person choosing to do an act and tolerating an act being done on oneself. A woman may tolerate the sexual advances of a man in a non-marital union for some serious reason, but she may not internally consent. (It is more difficult to imagine this situation obtaining for a man.) These distinctions must be made in order to have a coherent discussion of the issue at hand.


The New Albigensianism, PART I: From Scotus to S.C.O.T.U.S.

For the most part, religious errors are reducible to four basic ideas.

  1. Jesus is not by nature both fully God and fully human (Arianism, Eutychianism, Monothelitism, Agnoetism, Mormonism, etc.)
  2. There are not three Persons in One God (Modalism, Unitariansim, Subordinationism, Partialism, etc.)
  3. Sanctifying grace is not a free and universally available gift absolutely necessary for salvation (Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Baianism, Jansenism, Calvinism, etc.)
  4. Matter is not essentially harmoniously ordered with spirit (Manichaeism, Buddhism, Albigensianism, etc.)

While the first three ideas are certainly prevalent in our own day, the correct doctrines are only available through the grace of faith. The falsehood of the fourth, however, is evident from a rigorous use of natural reason alone. Therefore, it is more blameworthy to succumb to that error.

We are seeing today the resurgence of the fourth error in four ways: the sexual revolution, radical feminism, the culture of death, and most recently, gender theory.

The three forms mentioned in the first list (Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Albigensianism) more or less say that matter is evil and needs to be done away with. The Manichees thought that matter was created by an evil god, the Buddhists think that matter is only a distraction, and the Albigensians (or “Cathars”) became so enamored with the thought of the spirit escaping its fleshy prison that suicide became a virtue… But we will talk all about the Cathars later, and we will find some striking similarities between this medieval rigorist dualism and some of the most recent value developments in the Western world.

The current manifestations of the fourth error do not quite say “matter is evil,” but they instead say that the determination of human matter (the body) is irrelevant to the good of the spirit, and/or that the spirit is one’s “true self” which can be served by the body according to one’s whims. Some proponents may claim they don’t believe in spirit, that is, immaterial reality (in this case, the “soul,” or formal principle of life), but when they speak of someone being “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or something similar, they betray their real thoughts. Still, even if a person insists on denying the reality of spirit, it remains the spirit within him who denies it. There can be no “self-determination” without a self to determine, and if the body simply is the self, then how can there be real determination? There could then only be physical events without any meaning. This, of course, is contradicted by the very existence of “experience.” It is not merely a body which acts, but a person who experiences.

The error in its current expressions can be traced to Descartes, whose laudable project of attaining perfect certainty about the world was, ultimately, a disastrous failure. After shedding all opinions about which he did not have absolute certainty, he was left only with one meaningful truth: cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” No person could both think and not exist.

This was not new, as St. Augustine had come to a similar realization over 1,000 years earlier. The difference was the context and emphasis of the thought; to Augustine, it was an interesting idea coming out of nowhere and going nowhere. To Descartes, it was the foundation of every knowable proposition, and it led to the idea that human beings are essentially thinking (spiritual) beings rather than a body-soul composite… Think “soul trapped in body.”

This came after the ruins of the scholastic project. With the combination of the fixation on choice and freedom in Scotus’ work and Abelard’s troubling take on the problem of universals (how to account for similarities between different things), the stage for Ockham’s Nominalism was set. (See Gilson’s detailed description in his wonderful book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience.) It was Ockham who hammered in the last nail of St. Thomas’ coffin and who paved the way for the “cogito” to be intensely meaningful not only to Descartes, but to the entire Western academy. Nominalism’s dissociation of “things” from any real universal natures which would make those things intelligible as members of species was the first step towards overthrowing classical metaphysics. This “suspicion of being” understandably increased exponentially with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, as it cast a serious doubt on the reliability of the senses themselves, doubt that many felt was unable to be overcome, despite a sincere effort to do so on the part of Descartes himself.

Descartes: The Movie

The anxiety finally culminated in Kant’s “nervous breakdown”: a total rejection of metaphysics in the denial of the possibility of knowing “the-thing-in-itself” (noumena). From there, much of the academy generally either desperately tried to do without a robust metaphysics or desperately tried to pick up the pieces, and this theme continues today in the strange and fractured world of contemporary philosophy.

Ideas have consequences. As McIntyre shows so well in his book After Virtue in the case of “emotivism” (the position that ethical statements merely express one’s emotional preference for an action) a powerful idea that spreads like wildfire among the right academic circles can eventually stretch into the average home, even if subconsciously. A very well educated person may never have heard of G. E. Moore, but everyone from the wealthy intellectual to the homeless drunkard has encountered some shade of the emotivism Moore’s work gave rise to. The influence which both Descartes and Kant had on the academic scene in their respective eras was so vast and powerful, that it is not unfair to say that Western philosophy after the 17th century was in response to Descartes, and that Western philosophy today is in response to Kant.

The reaction to Descartes’ rationalism was first empiricism, then idealism. The reactions to Kant’s special fusion of rationalism and empiricism (that started “transcendental idealism”) which here concerns us were logical positivism and French existentialism.

Logical positivism is basically dead in academia, although the average militant atheist has taken a cheapened form of Ayer’s positivism to bash over the head of theists, and the general inertia of positivism remains in force in a vaguer “scientism” which hangs heavy in the air.

Existentialism, on the other hand, has become a powerful force in the formation of civil law. The following lengthy quotation is from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion given in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (my emphases):

“Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Carey v. Population Services International, 431 U.S., at 685 . Our cases recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child. Eisenstadt v. Baird, supra, 405 U.S., at 453 (emphasis in original). Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944). These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

“These considerations begin our analysis of the woman’s interest in terminating her pregnancy, but cannot end it, for this reason: though the abortion decision may originate within the zone of conscience and belief, it is more than a philosophic exercise. Abortion is a unique act. It is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedure; for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted. Though abortion is conduct, it does not follow that the State is entitled to proscribe it in all instances. That is because the liberty of the woman is at stake in a sense unique to the human condition, and so, unique to the law. The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to pain that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by woman with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the State to insist she make the sacrifice. Her suffering is too intimate and personal for the State to insist, without more, upon its own vision of the woman’s role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and our culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.

No doubt, a critical reader will observe some tragic oddities in this passage. We will table an in-depth analysis, but I do want to point out the bizarre idea that our beliefs can determine reality. One might be tempted to call this “relativism,” and there is indeed some relativism in the passage (the evaluation of the fact of whether a life or potential life is taken in abortion “depending on one’s beliefs”). Without denying this, I also assert that beyond a casual relativism, which might be more a product of a lack of reflection than a real worldview, Kennedy is a deeply committed existentialist. (Indeed, it seems that existentialism naturally disposes a person to relativism.) The thought that one’s beliefs define one’s personhood comes almost directly from Jean-Paul Sartre. The doctrine is: existence precedes essence. Essence is determined by beliefs and actions, according to the existentialist. Such an affront to traditional metaphysics would have been impossible without the aforementioned ideological lineage – Scotus, Abelard, Ockham, Descartes, Kant… Seeing Justice Kennedy through the existentialist lens also helps to account for the striking absence of respect for a human being who can’t believe or meaningfully act. After all, how can such a thing really be a person?

Today’s common philosophy of the Western liberal elite (and their spoiled millennial offspring) seems to be a chimera of these two diametrically opposed worldviews: positivism and existentialism. These ideologies have been filtered into the average home, and watered down in the process in such a way that they can appear to fit together. In this series of articles, we will thematically wind through a maze of philosophy, science, hashtag activism, and moral theology to understand the present crisis and to propose possible remedies for it.

After now having given a brief sketch of the ideological history, we begin next time with a look at the positivist roots of the so-called “New Atheism” and how an undue reverence for science has contributed to what I have termed the “New Albigensianism.”

Stay tuned…


For Part II, click here.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Carcassonne, France… one of the old Albigensian strongholds.

Main image source: http://en.destinationsuddefrance.com/Discover/Must-See/Carcassonne

Justice for Harambe? Sorry, not possible.

“What was that?”

“We just hit a raccoon.”

“Jonathan, don’t you think we should stop?”

“Oh trust me babe, that raccoon would not have stopped for us.”

I’ve had this hilarious exchange from Hot Rod in my mind recently.

There is a reason we say someone is “acting like an animal” when he’s doing crazy or immoral stuff… Animals have no real moral sense, no conscience, no supernatural end to which they are called. We don’t really think of them as guilty or innocent, except inasmuch as those words mean the existence or non-existence of some act.

To begin with, even asking the question sets one off on the wrong path: “Is there a morality gene?” All the dispositions of our bodies can ever incline us to desire are temporal goods (like pleasure or security), even if they are delayed in their acquisition in some way or are diffused among a community to which one belongs, UNLESS they are ordered somehow to the preservation of the species in such a way that it is altogether compulsory. Genetics, therefore, could only ever tell us why a person feels like doing x which will ultimately redound to his own temporal benefit in some way. And in animals, genetics are altogether compulsory, so the disjunction above is irrelevant for them.

In humans, these impulses can be intellectualized into rational selfishness, and certain kinds of structures of cooperation can indeed bring about a society that on its surface is stable and healthy. Read an Ayn Rand novel and you’ll get the idea.

But that’s not what real morality is. Real morality searches for the good in itself, not just for I me myself, even through others, but for others in themselves. Real morality moderates self-interest, while genetics can only incline one to seek his own good.

What about all those birds who are so committed to caring for their chicks? What about those elephants that cry for their dead? What about, etc., etc.?

If an animal does something we might call moral or right that does in fact only lend itself to the preservation of the species (which we would be tempted to call altruism), it is because it had an instinct to. Isn’t that the same as a morality gene? No, it is a gene that compels them to act in such a way, and the satisfaction for them lies precisely in the completion of an urge rather than “doing what is ‘right'” or something similar. There is no order to which a bear clings outside of itself when it protects its cubs – it has no reason for protecting them that it is aware of other than “because that’s what bears do.” We would call this a virtue if it was rationally chosen among other options, but the bear doesn’t have real rational options: it just has genes which force it to act in such a way. In fact, the very same impulse to protect its children would compel it to kill an innocent man, which we would NOT call virtuous.

“So what? It’s still bad to kill animals.” Well, while you chomp down on your burger tonight, think about what Cecil the Lion would have done to you (or your village) if given the chance. Think about what Harambe might have been about to do to that child. And so on.

We are not in a real community with animals, because they can’t communicate with us rationally. They can’t do that because they can’t reason. We are simply better and higher in the order of creation, as Genesis teaches. We have immortal souls, they do not. We can relate with God intellectually, they can not. We are called moral or immoral, they are not. This means that justice, with regard to animals, is nothing more than their proper temporal use as part of the goods shared among ourselves and God, and we expect absolutely nothing from them in return. The conclusion is this: unless you are killing animals for the sheer pleasure of destroying them, or the animal you kill is somehow important for human flourishing (like a cow that makes a family’s milk), or in killing them you are desensitizing yourself to human pain and death, you’re not doing anything wrong.

So there can’t even be such a thing as justice for Harambe. He’s owed nothing – especially since he no longer exists. But that won’t stop our culture from hashtagging more about a gorilla than about the innocent victims of abortion, or the news from covering Harambe’s death six times more than Christians recently killed by ISIS. As G.K. Chesterton famously opined, where there is animal worship, there is human sacrifice.

And anyway… Harambe would not have wanted justice for you.


Main image: By TKnoxB from Chemainus, BC, Canada – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1826972

Can’t Spell “Cannabis” Without “Can I”

So guess what? Turns out some researchers in the Netherlands think more countries should legalize pot.

Captain Obvious, of Hotels.com fame

For those who think flying to Amsterdam (or Colorado, etc.) to indulge in the herb is just fine and dandy, let’s do some thinkin’.

Principle 1: Creation is good.
Principle 2: Not all creatures are equally good.
Principle 3: We ought to avoid evil.
Principle 4: Rastafari is a false religion.

Humans are ontologically higher than rocks, plants, and animals. We can use them, even to their detriment, if they are beneficial enough to us. Jesus was not a vegetarian. And yes, Brother Carrot and Sister Lettuce are okay to kill, unless it is out of sheer disdain and spite for their existence as creatures of God.

But Uncle Bud is a little different, because when we harvest him, it’s usually for the sake of affecting our bodies in a way that suspends our intellect.

Eat-ay ad Thomam:

The sin of drunkenness, as stated in the foregoing Article, consists in the immoderate use and concupiscence of wine. Now this may happen to a man in three ways. First, so that he knows not the drink to be immoderate and intoxicating: and then drunkenness may be without sin, as stated above (Article 1). Secondly, so that he perceives the drink to be immoderate, but without knowing it to be intoxicating, and then drunkenness may involve a venial sin. Thirdly, it may happen that a man is well aware that the drink is immoderate and intoxicating, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink.

That’s from the Summa TheologicaII-II, Q. 150, art. 2. Wine stands here for any intoxicating substance… One might not know a substance to have intoxicating effects, and so there is no sin in such drunkenness (unless its use was immoderate for other reasons). But if one knows something to be potent, it is another story. But just how drunk is “drunk?”

[The third kind of man] is a drunkard properly speaking, because morals take their species not from things that occur accidentally and beside the intention, but from that which is directly intended. On this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin. For Ambrose says (De Patriarch. [De Abraham i.]): “We learn that we should shun drunkenness, which prevents us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit through drunkenness.” Therefore drunkenness, properly speaking, is a mortal sin.

So there is still a mystery… How intoxicated must one be before he “deprives himself of the use of reason?” Let’s remember a few things though before we shame the Angelic Doctor for being obscure. First, he expects a student to have read all the text which precedes this Article. That would give one a better idea of what he means. Second, the Summa really is just a beginner’s crash-course. It is not meant to be exhaustive. In some articles, this is more evident than in others. Third, it’s unlikely St. Thomas had much firsthand experience with drinking to provide us with more subtlety… When Albertus Magnus is your professor and Bonaventure lives on your hall, you’re inspired to “rise above the influence,” as it were.

“Bonaventure Shows Thomas Aquinas the Crucifix,” Francisco Zurbaran, 1629

However, we know that some of the more austere saints occasionally indulged, such as Charles Borromeo and John Vianney. And of course, the Lord did as well, as He so famously pointed out in Matthew 11:19. Since potent substances will technically have some effect no matter how little is taken of them, we can say from this alone that it is not evil in itself to use intoxicating substances.

Then there is the principle of totality to keep in mind. Later in the same Question, Thomas alludes to this by saying a physician might tell one to use drink to induce vomiting – but since lukewarm water works too, that should be used instead. However, if it didn’t (and we hadn’t discovered Ipecac) then it would be fine. This is because the greater health of the body is worth the temporary loss of reason… That’s also why it’s not a sin to plan on going to sleep each night! And while there is violence done to the body and soul when, for instance, a gangrenous limb is removed, it is for the sake of the entire person. But this too should be moderated by wisdom, since not every ailment is worth doing violence to yourself. If you get occasional leg pain, that doesn’t mean you should cut off your leg.

So anyway, how drunk is drunk? How high is high? It is so difficult to say because of the problem in trying to quantify a quality. “It’s when you feel like… you know, drunk.”

There he is again!

We won’t solve the issue of exactly where “the line” is today – maybe another post with some ¡HARDCORE SCIENCE! – but perhaps we can lay down some guideposts based on Thomas and basic research.

Certain drugs act far more quickly than others. THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) acts more quickly than alcohol, based on the popular conventions of consumption. That is a big deal.

Reason helps us to distinguish the true from the false. Once you have trouble doing that, it’s time to call it a day… If sober people around you start laughing at everything you say, it’s probably not because you’re witty and charming, it’s because you’re diminishing your material brain’s capability to interact with your immaterial intellect (AKA you’re becoming drunk). And so on.

If you’re starting to forget stuff that you shouldn’t forget, then that’s another sign your faculties are slipping. So put it down.

When you feel like doing something really dumb that you normally wouldn’t, STOP and don’t do that much again. Once you know that tequila makes your clothes fall off, then kiss it goodbye. It’s better to enter into life without a bottle of Patrón than into Gehenna with all you could ever drink. (And Tequila burns even without being on fire…)

If you can’t walk right and are slurring words, then your brain is shutting down. Same story.

So no hard answers here today, but basically the faster and stronger the drug, the less morally safe it is to use. AND, if one uses any substance for the pleasure of changing his mental state in a way that diminishes its capacity to execute its proper function, as distinct from some some other effect, this too is a red flag… We should not delight in an unnatural state!

All this would make the average consumption of pot pretty bad.