Capital Punishment and the Development of Doctrine

Eamonn Clark

Update: Dr. Feser presents a very similar argument here.

Currently, I am reading Dr. Ed Feser‘s recent book, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (co-authored by Joseph Bessette). It was with great interest then that I read the Holy Father’s remarks on October 11 regarding the death penalty in a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

I do not wish to summarize the entire history of this topic within Catholic and Western thought, as any curious reader would profit much more by simply picking up Dr. Feser’s book, but instead, I want to address (briefly) the possibility of a “development of doctrine” which would say that capital punishment is intrinsically evil.

But first, let’s look at what the Holy Father actually said.

“[The death penalty] is in itself contrary to the Gospel.”

“However serious the crime committed may have been, the death penalty is inadmissible because it undermines the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

“We are not in the presence of some contradiction with the teaching of the past, because the defense of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception until natural death has always been found in the teaching of the Church.”

“The harmonious development of doctrine, however, requires that we [now] leave out arguments which now appear decisively contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.”

“Unfortunately, this extreme and inhumane remedy was also used in the Pontifical State, neglecting the primacy of mercy over justice. We assume responsibility for the past, and we recognize that those means were guided by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.”

This is a startling series of quotations, for several reasons.

First, the Holy Father, probably without realizing it, is accusing many of his real predecessors of using an “extreme and inhumane remedy,” thus “neglecting the primacy of mercy over justice,” which implies they “were guided by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.” This would, of course, include some popes who have been raised to the altars, even men such as the great St. Pius V. It is unlikely that the Holy Father really meant to condemn several saintly popes as impenitent murderers (or as hopelessly bad moralists suffering from invincible ignorance of their material sins), but that is the implication nonetheless.

Second, the Holy Father’s comments display a startling lack of awareness of the rehabilitative power of capital punishment. In fact, this is one of the traditional arguments put forth in favor of the death penalty: to know that one is about to die in a short while is a great help in coming to repentance. What else could focus a man’s mind more on the good of his soul? If imminent and certain death does not bring about repentance, we can be pretty sure that nothing will. Furthermore, while such criminals are locked up, how many more people might they kill, heaping even more sin onto their souls? For an example of the power the certainty of death has for occasioning conversion, one might look to the ministry of St. Joseph Cafasso, who turned several dozen men from hardened criminals petrified of death into virtuous souls equally resigned to live or die, sometimes hours before they were to be hanged… (St. Catherine of Siena and St. Vincent Palotti are other examples.) It was, in fact, the certain imminence of their deaths that softened them for the work of their chaplain-saint. Surely, they would have done much good in the world had they been set free, but then again, if such were done then there would no longer be a real threat of certain death in these cases (rendering the rehabilitation less likely), nor is this how justice works… It is unsuitable as a jurisprudential norm to allow men to walk free without facing their sentence simply because they appear to have become reformed (unless reform is conditionally a part of their sentence). Instead, converted inmates will make great citizens of the Kingdom which is not of this world – lest we forget, doing well in this life is not the ultimate point, as earthly life is not the greatest good. Human life is not entirely destroyed by bodily death. This must not be an afterthought in the discussion of capital punishment, as it is precisely the supernatural call to Beatitude which gives human life so much dignity even beyond our merely natural goodness as creatures.

Third, and most importantly, the Church has taught perennially, building upon the teaching of the Old Testament (in God’s own legislation) and the New Testament, and upon the timeless understanding of natural law that there is no injustice in a legitimate government administering capital punishment under certain circumstances, namely, the crime must really be proportionate with the penalty of death, and there is moral certitude (following due process) that this individual really committed such a crime. (We might also add other factors, such as avoiding doing more harm than good, or having suitable means of execution, but this will suffice for an exploration for now.) However, apparently, we now have “a new understanding of Christian truth” which can allow a development of doctrine that completely relegates capital punishment to the realm of intrinsic evils.

I suggest that this is absolutely impossible.

First of all, such a change would be abrupt. This is not how authentic developments occur, at least outside the context of an ecumenical council where a whole number of matters might be settled with uncharacteristic promptness. Rather, they naturally unfold over a long period of time. One might argue that the past two pontificates somewhat softened the attitude toward capital punishment, which is true, but 35 years is an unimpressive tenure for a doctrinal shift. A counterexample might be the teaching on lending at interest, which changed as slowly as its object changed (viz. the instrumental scope of currency). Another might be the Immaculate Conception, celebrated in the Church for centuries before slowly making its way into the universities for debate and finally, after several more centuries, onto the loggia of Bl. Pope Pius IX. More examples could be provided, especially in the field of bioethics. What makes an abupt change to be such a red flag is that the Church does not suddenly come up with ideas about doctrine; rather, the doctrine is there from the beginning and it is slowly unpacked by the faithful. This takes a long time.

With that, the second problem with this change would be that it finds no meaningful support in the Catholic moral tradition. As attentive readers of Prof. Feser’s book will see, the opposite is true – the Church teaches and has always taught that the death penalty is legitimate in principle because of its proportionality to certain crimes, among other reasons. This is especially true for St. Thomas, upon whose arguments much of the modern defense rests. What recent popes have done is little more than advise a restricted use of it, in keeping with their own prudential judgments about its efficacy and usefulness within a broader social context (and Cdl. Ratzinger reminded us that one may disagree with popes on this point). One might point out that the paragraphs in the Catechism which discuss the death penalty seem to insist on its use only when necessary for protecting others; while this is what the document says, (especially when it quotes Evangelium Vitae,) it does not discuss why on the level of principles of justice, only on the level of prudential judgments about “the common good” and how to be “more in conformity with the dignity of the human person” – presumably, only the person of the criminal… The dignity of the person or persons killed is not discussed, and such a counterweight must be included in such an examination of distributing proportionate punishment, as the CCC says in the paragraph immediately preceding. (See also the Roman Catechism on this point, issued by Pope St. Pius V and re-issued by Pope St. Pius X.) Also, for what it’s worth, John Paul II beatified a certain Pope Pius IX. Certainly, the former knew of the latter’s firm support and use of capital punishment…  We ought to conclude then, in keeping with the hermeneutic of continuity, that John Paul II meant only to advise such a use of capital punishment in accord with the teaching which preceded it – that capital punishment may be warranted even without the need for protecting others (which is not strictly denied by the CCC) – and thus it is only a prudential judgment about its use, rather than a denial of the justice of its use in circumstances which do not necessitate its use for the protection of others, that we find in EV and the CCC. (We should also remember that catechisms, while certainly important, are not infallible documents, as Cdl. Ratzinger himself pointed out after the CCC’s publication!)

The third and most important item to discuss is the obvious one: such a change would actually constitute a reversal of past teaching, despite the Holy Father’s words that this is untrue. The Church has certainly grown in its understanding of human dignity in various ways throughout the ages, but there can be no realization about human dignity that would render capital punishment illicit. This would theoretically be possible if the Church had never actually formulated a teaching in favor of capital punishment, instead merely tolerating its use without meaningful comment. But since this is not the case, there can be no such change. Some people might be confused by this… Let’s consider another example. Suppose Pope Benedict XVII in the year 2078 decides, “The Church has evolved in Her understanding of the dignity and power of Baptism to the point where we realize that there is really no need for Confession.” One might very easily map the words of Pope Francis onto the same idea of this fictional Benedict XVII – mercy, legalism, development, apology, etc. Since this is a development of the doctrine on Baptism, how could it contradict anything but past doctrines on Baptism? The reason is very simple: doctrines do not live in bubbles. They must fit together with all other authentic doctrines. If a new doctrine on Baptism implies a contradiction of the doctrine on Confession, then the new doctrine on Baptism is wrong. If a new doctrine on human dignity implies a contradiction of the doctrine on capital punishment, then the new doctrine on human dignity is wrong. We do have a doctrine on capital punishment, as Dr. Feser shows brilliantly in his book, and the attempt to raise human dignity to such a point as it becomes absolutely inviolable would indeed imply a contradiction of that doctrine and thus would be erroneous. It would also imply that God legislated immorality in the Old Testament (ex. Leviticus 20:10) and that St. Paul confirmed immorality in the New Testament (Romans 13:4).

It will be very interesting to see how all this unfolds, or if anything even happens at all.

It is perhaps more important than ever to be training dogmaticians and moralists… Let’s pray and fast, too.

Stay tuned… and be sure to subscribe!

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!

Main image: Portait of Pius V, pope; El Greco, c. 1600-1610 (oil on canvas)

Even More on Theological Censures

Eamonn Clark

Today’s post on censures, I am discovering in my private research, was a little bit lacking in precision and scope.

It could be labeled with several censures of its own, perhaps!

With that, I will provide a few additional distinctions and corrections (some of which have been added to the original post – email subscribers, I’m looking at you!), and some links for your perusal. My posts are certainly not exhaustive of this rather complicated subject. I encourage you to do your own research on this stuff and to get back to me and tell me my two posts are [insert Latin word here] and why.

Theological notes: a system of categorizing theological propositions according to their level of authority. Take a look at this useful chart, which also describes censures which might be fairly attached (and the sin which goes along with it, supposing sufficient knowledge and freedom in what one is doing). There ten notes, ranging from dogma to probable opinion.

Opinio tolerata: a tolerated opinion which is not probable (having significant evidence in favor of its truth). It could be called an eleventh theological note. Pious legends would come under this category, along with something like, “This was the veil of the Virgin Mary.”

De fide: There are three classes of de fide propositions. The first is de fide divina et ecclesiastica/Catholica (divine and ecclesiastical/Catholic faith), which is also simply and properly called “dogma.” Second is de fide ecclesiastica definita (definite ecclesiastical faith). The third is de fide divina (divine faith). The first kind of de fide proposition is that which is both revealed directly by God and has been solemnly declared as such by the Church. An example is, “Priests can confect the Eucharist.” The second category of de fide proposition, definite ecclesiastical faith, is a solemn declaration of the Church which, while infallible, is not dogmatic. In this case, God reveals through the Magisterium in a binding way without constituting a distinct item within the deposit of faith. One example is the sacramental efficacy of receiving Holy Communion under one species. Another, I suggest, would be the canonization of saints – a post is forthcoming on this interesting question. (For more on ecclesiastical faith, which is somewhat of a controverted topic, click here.) The third is what is revealed by God but not solemnly defined by the Church, often because there has been no significant controversy and therefore no need for such a definition. An example might be, “The Holy Spirit was present in a special way in the Upper Room at Pentecost.” The first two kinds of de fide propositions are matter for heresy. Contradicting immediately and directly (viz., without a mixture of any natural or derivative propositions) the first kind is heresy simply speaking, and with the second kind it is heresy against ecclesiastical faith. The third kind is matter for error in faith, as opposed to error in theology (which is simply a misapplication of certain principles – like the validity of the vernacular Novus Ordo).

De fide doctrines on morals: It seems difficult to speak about morals in a de fide way outside of the plain sense of the Ten Commandments due to their complexity and relation with natural truths. I would love to find some sources that explore this topic more in-depth.

Different lists of censures: There seems to be some differences between the old Catholic Encyclopedia’s enumeration and description of censures and Fr. Cartechini’s (the table of theological notes), even just regarding the teachings themselves (first category). Perhaps there is more than one way to skin a cat – or label a bad theological idea – which might depend on the purpose and resources of the body issuing the censures.

Maybe it is time to bring back these old distinctions and the discussions surrounding their particulars. Maybe it is time for the United States especially to have an operational Inquisition – that is, a canonical court specifically designed to investigate credible charges of heresy and error. The USCCB sort of has this in its Doctrine Committee, but maybe they could “turn up the volume.” The system we have now seems to provide too little too late.

Just some thoughts.

 

Heterodox Does Not Mean Heretical

Eamonn Clark

Update: See Dr. Ed Peters take on this issue (in a better way, taking up the issue of “refraining from proclaiming truth”) here.

In an earlier post I examined the beleaguered (and yes, still deserving of charity) Fr. James Martin, SJ’s denunciation of the rash use of the label “heretic,” together with some extremely suspicious Christology.

I actually agree with him regarding his claim that he is not a heretic (at least according to law, which involves outward signs revealing what is within the soul). This is with respect to his Christology and even with his homosexualist agenda. Nor does his shocking (but not quite totally direct) endorsement of apostasy rise to the level of “heresy,” I suggest. Of course, I also think these things are awful and deserve serious attention from the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities. Until such a time as those offices give that attention, and as long as “Martin Mania” continues, may I offer some selected thoughts on how to navigate this alarming controversy and propose the wide-spread resurgence of the use of a timeless treasure of the Church – hopefully in an “official” way?

Theological censures.

A theological censure is a kind of warning – or judgment – about a teaching or a written work. A local bishop, a special commission, a Roman congregation, or the pope himself might issue a censure. A censure says that a teaching or work is heterodox (at odds with the truth in any of a variety of ways) and/or dangerous to the moral life of those who might encounter it. Works that receive bad enough censures might be put on an index of forbidden literature, and teachings might be condemned in the form of a syllabus. Theological censures are still used today but not nearly as much as they used to be. While there is some danger with them (such as descending into incessant hair-splitting or losing a sense of theology’s purpose, such as was happening with the overuse of manuals), it seems an opportune moment to begin at least talking about popularizing this tool once more.

Suppose a Jesuit writes a book with imbalanced emphases, a bold assertion about rewording the Catechism, and generally scandalous phrases which tend to affirm sinners in their sin. What censures might be relevant?

There are three broad classes of censures which could possibly be placed on any work, or even propositions within a work. The first regards the importance of the teaching’s object itself, the second regards the mode of expression of that teaching, and the third regards the moral character of the teaching itself and its foreseen practical consequences for morals. (There is another means of categorizing censures, viz., according to the relevant “theological note”, but this is the simpler method and allows an easier way to admit the third category mentioned here.)

The first category is where we find the term “hæretica,” meaning “heretical.” It is the highest censure that can be placed on a teaching or work. A heretical teaching is one which directly and immediately contradicts a doctrine “de fide” (or dogma), a truth revealed by God which must be believed (“credenda”) with divine and Catholic faith. To say, “God is four Persons,” or “Christ had only a human nature,” or “the Eucharist is not substantially Christ,” or “the Commandments are impossible even for one in grace,” would be heretical. It is very, very difficult to earn this stamp of disapproval. The too frequent use of the word “heresy” is a bit like the casual use of bad language – it empties it of its power, and it should be discouraged. It is quite difficult to commit the sin of heresy, and it is even more difficult to commit the outward crime which can be judged by the Church publicly as such. The latter requires outward, explicit, and obstinate confession of a proposition directly contrary to a de fide truth/dogma.

Are there dogmas regarding morals? Yes. I contend it is dogmatically certain that murder is immoral, as it is expressly condemned in Scripture and denounced by the ordinary magisterium of the Church in an infallible way, that is, consistently and universally throughout the entire history of the Church. It would be heretical to support murder as such. On the other hand, it would be more difficult to say that the immorality of abortion is a dogma, as it is at least somewhat debatable that the ordinary magisterium has consistently and universally enough maintained that unborn life in all its stages is truly human and therefore inviolable. The naturally available truth of the humanity of the embryo, now completely evident, confirms that abortion does indeed constitute murder. But because we have to put these two truths together, one which is a dogma and one which is a natural truth related to it, to say abortion is immoral is not, in the strictest sense, heretical. One might put it in one of two categories: “erronea” (erroneous), supposing the humanity of the embryo is or was a sufficiently doubtfully applied natural truth, unlike an innocent adult (which, if taken away, would leave the 5th Commandment void of content altogether), or “hæresi proxima” (next to heresy or approaching heresy), if it is the case that one sees the humanity of the embryo as having been insufficiently doubtful to warrant the need for an additional truth on top of what is already implicitly contained in the Commandment. Either way, this is still a terrible label… To be in an error of faith, or to be next to heresy, should be frightening to the one putting forth the teaching, as it is still mortal sin. (Do take a look at the theological notes chart here, with more examples and explanations for all this.) Error regards things which still must be held (“tenenda”) by Catholics. The support of the legal recognition of same-sex unions as marriage would fall in one of these lower (but still binding) categories… It involves a dogma and a naturally available truth (called a “certa”), or it involves a truth immediately derived from the dogma which is “proxima fidei” (next to faith and commonly believed to be revealed, but without ever being the object of a formal enough definition). The dogma is that sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman, and the natural or derivative truth is that men are not women (and vice versa). Supporting homosexual marriage in law would be contradicting either a certa (mix of a truth from natural reason and a truth “de fide”) or to contradict the immediate derivative of the dogma itself. Heterodox? Yes. Heretical? No. (I tend to favor the label “erroneous,” but that’s too much to get into here.) And the vaguer the language becomes, the more difficult it is to levy a high censure rightly. To say something like, “There can be true love in a homosexual act,” is surely wrong in many ways, but it is vague enough to be far from deserving that worst of labels, “heresy.”

Returning to the example of abortion, the claim that so-called medical abortion or craniotomy (both of which destroy the child to save the mother) are licit procedures, given that such a condemnation is difficult to reconcile with the general affirmation of the morality of self-defense, could be called “errori proxima” (next to error): the contrary is able to be deduced from the right teaching on abortion. It would be “temeratia” (rash) to assert that the vast majority of abortions are only venial sins on the part of the mother due to the distress of the situation. In no way is this clear, as the natural truths involved are not at all available to the one who makes this claim (so one must wonder at the reasoning), and so this is also at odds with the common opinion of theologians.

Propositions which just seem like heresy or error but can’t quite be charged with the other offenses might be labeled “sapiens hæresi/errori” (smacking of heresy/error) or even “suspecta de hæresi/errori” (suspected of heresy/error).

There are other qualifying labels which might be added, according to what kind of truth is being contradicted (Scriptural, credal, moral, etc.), but this will do for our investigation of the first category.

The second regards the way a teaching is put forth. Even true teachings could be censured in this way. A proposition may be “ambigua” (ambiguous), for example, leaving itself wide open to bad interpretation. “Protestants should be welcomed into the Catholic Church,” might be an example… Surely, entrance into full communion should be done in a welcoming way, but we should not simply begin treating Protestants as part of the Catholic Church.

Statements might also be “captiosa” (captious), “male sonans” (evil-sounding), or, my favorite in this category, “piarum aurium offensiva” (offensive to pious ears). The first uses unobjectionable language to forward an objectionable agenda (“Priests might be allowed to marry one day.”) The second is when inappropriate words are used to express truths (use your imagination). The third simply shocks the sensibilities of Catholics, though it may well be true. (See my post on Jesus and the Aliens, which arguably comes under this category. I claim there that our sacramental economy could not incorporate extraterrestrial life because aliens are not descended from Adam. The short and “offensive” version is, “Jesus can’t save aliens.”)

The third category describes what a teaching does that is morally wrong or encourages that is morally wrong. They are rather self-explanatory. The category includes but is not limited to “subsannativa religionis” (derisive of religion), “decolorativa canodris ecclesiæ” (defacing the beauty of the Church), “subversia hierarchiæ” (subversive of the hierarchy), “arrogans” (arrogant), “scandelosa,” “perniciosa,” “periculosa in moribus” (scandalous, pernicious, dangerous to morals), which might include “blasphema” (leading to blasphemy), “magica” (leading to sorcery), “idolatra” (leading to idolatry), etc., etc.

Hopefully this will serve as a decent primer on this important and seemingly neglected area of Church governance and teaching.

What censures might some of Fr. James Martin, SJ’s countless articles, tweets, books, and speeches rightly be labeled with? Many, for sure, but that would be for the lawful authorities of the Church to determine and pronounce. Though I do not think that anything I have seen warrants that highest and worst label hæretica.

But that is surely nothing to brag about.

Comments are closed. See follow up here.

 

Main image: Detail of an icon of Nicaea I

In Defense of Bad Priests

Eamonn Clark

I recently prepared third graders for their First Holy Communion. Going through the story of the Last Supper several times, I noticed that they had a fascination with a certain Apostle… You guessed it – Judas. A fascination with such a character is understandable, as it seems rather out of place in a story which one would think is supposed to be exclusively upholding models of virtue. This is not unlike the very grown-up temptation to expect moral perfection from Catholic clergy. After all, they are supposed to be models of virtue, right?

Yes, they certainly are, and extra scrutiny is rightly deserved because we do indeed have the fullness of truth and grace available to us. But here are the facts. Our Lord chose losers, dummies, and wicked sinners as the foundation of His Church. Of the original Twelve, ten were ambitious cowards. One of those ten was also arrogant (Peter). The eleventh was just ambitious (John). And the twelfth one was a greedy traitor. (Later on He would also call a terrorist to this elite group.)

The place to start looking at the failure of any priesthood is a comparison with the first four failed priesthoods, and the first successful one: Adam, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and Melchizedek, respectively.

Adam was the high priest of nature, called to guard and serve the Garden of Eden and his wife Eve at his own expense. He ought to have put himself in front of her and the serpent, but he shrinks away from his duty. He stands next to her (as Eve “turned to her husband” to give him the fruit) and watches this calamity take place. The serpent goes after Eve first, because he knows that she is easier to trick and that she might be able to trick her husband. When confronted by God, Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve: there is no responsibility taken.

The Devil often seeks to harm God’s priests through the very people they are called to protect. In this case, Adam’s own fear and self-interest allow his beloved to fall, and then she takes him with her – for what husband would want to have a wife estranged from him, as Eve surely would have been without Adam following her into sin? And yet they become estranged from each other anyway, needing to hide themselves with the flesh of animals… The first time blood is shed in Scripture, it is to cover up the sins of our first parents. A sign of things to come, for sure.

The next failed priesthood is Aaron’s. While Moses is busy with spiritual matters on Mount Sinai, the people grumble against him. The patience required to receive the Covenant is too spiritual for them, and so they threaten to leave the mountain in protest. Aaron is concerned about such a loss of numbers – he is afraid of what Moses will think. He has the people give him their gold, and he makes for them an idol which provides them with the experience of God they wanted: an unchallenging, unspiritual, ungodly experience. But the people are happy, and they stay put for a while, high on their own erroneous ideas about the worship of God. Aaron saved the day. When Moses returns with righteous fury, Aaron explains, like Adam did before God, that it was not his fault – it was the people’s and the furnace’s. More shirking of responsibility. (Moses gives them the proper experience of the god Aaron made for them when he ground it down, threw it in the water, and made the people drink. Like a good priest, he teaches them that a dead god gives even less life than water: it cannot save.)

Unlike Adam, Aaron’s ambitions were totally worldly. Instead of trying to become like God as a direct opponent, he simply wants to be the hero of God’s chosen people. Aaron wants just a little bit too much of their attention… He is not really after the gold, but what lies behind the gold – the esteem of men. That is what gives gold its value, after all.

Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s sons. They violated the code of the Lord’s sanctuary by bringing unholy fire into the Tent of Meeting. This strange fire was deeply repugnant to the Lord, and so He slew them where they stood. Our Lord will only have sacred heat and light dwell within His holy place. Though profane fire may sustain bodily life, only sacred fire can sustain the life of grace.

The first successful priesthood is that of Melchizedek, whom Abraham meets after his battles. His is a totally spiritual and eternal priesthood, offering bread and wine and accepting the tithes owed to him for his work. He does not ask for money, he simply receives it. He is a priest not because of his family stock, like the Levites, but because of his charity. He gives to God first, then he receives what is rightfully his from men. He does not go looking for greatness: he simply is great.

Judas wraps up all of the failures of earlier priests in himself and makes them even worse. He is unwilling to do the work of a priest, putting himself in the place of Christ over and over again for the salvation of souls, standing in the way of the Devil’s reach of the weak, even though he would not have been alone in this task, unlike Adam. He trades the incarnate Lord not for the esteem of men, but for money itself. The purifying fires of the grace welling up in the Eucharistic Lord are traded for the fires of the foundry which purified the silver he would take as payment for his betrayal and would later throw into the Temple to try to buy back that grace. He takes into his body the blessed fruits of that very first celebration of Holy Mass which he was simultaneously endowed with the awesome power himself to perpetuate, as a recapitulation and elevation of Melchizedek’s priesthood, and then invites in the Devil to contradict it all. Though the accidents of bread and wine sustained Judas’ bodily life, the spirit within him died because of the rejection of the grace within the Lord’s Body and Blood – true food and true drink which preserve from everlasting death.

What greater human evil is there than the evil found in Judas on Holy Thursday? And yet that very night, Our Lord bowed before him to wash his feet, and He even personally called him “friend.” It is not unfair to say that, in a way, God loved Judas more than anyone else in human history, for there has never been a fouler human being to love. In the midst of this supreme wretchedness, Christ left us a memorial of His own greatness.

We know how the human story turns out. Judas despairs of the very mercy he was shortly supposed to be empowered to bring to others in the sacrament of confession. He attempts to slay himself (though perhaps did not succeed, and received even more time to repent), as if the death of the Lord had not been enough payment for his sin… No, Judas saw himself as so great that he believed his sin was unforgivable. “What a fool I have been,” he uttered. Yet this foolish failure brought about the culmination of our very redemption. Without Judas, there is no Passion, Death, or Resurrection. There is also not the greatest condescension of love ever shown by God. Deicide is not therefore justified, but God’s choice to allow a bad priest to exist in the Church is.

Meanwhile, Peter weeps in contrition and makes amends with “the man” he denied knowing, within earshot and within hours of having heard this prophesied. He left that “strange fire” in the courtyard, from where he watched the Lord shiver in the cold and dark of the prison cell, and he leaves the slave girl before whom he cowered in fear. Behold, the Prince of Apostles, who would eventually learn that taking up the sword is better left to those who persecute Christ than those who defend Him, and who would finally end his life as a willing victim upon a cross. The priesthood of Peter was in as sorry a state as the priesthood of Judas; the difference was repentance. Yet again, Our Lord shows his greatness through the failures of one of His hand-picked dispensers of grace.

The Church on Earth is institutional and hierarchical by nature, because human beings require such an order so as to avoid repeating the tragic error of the men of Babel who tried by their own powers to cooperate to reach up to Heaven. The Church on Earth is also sinful by nature, because it is populated by human beings – even in its hierarchy. It has been so from the moment of its inception, and this is by design. No, God does not want bad clergy in the same way He wants good clergy, but He does want to permit them to exist for now. He knew Judas would betray Him, and He knew all the clerical pedophiles, heretics, and antinomians of our own day would do the same. While they betray the Lord by selling Him for popularity or money, as they shrink from their duty to stand in front of Satan and then blame the weak or the natural insufficiency of their means, as they profane the Eucharist through indifference toward it, they repeatedly show the power of Christ in His Church: even through all this, there is victory waiting.

There has always been a crack in the foundation, there has always been chaff in the wheat, and yet there has always been grace available through these men nonetheless, as it is God’s own power which is the source of their priesthood and thus the source of their power to give grace – “ex opere operato.” God shows His majesty in the midst of this weakness and wretchedness. And sometimes He even brings these men out of their shameful disgrace and elevates them to the profoundest heights of sanctity, a feat which must be marveled at. There is true hope of Heaven for every bad priest in this world. Christ calls each of them “friend.”

Perspective is important. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Qoheleth reminds us. We would do well to recall more frequently the beginnings of the Church to understand Her challenges today. (A reading of the disturbing history of ancient Israel would help too.) Whatever cleric is the object of concern – parish priest, celebrity priest, local bishop, curial official, pope… If there really is sin there, realize that it is just business as usual. The Barque of Peter has always leaked in the storm while the inept crew runs about helplessly, and yet it continues to float safely toward the harbor. Our Lord can guide it even in His sleep.

Let’s pray and fast for all priests, especially those who need it most.

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!

 

Main image: Pope John XII, who was killed in the act of adultery by a vengeful husband

The Very Bad Christology of Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Eamonn Clark

No doubt most readers will be aware of the furor surrounding Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s latest book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Since the issues with the book have been beaten to death – though not to a definitive conclusion – they will not be treated here. An item which has gone nearly undetected by comparison, though perhaps deserving much more treatment than his very bad book, is the very bad Christology which Fr. Martin has been publicly espousing recently.

This past Holy Week, Fr. Martin preached on the 7 Last Words of Christ prior to the Good Friday liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington D.C. The Archdiocese reported as follows:

The sixth phrase, “It has ended; it is finished,” is usually interpreted by scholars to be the fulfillment of God’s will, said Father Martin, but he suggested that it can also be interpreted as a resignation, with Jesus saying, “I have done all I can do.” He may have wondered whether the apostles would carry on His work after He died, and be unsure if the great project of His ministry was coming to an end, Father Martin explained. But even if Jesus didn’t yet know how His project would continue, “The Father had other plans,” Father Martin said.

Further on:

Lastly, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Father Martin said his favorite theological question to think about is whether Jesus knew what was going to happen on Easter Sunday before He died. While the answer to the question is a mystery, “the one thing we do know,” said Father Martin, is “He desires only to do the Father’s will,” and in the Garden of Gethsemane, He reached the “ultimate decision point.”

Anyone who has read the Gospels will at this point be reaching for an explanation. Doesn’t Christ speak many, many times about His Resurrection and what will happen after He leaves the Apostles? Doesn’t He show He has foreknowledge in other instances as well? Yes, but it is not for no reason that Fr. Martin has taken his position. He has seen a true difficulty and is attempting to resolve it.

LifeSiteNews ran an article which originally commented on the content of the Good Friday talk (although it has since been edited). Fr. Martin decided to attempt to defend himself in the combox.

He is fully human. With a fully human consciousness. (Which means he would have had knowledge only of what a human person could know.) And fully divine. With a fully divine consciousness. (Which means he would have had the knowledge of the Father.) It’s a great mystery of how those two natures participated together. But to imply that I was denying his divinity is absurd. Feel free to read “Jesus” and “Seven Last Words.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Fr. Martin’s comment, as it was only in a combox, but there is a lot to investigate here. Why does he say “consciousness” and not “nature,” or “intellect,” or “hypostasis”? “Consciousness” is very vague and could lend itself to various interpretations. Also, why does Fr. Martin use the phrase “human person” and then make a contradistinction with “the Father”? Surely, he would admit that Christ is not a human person, but a Divine Person (the Son, not the Father) with a human nature, yes?

Now let’s add one more piece to this puzzle.

Fr. Martin recently took to Twitter (on August 20th, 2017) to explain the interaction between Christ and the Canaanite woman (Mt. 15: 21-28, Mk. 7: 24-29), which was the Gospel reading of the day:

Gospel: Today we see Jesus’ human and divine natures: he learns from the woman that his ministry extends to all, and he heals her daughter.

And then later that day, after receiving numerous rebukes from people who did not agree that Jesus learned about the scope of His salvific mission – the very purpose of His existence – from a mere creature, Fr. Martin responded with:

The most popular heresy in the Catholic Twitterverse is Docetism. It betrays a fundamental fear of any indication that Jesus was fully human

Seeing as Fr. Martin here uses the “h-word” as a defense against people who disagreed with his exegesis, do we not have the right to examine what he is saying in as serious a way as he treats the matter of an accusation of heresy?

But it was an exchange with Massimo Faggioli, a well-respected church historian, during which Mr. Douthat randomly tweeted “Own your heresy,” which sent things over the edge…

Calling [a theologian] a “heretic” is like calling a journalist a plagiarist.  These aren’t funny punchlines to be taken lightly.  They are attacks on one’s faith, and for theologians possible career-enders…

I’m disgusted with the facile use of words like “heresy” and “schism” and “apostate,” passing itself off as defenses of the faith.

All this from the same piece – and these are just some highlights.

Seeing as Fr. Martin is not tolerant of the lax use of these words, even in Twitter fights, shall we investigate what is at stake in his recent comments?

The Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as “theotokos,” or “God-bearer” – the Mother of God. This was defined against the doctrine associated with Nestorius (whose relationship with the doctrine is actually quite complicated), which was that Christ was both a human person and a Divine Person loosely united together. This meant that there are really two separate beings or “whos” in Christ: Jesus the human person, and the Person of the Son. Nestorianism was condemned again 20 years later at the Council of Chalcedon. In short, Nestorianism is definitely a heresy, and no Catholic can argue otherwise.

A view which splits Christ into two persons – not merely two natures – could account for several puzzling items. (After all, heresy usually makes matters simpler than they really are.) How is it, for instance, that a woman could really be “the mother of God” if Christ is fully human and is being born according to His humanity by which He is her son? Are His divinity and humanity the same? Of course not (although Eutyches, condemned at Chalcedon, tried something like that solution to this problem). Nestorius could easily explain this – Jesus the human person was born, God the Son was not, even though He was united with Jesus. A similar solution might be given to the problem of the death of Christ. How can God the Son die? The Nestorian answer is that, in every sense, He did not. There is no need for the complex subtleties of the communicatio idiomatum on this account.

Some kind of Nestorian Christology could also explain a strange verse in Scripture which is, frankly, very confusing and frequently misunderstood. It is Mark 13: 32, where Christ speaks of His return: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of Heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24: 36 is identical, although many ancient Matthean manuscripts lack “nor the Son,” for what it’s worth.)

How to explain this? Certainly, we would not say that the Person of the Son does not know “the day nor the hour,” as He is God in the same sense the Father is God. Could the Gospel writers be suggesting that there are future contingent things that Jesus “the Son (of Man?)” just does not know as a human being and needs to learn, even if God the Son knows them as God? What else would account for this strange utterance of the Lord? Perhaps Fr. Martin’s comments are not so off-base…

Fortunately, this exact issue was settled a long, long time ago, in the year 600 A.D. to be precise. There had been folks – the “Agnoetae” – who picked up on exactly this verse and ran with it. They suggested that Jesus, in His humanity, did not possess the fullness of knowledge He possibly could, as if God the Son had held back some secrets. Pope St. Gregory the Great thought this to be problematic and weighed in on the matter (Denzinger 248). Shall we go through the text?

(But) concerning that which has been written: That neither the Son, nor the angels know the day and the hour [cf. Mark 13:32], indeed, your holiness has perceived rightly, that since it most certainly should be referred not to the same son according to that which is the head, but according to his body which we are . . . . He [Augustine] also says . . . that this can be understood of the same son, because omnipotent God sometimes speaks in a human way, as he said to Abraham: Now I know that thou fearest God [Gen. 22:12], not because God then knew that He was feared, but because at that time He caused Abraham to know that he feared God. For, just as we say a day is happy not because the day itself is happy, but because it makes us happy, so the omnipotent Son says He does not know the day which He causes not to be known, not because He himself is ignorant of it, but because He does not permit it to be known at all. Thus also the Father alone is said to know, because the Son (being) consubstantial with Him, on account of His nature, by which He is above the angels, has knowledge of that, of which the angels are unaware.

Gregory suggests that perhaps Christ is speaking figuratively, just as we figuratively attribute some characteristic to a thing on account of that thing causing that characteristic in us. His non-Scriptural example is a “happy day,” which is happy because it makes us happy. On this account, Christ “does not know” because he does not make us know. Christ attributes the knowledge to the Father, since God the Father does have the knowledge, but since God the Son is consubstantial with the Father, this would also mean God the Son has the knowledge. Basically, Christ is condescending to the disciples’ poor understanding of His nature – they don’t know him as God the Son, consubstantial with the Father. (cf. Mark 10: 18, Luke 18: 19 – “Why do you call me good? None is good but God alone.”)

 Thus, also, this can be the more precisely understood because the Only-begotten having been incarnate, and made perfect man for us, in His human nature indeed did know the day and the hour of judgment, but nevertheless He did not know this from His human nature. Therefore, that which in (nature) itself He knew, He did not know from that very (nature), because God-made-man knew the day and hour of the judgment through the power of His Godhead. . . . Thus, the knowledge which He did not have on account of the nature of His humanity – by reason of which, like the angels, He was a creature – this He denied that He, like the angels, who are creatures, had. Therefore (as) God and man He knows the day and the hour of judgment; but on this account, because God is man.

Here, Gregory gives a better explanation. He says that Christ knew “the day and the hour” in both His human and Divine natures, but He did not know from His human nature. This account would lead a reader (or listener) to understand that “the day and the hour” are not able to be known by natural inference. In other words, “flesh and blood will not reveal this to you” (cf. Mt. 16: 17). Also, as with the first explanation, Christ is speaking to the disciples according to their present understanding of His nature (and in this case His knowledge specifically) – they think He has a human knowledge derived from human learning, sometimes supplemented by Divine inspiration such as the prophets had. They do not yet have a full Christology – that must wait until Pentecost. Of course, we must be careful to avoid an implication of dishonesty in Christ’s words. Rather, He uses a rhetorical device which simply allows the truth to remain obscure.

Finally, we have a startlingly aggressive condemnation of Agnoetism from Gregory:

But the fact is certainly manifest that whoever is not a Nestorian, can in no wise be an Agnoeta. For with what purpose can he, who confesses that the Wisdom itself of God is incarnate say that there is anything which the Wisdom of God does not know? It is written: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made by him [John 1:13]. If all, without doubt also the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so foolish as to presume to assert that the Word of the Father made that which He does not know? It is written also: Jesus knowing that the Father gave him all things into his hands [John 13:3]. If all things, surely both the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so stupid as to say that the Son has received in His hands that of which He is unaware?

Gregory draws out an implicit Nestorianism in the Agnoetist doctrine. If there is really one being and Person, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Person of the Son, with two distinct natures united in that one subsistent being, then the knowledge of the Son must overflow into the knowledge of the human intellect due to the unity of subsistence which obtains. That knowledge would of course be gradually bestowed according to the natural capacity of the human faculties of Christ, which is why Luke can say, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2: 52) As an infant, the human Jesus really did not know “the day and the hour,” but once His natural capacity to receive this knowledge grew, it immediately accessed that knowledge (cf. CCC #472).

The Catechism also has something to say about Agnoetism, though it does not condemn it by name (#473-474)… The letter from Pope St. Gregory the Great is also cited in the footnotes:

But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God’s Son expressed the divine life of his person. “The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God.” Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father. The Son in his human knowledge also showed the divine penetration he had into the secret thoughts of human hearts. By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal.

Here we have a fine summary of everything wrong with Fr. Martin’s Christology. There is clarity of language, first of all, and there is also an affirmation of the fullness of Christ’s human knowledge due to His human nature’s union to the Person of the Son. This human knowledge consists, then, not only in what a human being could know from experience and study. It also contains, as far as is possible for Christ’s human nature, all that God the Son knows, including the secrets of human hearts, the meaning and extent of His own visible mission (contra Fr. Martin’s exegesis of the interaction with the Canaanite woman), all that pertains to the truth of God and His laws and His Scriptures, the “day and the hour” (contra the original application of Agnoetism), that He would rise from the dead and successfully send out the Apostles (contra Fr. Martin’s Good Friday sermon), and all other future contingent events. While a Jesus who walks by faith and not by sight is more relatable, that is not the Christ of reality.

What can we say of our Jesuit? I too, like Fr. Martin, am concerned with the rash use of words like “heresy.” (I suggest that a general resurgence in the use of the classical terminology of theological censures is appropriate, and I will apply some of that language here.) In the strictest sense, Agnoetism seems not to be heretical (hæretica), as it does not immediately contradict a divinely revealed and defined dogma (like Nestorianism itself does), but it is erroneous (erronea) or next to error (errori proxima), as the truth it contradicts is immediately or at least eventually deduced from a defined dogma (contra Nestorius) and a certainly known natural truth (that Christ’s unglorified human nature was capable of knowing “the day and the hour,” and such like particular things). An Agnoetist must either deny what is clear from the dogma defined against Nestorius, or he must deny the natural truth about the possibility of Christ’s human knowledge. For this reason, it is not strictly appropriate to call an Agnoetist a heretic, even though it is difficult to conceive that what is being denied is the naturally certain truth. (Gregory of course thought Nestorianism was much more likely to be the root.)

I do think, however, that Fr. Martin has made it clear that he is indeed an Agnoetist.

I would certainly welcome a response from him denying this accusation and explaining his position with more clarity than he has done in the texts I have quoted.

We need to pray for our high-profile priests. Clerics who gain fame live a constant high-wire act even more than the average parish priest. If the downfall of Fr. Corapi has any lesson for celebrity priests, of whom Fr. Martin is the contemporary paradigmatic example, it is this: a priestly ministry which is more about conferences, books, and special events than it is about the sacraments and other characteristically priestly acts is in big trouble. Recall then-Father Corapi’s very sad words when he announced he would be leaving priestly ministry…

I didn’t do very much of that [sacramental work] quite honestly in the twenty years that I did minister . . . 90 percent of what I did in the past did not require ordination. Speaking through social communication—radio, TV, so forth—that’s not ministry, strictly speaking. My particular mission was speaking, writing, and teaching—not so much in the sacraments, but outside of them, in conjunction with them. So what I’m going to be doing in the future is pretty much the same thing.

I do not know if these words ring true with Fr. Martin, but I do sincerely hope he goes “back to basics” to avoid a similarly disastrous end. That might mean sacrificing some of the limelight – or all of it.

Comments are closed.

 

Main image: a fresco in Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome), a papal basilica built in honor of the Council of Ephesus (source: https://www.touritalynow.com/italy-travel-guide/rome/basilica-di-santa-maria-maggiore)

On the Fernández Document: PART III

Eamonn Clark

PART I, PART II

THE LEGITIMACY OF A CHANGE IN DISCIPLINE

Is this change possible and acceptable? Can Francis accept what was taught by St. John Paul II and yet open a door that was closed? Yes, because an evolution in the Church’s understanding of her own doctrine and its disciplinary consequences is possible. Let us look at some historical examples.

Rather, because the pope is the supreme legislator of the Church, he can write and interpret ecclesiastical law authoritatively, so long as it does not contradict Divine law – or, presumably, other existing ecclesiastical law. To date, Pope Francis does not seem to have done either with respect to c. 915 or c. 916 as it relates to the divorced and remarried beyond stating what has always been taught, albeit in a way that is open to other interpretations – yet continuity and custom are also relevant for understanding law (c. 20, c. 21, c. 27, etc.), and so long as it is not clear that the law or its authoritative interpretation has changed, there should be no change in the application of that law except to bring practice more in line with the law itself.

In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI, in Mirari vos, had said that it is an “absurd and erroneous doctrine, or rather delirium, that freedom of conscience is to be claimed and defended for all men” (MV 15). In the Syllabus of Pius IX (1864) religious freedom is condemned as one of the principal “errors.” But in the following century, the Second Vatican Council substantially modified these very firm ideas (cf. DH 2-3). A similar evolution occurred on the issue of the possibility of salvation outside of the Catholic Church. We recall also the case of slavery: Pope Nicholas V allowed the king of Portugal to take slaves. Then, in 1455 the Bull Romanus Pontifex reaffirmed this. And this is not a secondary issue, since it has to do with the inalienable dignity of the human person. (With respect to this subject of the evolution in the understanding of the doctrine, the examples can be taken into account which are given in: Thomas Rausch, “Doctrine at the service of the pastoral mission of the Church,” La Civiltà Cattolica, v. 3981, May 14, 2016; pp. 223-236.) As of those changes in the understanding of doctrine, there were, as a consequence, various changes in discipline.

This is not the place to launch into an extensive investigation of slavery or soteriology, but the Archbishop’s confidence in these examples as analogies is unwarranted. Chattel slavery, the intrinsically evil institution within the very broad term “slavery”, has never been taught as moral by the Church (nor is it taught as moral in Scripture), so there has been no development of doctrine here. The development on “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” was with respect to the scope of the Church itself, not with respect to its necessity for salvation.

However, some hold that these comparisons are not convincing, and insist that any evolution should be carried out in the same line as what was said previously by the Church. It would be a kind of magisterial “fixism.” But, precisely in the examples mentioned above, it can be seen that the evolution did not take place “in the same line” as before, at least not on the question in itself. Between allowing slavery and not allowing it in any case, there is an immense evolution. There is only Continuity in the general doctrine about human dignity, but not in the precise point in question, where the Church really evolved in its understanding. In the same way, between affirming that only a Catholic can be saved and holding that there is a possibility of salvation outside the Church, there is no continuity with regard to the question in itself. It is obvious that the Church grows into a better reception of the proposal of the Gospel, in a more complete vision and in new ways of applying what has been taught. But some have an enormous difficulty in admitting that something similar can occur in questions related to sexuality.

The Archbishop insists on his examples as good ones, though he is apparently aware that some disagree. It is in no way clear how his exposition of these matters would not constitute an about face in doctrine, an act which would undermine the Church’s very authority to teach without error. For example, if the Church really taught that there is no salvation outside the Church, then taught that there is, we are left with two possibilities: either the Church does not possess the guarantee of truth in definitively teaching on matters of faith and morals, or there are multiple truths which may contradict each other. Neither of these conclusions is admissible.

RECENT CHANGES OF DISCIPLINE REGARDING NEW UNIONS

The fact is that even in the praxis related to the disciplinary treatment given to the divorced in a new union, there have already been major changes over the last century. Let us recall that, with the same arguments with which it is not accepted that they may not receive communion, a long time ago “the prohibition against funerals and any public funeral service” was also applied to them (Francisco Elizari, Pastoral de los divorciados [Pastoral Care of the Divorced], Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 31-32.). This changed without all the beliefs that supported that praxis falling away.

The Archbishop apparently does not realize that this penalty may still be applied, if it seems prudent to do so. See Dr. Ed Peter’s post on this matter for more: HERE

Based on reasons that remain standing, the previous Code of Canon Law (1917) sustained a discipline which the current Code (1983) does not maintain: “If, spurning the admonition of the Ordinary, they stay in the illicit relationship, they are to be excommunicated according to the gravity of the deed or struck with personal interdict” (Canon 2336). This indicates the possibility of changes in the disciplinary practice that do not necessarily make the great beliefs that supported the previous praxis fall away, but the possible practical consequences of the general norm are considered in another way.

This is also incorrect, if the Archbishop means to say that under the Pio-Benedictine Code those who divorced and remarried incurred the penalty of excommunication simply by the act itself. See the same article linked to in the previous paragraph for more details.

Amoris Laetitia gives rise to a new change, which does not imply a contradiction with the previous teaching, but a harmonious evolution and a creative continuity. The prestigious philosopher and specialist in the thought of St. John Paul II – Rocco Buttiglione – has explained it very well:

“John Paul II, however, does not want at all to nullify the role of the subjective conscience. The objective aspect of the act determines the goodness and the seriousness of the act. The subjective aspect of the action determines the level of responsibility of the agent … Pope Francis sets himself on the ground, not of the justification of the act, but of the subjective attenuating circumstances that diminish the agent’s responsibility. This is precisely the balance of Catholic ethics and distinguishes the realistic ethics of St. John Paul II from the objectivistic ethics of some of Pope Francis’s opponents. … Familiaris Consortio, moreover, when it formulates the rule, does not tell us that it does not tolerate exceptions for a proportionate reason. The rule that no one who is not in grace God ought to receive Eucharist by its very nature does not tolerate exceptions. Whoever receives the Body and the Blood of Christ unworthily eats and drinks his own condemnation. The rule according to which persons in God’s grace are excluded from communion as the canonical penalty for the counter-witness which they have given, however, may be subject to exceptions, and this is exactly what Amoris Laetitia tells us.” (Rocco Buttiglione, L’Approccio Antropologico di San Giovanni Paolo II e quello Pastorale di Papa Francesco [The Anthropological Approach of St. John Paul II and Pastoral Care of Pope Francis])

By now the same point has been made a number of times, namely, that a person committing adulterous acts may not be gravely culpable for those acts which are themselves grave matter. However, this does not respond to the difficulty with public reception (c. 915), nor to the difficulty of a habitual intention to continue such behavior, an intention which is separate from the acts themselves, which is far less easily mitigated in culpability. 

It would be fitting to clarify Buttiglione’s expression “for the counter-witness they have given” by saying: “because their situation does not objectively correspond with the good that the general norm proposes.”

Indeed, a counter-witness really is given, as general norms do more than propose: they oblige.

RECOGNITION OF LIMITS AND GOOD THAT IS POSSIBLE

Once again, we may say that this does not imply watering down an objective value. What Francis suggests is the situation of a person who, in dialogue with the pastor, does not present the intimate acts of a more uxorio cohabitation as subjectively moral, that is to say, as the object of a personal choice that legitimates them. It only presents them as difficult to avoid in their concrete circumstances, even if they are sincerely willing to grow in this point. Circumstances can diminish culpability, but not transform an act, immoral by virtue of its object, into an act that one may justifies as a choice. In fact, the same Amoris Laetitia, rejects the attitude of someone who “flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal” (AL 297). Therefore, it is clear that Francis does not admit that that act is justifiable as a “personal choice”.

The Archbishop does speak correctly here, but whether he keeps this line throughout the whole document is questionable.

Amoris Laetitia refers to people aware of the severity of their situation, but with “great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins” (AL 298). That culpability is diminished, because the capacity for a decision is strongly conditioned, does not mean presenting one’s situation as a personal plan consistent with the Gospel. That is why discernment is not closed, but “is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL 303). This, according to an authentic understanding of the “law of gradualness” (AL 295), invites us to respond better to God each time by trusting in the help of His grace.

Finally, there is an indication that a couple in an irregular union is called to grow toward the norm. This is good.

If the act remains objectively immoral and does not lose its objective gravity, then it is not possible that it can be “chosen” with conviction, as if it were part of the Christian ideal. Still less could it be held that, by this “choice of life”, it becomes subjectively moral. It is another very different thing is to propose, as Francis does, that in a context of attenuated culpability one seeks to respond to the will of God with a greater commitment, possible in the context of that situation. For example, with a greater generosity towards the children, or with the decision to assume as a couple a more intense commitment for the common good, or with a maturation in familial dialogue, or with the development of mutual gestures of more frequent and intense charity, etc. These attempts can be objects of a “personal choice”, and they are examples of that “possible good” that can be realized within the limits of the situation itself (cf. EG 44-45, AL 308). They are expressions of the “via caritatis“, to which “those who have difficulties in living God’s law to the full” (AL 306) can always turn. Staying on this path, conscience is also called to recognize “what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God … the commitment which God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” (AL 303).

In this paragraph the Archbishop returns to an apparent contradiction of Trent on the possibility of following the Commandments (and/or the connected doctrine on sufficient grace). And surely, the Archbishop is not suggesting that the adulterous acts themselves could constitute “expressions of the ‘via caritatis’” or are “what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God … the commitment which God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits,” although this could easily be taken away from this passage of the article or from the quoted paragraph of Amoris Laetitia.

It is not that everything is the same, or that now “nothing matters”. The need to avoid concealing the seriousness of the situation explains why the Pope sets some firm limits on the proposed discernment. For example, it excludes the case of “a new union arising from a recent divorce” or “the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family” (AL 298). At the same time, he asks that people be guided so that they may sincerely recognize their own truth, especially in relation to “how they acted towards their children” or with the abandoned spouse (cf. AL 300). There are limits that discernment should not exceed, particularly when the recognition of the other is at stake, or when there is still little clarity about the situation itself. The Gospel is not reduced, let alone its demands of charity, but it is incarnated in the concrete possibilities of human complexity.

Let it be noted that the conditions laid down for the “proposed discernment” (of one’s culpability for current adulterous acts, presumably) do not constitute anything other than vague suggestions of how to discuss these difficult situations.

CONSCIENCE

In the discussions about Amoris Laetitia, some hold that the Pope claims to grant to people’s conscience a power to create the truth and the norms at its whim. With this argument, these opponents of Francis try to force others to assume a determinate logic, from which there is no way out. The Gospel is thus subjected to a kind of theological and moral mathematics. Once that mental structure is adopted, there is no choice but to accept all the logic and consequences of that manner of using reason. It is a death-trap.

One must wonder what this “determinate logic” actually consists of. The Archbishop does not say, though surely he would grant that the rigorous application of immemorial laws as they have been authentically interpreted would be a good thing for the Church and Her faithful, no?

It is not the logic that Francis proposes for the shepherds of this time (cf. AL 296. 312). In addition, he rejects the pretension of “those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance” (EG 40). He recognizes the value of reason to reflect on the Gospel, and appreciates the dialogue between faith and reason. But this does not imply canonizing “a” reason, a determinate manner of reasoning, a philosophy to which the Gospel and the whole Church must submit. The Gospel is not enclosed in a philosophy because “Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults” (EG 39).

Again, because the Archbishop does not detail the line of reason he critiques, one is left to speculate. However, his assertion that the Gospel and the whole Church need not submit to any philosophy is at least open to some criticism, given the condemnation of many kinds of philosophical worldviews which do not allow for the Gospel as the Church understands it. There are philosophies which allow for the Gospel, and there are philosophies which do not. The Archbishop fails to describe how the “determinate logic” does not allow for the Gospel in the way Modernism, Relativism, or Nihilism do not allow for the Gospel. What seems especially important to affirm in this discussion is that we can in fact know the truth of what is right and wrong, and we are in fact free in proportion with our capacity for reason. If the Gospel does not “submit” to this, then it must at least co-exist with it.

If a determinate manner of using reason is absolutized, only those who possess this mental structure will be able to interpret doctrine and revelation, and they would place themselves even above the pope. The supernatural vision of the Church and the Petrine ministry would thus be lost. Someone has said that this is an “intellectual Pelagianism”, because a determinate reason occupies the place of the Gospel and of the action of the Spirit in his Church. The Scriptures would serve only to illustrate the logic proper to “that” reason, administered by an oligarchic group of ethicists.

Surely, the Church is not called to stone the adulteress – but She is indeed called to tell her to sin no more. (John 8: 1-11)

Anyway, let us remember what Francis says about the importance of conscience; for example, in the following texts:

We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them (AL 37).

…Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage (AL 303).

This is all true, but announcing the truth to which a conscience must conform is certainly distinct from replacing that conscience.

However, Francis does not indicate that the conscience of each member of the faithful should be left completely free to its own judgement. What he asks for is a process of discernment accompanied by a pastor. It is a “personal and pastoral” discernment (AL 300), which also takes very seriously “the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the Bishop” (ibid.) and supposes a “properly formed” conscience (AL 302). It is not a conscience that pretends to create the truth as it pleases, or to adapt it to its desires. On the part of the pastor, it “never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being”, nor “an undue reticence in proposing that ideal” (AL 307). Some priests may be questioned who tend to fall into irresponsible or hasty discretion, causing confusion. The Pope does not ignore these risks that must be avoided (cf. AL 300). Each local Church will find the right balance through the experience, dialogue and guidance of the Bishop.

The “irresponsible or hasty discretion” which the Archbishop condemns, as the Church has always understood it, is a suggestion given to a person in an adulterous relationship living “more uxorio” to go to Holy Communion publicly. Suppose the divorced person shows up in the parish and finds his or her spouse according to ecclesiastical law going to Holy Communion publicly while civilly married to another person with whom there is reasonably presumed a “more uxorio” relationship. If this person approaches the pastor, what recourse does he have to Divine or ecclesiastical law? None. What terrible injustice, scandal, and pain has been caused in such a situation, with no spiritual advancement for anyone. The current law helps prevent such a tragedy (although people certainly can and do take their own initiative to receive illegally and hope for the best). Tribunals exist to discern whether a person can live “more uxorio” with a person other than the presumed spouse and then go to Holy Communion publicly – NOT individual priests or bishops or bishops’ conferences, especially through a judgment on the internal forum (see c. 130). The timeless wisdom of the Church on this matter should not be quickly set aside. “Do not move an ancient boundary stone…” (Proverbs 22:28, 23:10) To delegate these judgments in a way differently from how it is now (through the courts) would be a disaster. The best way to judge these cases is with a real system of courts who are not “interested” or “biased,” who are well educated, who have appropriate perspective of the whole situation, and who can effectively promulgate their decisions. A confessor cannot gather and weigh evidence in this manner, not all bishops are well-trained in canon law (and thus one might question the prudence of the “Briefer Process” outlined in Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus), and pastors have the temptation to succor favor with their parishioners. Most dangerous of all would be the delegation of these decisions to the interested individuals themselves.

Francis’s proposal is very demanding. It would be easier or more convenient to apply norms in a rigid and universal way, to pretend that everything is “black and white” (AL 305), or to start with some general beliefs and draw fixed conclusions without taking into account the complexity of reality and the concrete life of persons. But this comfortable rigidity can be a betrayal of the heart of the Gospel: “At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.” (AL 311).

On the contrary, the traditional teaching and practice of the Church seem much more demanding both of doctors of souls and of those in irregular unions. This is why Our Lord’s words on divorce and remarriage startled the Apostles so much that they exclaimed, “In that case, it is better not to marry!” Our Lord did not disagree. (Matthew 19: 10-11) It is seriously doubtful that the places where this proposal is adopted as legitimate and is put into practice that chastity will actually be preached in any meaningful way. Rather, human nature will simply take over in the absence of a strict ecclesiastical law. We have to wake up and smell the concupiscence.

A SECONDARY QUESTION

Although the question of the possible access to the communion for some divorcees in a new union has caused much commotion, the Pope intended – unsuccessfully – that this move be made in a discreet manner. Therefore, after developing the presuppositions of this decision in the body of the document, the application to communion for the divorced in new union was made explicit in the footnotes.

Herein lies the proof that there has been no authentic interpretation of law, let alone a change in legislation. There can be no discreet authentic interpretation or legislation – these must be open and clear, like the reforms Pope Francis made for tribunal proceedings in Mitis Iudex.

This caution is explained by the fact that what Francis considers “central” are the chapters of Amoris Laetitia “devoted to love” (AL 6), where he proposes for us a beautiful task in order to stimulate “the growth, strengthening and deepening of conjugal and family love” (AL 89). He asks us to carry on “before anything else a pastoral care of the marriage bond, assisting couples not only to deepen their love but also to overcome problems and difficulties” (AL 211), a pastoral care that encourages communion, generous dedication, the bonds of tenderness and mutual belonging.

All well and good. Recall, however, that the Church understands “conjugal love” to exist only between validly married persons, not between non-spouses.

For, ultimately “marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace” (AL 134). It would be very good for us to work more intensely in this line, in the face of a world darkened by the comfortable and superficial individualism that weakens and destroys these bonds.

Who could disagree with these closing lines? And yet the article’s ubiquitous pessimism about both human nature and the help of the grace of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony seems quite contradictory to the spirit of what the Archbishop ends with. If we want “to work more intensely in this line,” we must indeed present “indissolubility as a duty” and repeat doctrine to call people to account, as our culture and so many in the Church are falling into confusion on this critical part of human society.

————-

Some closing thoughts… In all of these theoretical back-and-forths, it can be easy to forget that behind it all there are indeed real people in truly difficult situations. We must indeed accompany them diligently and carefully, a theme this pontificate has routinely emphasized. But we must remember too that mercy is the removal of an affliction, and this may involve causing some pain. When serious sin becomes easy, comfortable, banal, and even feels like a duty, the sinner sits in such profound darkness that the light of Christ will necessarily hurt. This does not mean it ought to be hidden under a bushel basket, which is the idea one sometimes gets from the modern usage of the word “pastoral.”

We must carry the lost sheep gently, but where are we really carrying them: back to the fold, or to the jaws of the wolf? Let every person charged with the cure of souls recall those foreboding words which God said to Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil conduct in order to save their lives, then they shall die for their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their blood.” (Ezekiel 3:18) 

On the Fernández Document: PART II

Eamonn Clark

PART I

WHEN ONE CANNOT

Francis considers that even knowing the norm, a person “may be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, ‘factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision’” (AL 301). He speaks of subjects who “are not in a position to understand, value or fully practice the objective requirements of the law” (AL 295). In another paragraph he reaffirms: “Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently.” (AL 302).

Here, the Archbishop begins to violate his earlier commitment to looking beyond the possibility that one could be ignorant of the “norm” itself. This is its own mistake, as it tends toward emptying the meaning of Christian conscience. But what is more important, and indeed, in my opinion, the most important point to consider in the article, is the apparent suggestion of an impossibility of following the 6th Commandment. Trent condemned such opinions in the strongest terms: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep; let him be anathema.” (Canon XVIII, Session 6) Of course, a person who is not justified by grace (and therefore might not be able to follow the Commandments) is in mortal sin, and that sin is due to his or her own fault (along with the sins which result), as he or she resists God’s free gift of sanctifying grace. (The Buenos Aires guidelines also could be read as contradicting this anathema when they speak about continence not being “feasible.”) Nobody argues that such choices are easy to make and live out, but to say that they are impossible or that failing to make them is without guilt due to mere temptation is to contradict the clear teaching of the Church. Let us recall the sobering words of the Lord: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) If one must be ready to make these persons and one’s own life second to the Lord – goods which have frequently been used in the Amoris debate as foils for the choice to live “more uxorio” with a non-spouse – what of the sexual goods themselves which are being provided by an illegitimate lover? What of the distant possibility that that person might withdraw some financial and/or emotional support? Sometimes doing the right thing requires enormously difficult sacrifices, and it may also occasion sin in others – the witness of the martyrs demonstrates this.

He also recalls that John Paul II recognized that in certain cases “for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate” (FC 84; AL 298). Let us note that St. John Paul II recognized that “they cannot“. Benedict XVI was even more forceful in saying that in some cases “objective circumstances are present which make the cohabitation irreversible, in fact.” (SC 29b).

A couple definitely may find themselves unable to separate physically or even according to civil law. Persisting in such a state does not of itself constitute sin. (While it is fitting for civil status to correspond to ecclesiastical and sacramental status, it is not absolutely necessary. In fact, one must change his or her civil status through divorce before changing his or her ecclesiastical status through annulment. To contract a second civil marriage while still ecclesiastically bound to another does indeed constitute a more serious act, but it could be justified, so long as the rights of the divorced party are not violated.) What should be evident, however, is that remaining together physically and civilly is distinct from living “more uxorio.”

This becomes particularly complex, for example, when the man is not a practicing Catholic. The woman is not in a position to oblige someone to live in perfect continence who does not share all her Catholic convictions. In that case, it is not easy for an honest and devout woman to make the decision to abandon the man she loves, who protected her from a violent husband and who freed her from falling into prostitution or suicide. The “serious reasons” mentioned by Pope John Paul II, or the “objective circumstances” indicated by Benedict XVI are amplified. But most important of all is the fact that, by abandoning this man, she would leave the small children of the new union without a father and without a family environment. There is no doubt that, in this case, the decision-making power with respect to sexual continence, at least for now, has serious forms of conditioning that diminish guilt and imputability. Therefore, they demand great care when making judgments only from a general norm. Francis thinks especially of “the situation of families in dire poverty, punished in so many ways, where the limits of life are lived in an excruciating way” (AL 49). In the face of these families, it is necessary to avoid “imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned” (ibid.).

The Archbishop’s points about the difficulty of such situations is granted. What requires much caution, however, is examining how mitigating factors work in the act of forming a habitual intention to continue “more uxorio.” If it is not a matter of a persistent acute fear or a mental illness, what must be shown is that some particular external temptation has become an internal force which has rendered the will unable to carry out its proper function – in other words, a true addiction. Sexual addiction is, I suggest, possible but extremely rare, given the fact that the vast majority of such couples may go a long time without intimacy for some other reason, such as a health condition or even simply the mundane distractions of daily life, quite unlike a real addiction. (We should also note that it is especially egregious for any person willfully to use as license to commit a sin those factors which would mitigate that sin’s culpability. This surely only adds guilt, even hardening a person’s heart in the vice.) 

BEYOND SITUATIONALISM

The Pope, faithful to the real and limited possibilities which the Synod opened – and even against the proposals of progressive moralists – has preferred to maintain the distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt. Therefore, although it can be held with all clarity and forcefulness that sexual relations for the divorced in a new union constitute an objective situation of habitual grave sin, this does not imply that there necessarily exists grave sin in a subjective sense, that is to say, grave guilt that takes away the life of the sanctifying grace:

There has long been a distinction between “formal sin” and “material sin,” which seems to be what the Pope means by “subjective guilt” and “objective sin.” If there are factors which sufficiently mitigate or remove the guilt for what would otherwise be mortal sin, there remains “grave matter” but there is not mortal sin. This is not what is at stake in c. 915, however, as that canon refers to sin in a distinctly legal sense, which is related to but different from the moral sense… For example, a gullible and innocent person who is otherwise free to receive Holy Communion in public might have to be denied if he or she were tricked into wearing a rainbow sash under the pretext of celebrating the Noahic covenant. Onlookers would take scandal at the knowledge of an objective situation (“rainbow sash-wearing”) which would be reasonably assumed to mean that this individual is a committed LGBT activist, which itself is reasonably assumed to mean obstinate and persistent grave sin. That the soul of this individual is in grace is not a consideration in this situation.

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. (AL 301).

One is left wondering when and where this was ever said with any universality. There are no documents cited to support the thought that there has been a true development here. If the Archbishop’s text is taken in its plain meaning, the possibility of an irregular couple living in continence is included, rendering his claim without the kind of significance he seems to envision it having. The apparently implied meaning is that irregular couples living “more uxorio” may not be in mortal sin due to mitigating factors impinging on their culpability for such acts. This, I submit, is not a development at all, just a theoretical possibility which has always existed – and is unlikely to exist in reality with much frequency.

It is already widely accepted – even in the Catechism – that “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735).

The paragraph cited is only directly and fully applied in the Catechism in its treatment of self-abuse (#2352), a sin which lends itself to conditioning and inadvertent commission in a way that relations with another human being do not.

For Francis, however, it is not the concrete circumstances that determine objective morality. That forms of conditioning can diminish culpability does not mean that what is objectively evil may become objectively good. Suffice it to read the following sentence: “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace” (AL 305). That is to say, it remains an “objective situation of sin”, because there remains the Gospel’s clear proposal on marriage, and this concrete situation does not objectively reflect that. Francis, like the Synod, maintains the existence of objective truths and universal norms, and has never defended subjectivism or relativism. God’s plan is a marriage understood as an indissoluble union, and this point was not placed in doubt either in the Synod or in his pontificate.

There is some rhetoric in this paragraph, but we should notice that the Archbishop points out “that what is objectively evil [cannot] become objectively good.” Could this be a way to leave one with the impression that what is objectively evil could become “subjectively” good? Whatever the case, while there has perhaps not been subjectivism or relativism or “situationalism,” in some circles there has been some consequentialism insofar as the possible good outcome of some adulterous act (or some bad outcome of failing to commit some adulterous act) has been suggested as rendering that act less objectively grave in itself, but the Archbishop seems to have avoided this by implying that such a consequence rather inhibits freedom and therefore mitigates culpability. While the former is condemned, the latter is at least questionable. The mere existence of external or even internal temptation does not mitigate culpability, and it is a stretch to say that in these difficult cases a person faced with such consequences is necessarily overcome by them in a way that inhibits the natural operation of the intellect and will in a way that would eliminate grave guilt for an objectively grave sin.

THE POWER OF DISCERNMENT

On the other hand, Francis has never claimed that anyone can receive communion if he is not in the grace of God. But, as we have just seen, for someone to be deprived of sanctifying grace, it is not always enough that a serious objective fault exists. Therefore, there can be a path of discernment, open to the possibility of receiving the nourishment of the Eucharist.

So far, the Archbishop has neglected to cite the governing canons (c. 18, c. 213, c. 915, and c. 916). It is now a serious problem: c. 915 does not preclude from public access to Holy Communion those known with moral certainty by the minister to be in personal grave sin – c. 916 does precisely this, but it does so only in private administration. This distinction is absolutely essential to a coherent discussion of the entire issue.

This is only possible if a different way of thinking about the consequences of the norm is accepted. This does not admit exceptions with regard to the objective evaluation starting from an absolute moral precept, but he allows a discernment with regard to its disciplinary derivations. Although the norm is universal, however, “since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases, the consequences or effects of a norm need not always be the same” (AL 300). “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” (AL footnote 336).

This could be possible for private reception of Holy Communion, but it is not possible for public reception. But this would not constitute a new discipline at all, for it has always been the case that private reception is allowed given the minister has no reasonable certainty that the communicant is in mortal sin.

The question that arises is the following: Can this be discerned in pastoral dialogue? The Pope says yes, and that is what opens the way to a change in discipline. Francis’ great novelty is in allowing that a pastoral discernment in the realm of the “internal forum” can have practical consequences in the manner of applying the discipline. The general canonical norm is maintained (cf. AL 300), although it cannot be applied in some cases as a consequence of a path of discernment. In this discernment, the conscience of the concrete person plays a central role with regard to his real situation before God, his real possibilities, and his limits. That conscience, accompanied by a pastor and enlightened by the guidelines of the Church, is capable of an assessment that gives rise to a judgment, sufficient to discern regarding the possibility of access to communion.

Surely, determining personal culpability for past actions could be helped by a dialogue with a priest or other learned individual. Once again though, in such a setting, away from the distressing and mitigating factors which would encroach on a person’s freedom in an acute way sufficient for rendering that person less responsible than what mortal sin requires, it is not possible to choose to continue habitually in a “more uxorio” relationship with the non-spouse without mortal sin. Intending to continue choosing such acts, even if only because one foresees the impinging of one’s freedom, cannot be rendered less culpable merely on account of the difficulty of refraining from those acts or the goods which might be lost due to their omission – a person must really intend to try to avoid these acts. (Such a decision might be without grave guilt if the person has a mental illness, such as PTSD or split-personality disorder which would be carried into every situation, thus rendering the habitual presumption to continue “more uxorio” insufficiently free to constitute mortal sin.) What is even more inadmissible is the usurpation of a tribunal’s proper role or a contradiction of the judgment of a tribunal. This would undermine the judicial system of the Church, such that we would have a kind of canonical vigilantism.

Does this imply that a judgment can be given about one’s own state of grace? St. John Paul II stated that “the judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience.” (“De gratiae statu, ut patet, iudicium solum ad singulos homines spectat, cum de conscientiae aestimatione agatur”: EdE 37b.) But it must be clarified that it is only a certain moral security, the only thing which someone can obtain before approaching to receive communion. It is never a certainty, however much one may be unaware of having violated a commandment. The Council of Trent defined that, looking at ourselves, we cannot be certain about our state of grace (cf. Session VI, chapter 9). We speak, then, of that minimal “moral security” that the person can obtain after a process of personal and pastoral discernment, which should not be based only on a single general norm.

To reiterate, this would only be relevant for private reception, not public reception.

Up to now, discernment about an attenuated culpability did not allow for removing consequences at the external or disciplinary level. The disciplinary consequences of the norm remained unaltered, because they were based only on an objective fault against an absolute norm. Francis proposes to go one step further. It is true that the general norm is not purely a discipline, but it is related to a theological truth, such as the union between Christ and the Church which is reflected in marriage. But sometimes “undue conclusions from particular theological considerations” (AL 2) are derived when they are translated into a rigid discipline that admits no discernment whatsoever. This is the point where Francis makes a change with respect to the previous praxis.

It must be asked: what specific change is being made? There is no change in law on this point, either in Amoris Laetitia, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (where he actually did reform canon law on marriage), or any document of Pope Francis, nor is there a clear and authentic interpretation of canon law (such as would allow for a different application of c. 915, as St. John Paul II did with respect to allowing the divorced and civilly remarried publicly receiving Holy Communion if they were living in continence and were reasonably sure there could not be scandal taken), as has already been argued. I submit that until such is done, nothing can be presumed to have changed, either in legislation or its authentic interpretation.

PART III

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).

–CHAPTER VIII OF AMORIS LAETITIA: WHAT IS LEFT AFTER THE STORM–

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.”

“THERE ARE NO OTHER INTERPRETATIONS”

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. 

“PERFECT CONTINENCE”

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 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… 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?

ABSOLUTE MORAL STANDARDS AND HUMAN LIMITS

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.

PART II

The Grotesqueness of the Mass and the Problem of Evil

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I would like you to imagine the classic love story. You know the one: The daring knight rescues the damsel in distress from the fiery dragon. The details really don’t matter. All the story needs, seemingly, is a knight, a dragon, and a princess. However, it seems that there is one other element needed in the story, and that is the element of danger. For the story to work, the knight must triumph in the end, but only after a battle in which he might have lost. And this seems to be true, not just from our perspective, but from the perspective of the princess as well.

I mean, if the story is to be believed, the princess loves her knight, and love seems to include a desire for the beloved to be safe from harm. Yet, imagine how the princess would feel if the daring knight, instead of facing the dragon in hand to hand combat, camped a mile away from the castle with a sniper rifle, killed the dragon from a safe distance, and then waltzed in to pick up the princess. A bit anticlimactic isn’t it? Don’t we all feel, as much as we might not like to admit it, that if we were the princess, we’d prefer our beloved risking it all to save us? Don’t we, in a secret place in our heart, want our knight to be scarred?

Now, I’m not going to try to understand the motivation for this desire. I don’t know where it comes from, I only know that it seems true that we have it. But, I do think it has to do with what comes after the knight’s daring rescue. While the knight and princess gallop away on a snow white stallion, isn’t there already a natural bond forged by their shared experience of the dragon? If the knight had faced no danger and suffered no injury in his battle with the dragon, wouldn’t the princess, as much as she loves her knight, feel estranged from him? Wouldn’t she ask herself, “Does he understand what the dragon did to me?”

I have often had that question about my relationship with God. Knowing how much my sin has hurt me and made me despicable to myself, and reflecting on the glory and perfection of God, I sometimes have asked myself, “Does He understand what sin did to me?” The answer God gave me at the cross, and continues to give me every day in the Mass is, “Yes, because sin has done it to me too.” There seems to be a deep psychological reason that the bread and wine are consecrated separately in the mass: We want a God who knows what it feels like to have his blood separated from his body, in the same way that we have spilled our blood living in a broken world. Of course, we want a God who is all-powerful, who triumphs over sin and death, no denying that, but we also want a God who bleeds in the process. We want our God to carry the same scars we do.

That is “the grotesqueness of the mass.” In the mass, as a continuation of the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God makes himself vulnerable to us, so that He can share in our weakness. Our suffering becomes the point of encounter with God. In the mass, God enters our brokenness, our loneliness, our anger, our numbness. That is the horrible beauty of the Mass and the cross: that the hour of good’s triumph over evil is when good is weakest. It is when God looks most like a man. God suffers with us, in order to make Himself capable of being understood by His creatures who have so long suffered under sin, that they are unable to comprehend a life of love without suffering.

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And yet, we know that this is not the end. God chose to suffer not just to meet us in our suffering, but to bring us out of it. We have hope that there is a love that transcends suffering, and though, in our broken human condition, we can’t experience it now, (or at least, our experience of it is limited,) our hope in God is that some day we will. That is why the problem of evil (Why does a good God allow suffering in the world) is not so much a problem as it is a recognition of our broken selves. As fallen men and women, our experience of our own brokenness makes us want others to have experienced our suffering. This is not because we are evil and sadistically want others to suffer, but because we want to know we are not alone. The cross not only gives us that reality, but also the hope for something more: something we cannot fully comprehend now, but something we know we’ve been missing. Evil exists because in our broken state, we need evil to help us recognize the good. In the evil of the cross, we see the ultimate good, and that ultimate good gives us hope for a good without evil, a love without pain, a final victory over sin.

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Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Bl. Francis Angelico, 1434

A Forgotten Sin

There is a strange and subtle fault that plagues human hearts. It is strange because it is committed only with other sins, and it is subtle because one already has forgiveness on his mind when he commits it and so is likely not to think it needs repenting from. What is this sin?

Presumption.

Presumption is opposed to the virtue of hope, whereby we desire and expect God’s forgiveness and help in obtaining Heaven. It is the contrary of despair… The presumptuous person throws aside the moral law on account of the excessive character of his hope. He expects too much from God: he expects a thing not promised. Salvation has not been promised to those who merely fulfill a formula (viz., announcing one’s sins in sacramental confession, for example) but rather to those who exhibit perfect contrition, which is the rejection of all to do with sin – its evil effects, its evil content, and its evil motivation – out of love for God (with the assumption of making confession soon, if not presently making one), and to those who at least have true “attrition” (fear of punishment) within the sacrament of confession itself. Presumption is a special kind of motivation… a “meta-sin” if you will. One is in danger of not having adequate repentance for the sacrament of confession to receive absolution if he fails to mention presumption, as he brings his lack of the fear of God into the confessional with him. For a valid confession, one must at least have true attrition – fear of punishment. The presumptuous person does not have this fear with regard to himself. (If you have just become aware of this sin in your life, you should assume that your prior confessions were valid unless you have a clear certainty that you were not really trying that hard to examine your conscience. Simply mention presumption in your next confession.)

To help understand this sin, here’s a natural, human form of presumption. Imagine a child who stays out well past his curfew. When he comes home, his parents are upset, but he apologizes for his lateness and they forgive him. Then, on their way to bed, they hear their son talking on the phone to a friend – “Yeah they were mad but they forgave me. I knew they would, that’s why I did it.”

Ouch. What parent wouldn’t then proceed with an even more severe punishment than what mere lateness merited?

Unlike an unsuspecting parent, God is wise to this game. A person has “too much hope” if he thinks that “God will forgive me” is an excuse for doing whatever he wants and then only confessing the faults he commits because of his expectation of forgiveness. He must also confess his motivation – presuming upon God’s mercy. In this sense, presumption is “an inordinate conversion to God,” as St. Thomas puts it. This is strange to our ears, but it is indeed what this sin is; a person hopes so much for forgiveness that his servile fear is entirely demolished and replaced not by filial fear but by disobedience.

Presumption is a daughter of pride. One who thinks he is so great as to deserve Heaven is likely to fall into halfhearted repentance, or even into no repentance at all. What a calamity! Pride can also lead to another kind of presumption, namely, the rash assumption that God has blessed one’s endeavors in such a way that failure will be impossible or at least improbable in the project one has undertaken. For example, a man decides to become a missionary in China. He prayed, but he did not seek the approval of any ecclesial authority nor take counsel with a prudent spiritual director. How does he know that this is really God’s will? He does not. He would be guilty of this secondary kind of presumption. So too would a person who thinks himself to have “the gift of healing” and so goes about laying hands on people without authentic discretion. This is presumptuous of God’s grace and also exposes the Gospel to ridicule.

Knowing you have committed this sin is not always so easy. There is a difference between the hope of forgiveness motivating a sin and the hope of forgiveness occasioning a sin… I have given an example of the former in the context of human relationships. An example of the latter would be something more like a child who has become used to his parents forgiving him and so loses some respect and fear of punishment. He does not consciously choose to violate their legitimate demands on him because he knows they will forgive him, but a kind of vicious habit has been ingrained nonetheless. Where is the line between these two cases? It might not always be so clear. What we can say is that a person who consciously makes forgiveness a condition of his sinful action has certainly committed this sin, and a person who has lost respect and fear of punishment is in serious danger of committing this sin.

To reiterate, presumption requires its own mention in confession, as it is its own distinct sin. Often a person will know he has done something seriously wrong by using “God will forgive me” as a motivation for sin but will not have the vocabulary to explain himself in confession. The word is “presumption.”

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Pope Francis goes to confession – via Catholic News Agency