Scripture and the Crisis – Part 3

Eamonn Clark

See Part 1 and Part 2. Today we look at the story of the Levite and his concubine at the end of the Book of Judges. Warning: do not read while eating.

Judges 19-20

In those days Israel had no king. [The chaos of Israel after Joshua’s death is ominously summed up in this line, which is repeated several times throughout the Book of Judges. It is a lawless land. Here, near the end of the age of the quasi-vigilantism of the Judges, we see moral corruption at its peak in a story which is perhaps the most gruesome of the entire Old Testament.]

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. [The Levites were the sacred tribe which held no land of its own and from which all the priests came. What is this Levite doing in the wilderness, away from civilization? He is near the tabernacle at Shiloh but is not obviously personally dedicated to it. He certainly does not seem to be interested in the hermitage for the sake of private prayer… Why is he taking a half-wife from a city already known (from the previous chapters of Judges) to be a source of intense corruption of worship (namely, idolatry)? This shady situation already blurs some lines: the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the natural, and the conjugal and celibate. Nothing is immoral in itself so far, but we should expect trouble with such ambiguity and proximity to sin. And how we have allowed these same lines to be blurred in the past decades… It is no longer the flesh descendants of Levi, but the spiritual descendants of Melchizedek – the clergy – who have been wandering about, swinging close to sin, and blurring lines. Much of this also has to do with concern for proper worship.] But she was unfaithful to him. [An idolatrous hometown breeds unfaithfulness – go figure.] She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him.  His father-in-law, the woman’s father, prevailed on him to stay; so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking, and sleeping there.

On the fourth day they got up early and he prepared to leave, but the woman’s father said to his son-in-law, “Refresh yourself with something to eat; then you can go.” So the two of them sat down to eat and drink together. Afterward the woman’s father said, “Please stay tonight and enjoy yourself.” And when the man got up to go, his father-in-law persuaded him, so he stayed there that night. On the morning of the fifth day, when he rose to go, the woman’s father said, “Refresh yourself. Wait till afternoon!” So the two of them ate together.

Then when the man, with his concubine and his servant, got up to leave, his father-in-law, the woman’s father, said, “Now look, it’s almost evening. Spend the night here; the day is nearly over. Stay and enjoy yourself. Early tomorrow morning you can get up and be on your way home.” 10 But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine. [The inconstancy of the Levite, triggered by a desire for food and drink, for rest, and for pleasing his concubine’s father, ends in imprudent haste. Such closeness with the world will lead to bad decision-making, it seems, where the darkness will come quickly, bringing trouble with it.]

11 When they were near Jebus and the day was almost gone, the servant said to his master, “Come, let’s stop at this city of the Jebusites and spend the night.”

12 His master replied, “No. We won’t go into any city whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah.” 13 He added, “Come, let’s try to reach Gibeah or Ramah and spend the night in one of those places.” [Jebus – Jerusalem – was at that point not yet a Jewish city. The Levite’s insistence on staying among the children of Israel signals a kind of piety, but also a false sense of security. “As long as we are with God’s chosen people, we will be alright.”] 14 So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin.15 There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them in for the night. [Recall how the angels visiting Lot were also going to stay in the square. Nobody is on the lookout anymore.]

16 That evening an old man from the hill country of Ephraim, who was living in Gibeah (the inhabitants of the place were Benjamites), came in from his work in the fields. 17 When he looked and saw the traveller in the city square, the old man asked, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?” [The perfect set of questions for the Church these days, especially the hierarchy.]

18 He answered, “We are on our way from Bethlehem in Judah to a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim where I live. I have been to Bethlehem in Judah and now I am going to the house of the Lord. No one has taken me in for the night. 19 We have both straw and fodder for our donkeys and bread and wine for ourselves your servants—me, the woman and the young man with us. We don’t need anything.” [Notice the strangeness of the Levite’s answer… Is he going to Ephraim’s hill country, or to the tabernacle at Shiloh? He apparently complains that nobody has provided hospitality, but then says he doesn’t need anything. As we have seen already, he is a confused man.]

20 “You are welcome at my house,” the old man said. “Let me supply whatever you need. Only don’t spend the night in the square.” 21 So he took him into his house and fed his donkeys. After they had washed their feet, they had something to eat and drink. [Quite the partier this Levite is.]

22 While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.” [Like the men of Sodom, they are opportunists, but they are also homosexuals. The two dispositions are not caused by each other, but evidently, they exacerbate each other.]

23 The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.” [This is almost exactly the same as the episode in Sodom. But now watch the turn…]

25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine [the one who had motivated the whole journey he is on, whom he went to retrieve 4 months after her unfaithfulness!] and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. [The men are so full of lust that they are placated by this woman being put in their midst. The Levite’s willingness to do this, however, does not seem to be quite the same as the owner of the house. We do not hear a complaint from the Levite – perhaps he is just a coward. He is half-hearted and uncertain, as we have seen throughout the whole story, except when it comes to protecting himself. Even though he would have been overcome by the mob, he at least could have made his concerns known. After all, the sacred caste has a special duty to speak out against evil! Why is it not the Levite who is exhorting and castigating the mob?] 26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

27 When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. [How many victims of abuse are captured by this image? Longing for safety and acceptance, only to have become so weakened that they can merely lay at the threshold.] 28 He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” [See the pastoral skills of the Levite at work.] But there was no answer. [Now comes the turning point…] Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home. [The realization that his half-beloved has been killed seems to move him to mercy. About a thousand years later, Christ will tell a story in which a Levite fails to pick up a man only half-dead for fear of being made unclean. Only now does the Levite begin to be “serious” about loving, and in a way it is too late… But what he lacks in timeliness, he arguably makes up for in grotesque theatricality.]

29 When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. 30 Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!” [And this is what we have seen happen. The effects of abuse have been sent around the Earth, in all its graphic nature. The nations are horrified and enraged, and rightly so. In our day, it is arguably worse, as it was not a group of Levites who abused the woman but other men. How much more intense might the reaction of Israel have been if such a thing had happened in the shadow of the tabernacle at Shiloh…]

(20) 1Then all Israel from Dan to Beersheba and from the land of Gilead came together as one and assembled before the Lord in Mizpah. The leaders of all the people of the tribes of Israel took their places in the assembly of God’s people, four hundred thousand men armed with swords. (The Benjamites heard that the Israelites had gone up to Mizpah.) Then the Israelites said, “Tell us how this awful thing happened.”

So the Levite, the husband of the murdered woman, said, “I and my concubine came to Gibeah in Benjamin to spend the night. During the night the men of Gibeah came after me and surrounded the house, intending to kill me. They raped my concubine, and she died. I took my concubine, cut her into pieces and sent one piece to each region of Israel’s inheritance, because they committed this lewd and outrageous act in Israel. Now, all you Israelites, speak up and tell me what you have decided to do.”

All the men rose up together as one, saying, “None of us will go home. No, not one of us will return to his house. But now this is what we’ll do to Gibeah: We’ll go up against it in the order decided by casting lots.

12 The tribes of Israel sent messengers throughout the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What about this awful crime that was committed among you? 13 Now turn those wicked men of Gibeah over to us so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel.” [Again, like we’ve seen in the two other passages we’ve looked at before, the penalty which is seen as appropriate is extreme – but so too has the evil been extreme.]

But the Benjamites would not listen to their fellow Israelites. [One might be inclined to say that they don’t want to go down the rabbit hole on this.] 14 From their towns they came together at Gibeah to fight against the Israelites. 15 At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred able young men from those living in Gibeah. 16 Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. [We see now two groups – the Benjamites, who don’t seem to think that retribution for a crime is all that important when it concerns men of their own kin, and the men of Gibeah themselves, the one who actually perpetrated the crime. They are now defended by many armed men, including highly skilled warriors – who shoot from the “sinister” hand.]

17 Israel, apart from Benjamin, mustered four hundred thousand swordsmen, all of them fit for battle. [They have far more men, but Benjamin is more greatly invested in victory… Their own existence seems to be on the line.]

18 The Israelites went up to Bethel and inquired of God. They said, “Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Benjamites?”

The Lord replied, “Judah shall go first.”

…(the Benjamites kill 22,000, then 18,000 in a series of battles commanded by the Lord – they pray and fast and weep and ask again if they should go up)…

The Lord responded, “Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands.” [God has desired the fighting to occur even though He knew Benjamin would cut down so many good men. But now, God will fight on the side of the good guys.]

29 Then Israel set an ambush around Gibeah. 30 They went up against the Benjamites on the third day and took up positions against Gibeah as they had done before. 31 The Benjamites came out to meet them and were drawn away from the city. They began to inflict casualties on the Israelites as before, so that about thirty men fell in the open field and on the roads—the one leading to Bethel and the other to Gibeah. 32 While the Benjamites were saying, “We are defeating them as before,” the Israelites were saying, “Let’s retreat and draw them away from the city to the roads.” [Benjamin is lulled into a false sense of security by their apparent dominance, then this arrogance is capitalized on by the other tribes. What exactly such a strategy would look like today, I do not know.]

33 All the men of Israel moved from their places and took up positions at Baal Tamar, and the Israelite ambush charged out of its place on the west of Gibeah. 34 Then ten thousand of Israel’s able young men made a frontal attack on Gibeah. The fighting was so heavy that the Benjamites did not realize how near disaster was. 35 The Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and on that day the Israelites struck down 25,100 Benjamites, all armed with swords. 36 Then the Benjamites saw that they were beaten. [Ultimately, the victory belongs to God. And it will come unexpectedly and swiftly.]

The Israelites go on to destroy all the cities and towns of Benjamin, although a small remnant of Benjamin escapes alive, not only because no tribe can be entirely snuffed out among Israel, but also as a reminder that evil can never truly be entirely rooted out in this life. The Levite’s lack of good sense is what occasioned all of this, however. While he is not the perpetrator of the abuse himself, he could have taken many steps to avoid such a catastrophe. There are many lessons here for clerical culture – the importance of clear boundaries and categories in relationships, dedication to frequent and right worship, a clear sense of purpose and personal identity, appropriate distance from worldly pleasures, careful decision-making, and courage to speak out against evil – even, sometimes, in the face of the mob.

Next time, we’ll look at some of the personal psychology involved in abuse… Be sure to subscribe to be notified!

The Double-Effect Death-Spiral… and the Way Out!

Eamonn Clark

There are a number of pressing problems in Catholic moral theology, especially in bioethics. One of them is the right understanding of the so-called “Principle of Double-Effect,” (PDE) or whether this is really a legitimate principle at all in the way it is normally expressed. Now that Dr. Finnis has both parts of his series on capital punishment out, let’s put on our moralist hats and get to work.

I’ll spare you all the ins and outs of the history of the problem – Fr. Connery’s wonderful book on abortion in the Catholic moral tradition deals with this in some relevant detail – but will give you the gist of the recent discussions so that we can dive into John Finnis’ articles. I too will write in two parts, I think…

The 19th century saw the problem of “craniotomy” come up, and this is a decent and to me, most familiar way to dive into the problem of PDE. (Craniotomy is crushing the skull of an inviable fetus, in this case with an eye to extracting the child to save the mother.) Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore wrote his morals handbook and forbade the operation, Cardinal Avanzini of Rome anonymously opined in favor (page 308-311) of the procedure in his journal (which would become the Acta Apostolicae Sedis), and Cardinal Caverot of Lyon (the city pictured above, coincidentally) petitioned the Holy Office for an official response. Needless to say, there was some controversy.

In response to Caverot’s dubium, the Holy Office (the precursor to the CDF) decided in favor of Kenrick’s position. But it did so cautiously, saying that the procedure “cannot be safely taught.” It did not exclude definitively the liceity of the procedure in itself.

Let’s fast-forward to today’s iteration of the old camps, of which there were and still are precisely three…

The “Grisezian” Position:

Doctors Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle were major proponents of the liceity of craniotomy in the 20th century and into the 21st. Grisez lays out his argument in several places, including in his magnum opus (entirely available online), The Way of the Lord Jesus. It is worth quoting the relevant passage in its entirety:

“Sometimes the baby’s death may be accepted to save the mother. Sometimes four conditions are simultaneously fulfilled: (i) some pathology threatens the lives of both a pregnant woman and her child, (ii) it is not safe to wait or waiting surely will result in the death of both, (iii) there is no way to save the child, and (iv) an operation that can save the mother’s life will result in the child’s death.

If the operation was one of those which the classical moralists considered not to be a “direct” abortion, they held that it could be performed. For example, in cases in which the baby could not be saved regardless of what was done (and perhaps in some others as well), they accepted the removal of a cancerous gravid uterus or of a fallopian tube containing an ectopic pregnancy. This moral norm plainly is sound, since the operation does not carry out a proposal to kill the child, serves a good purpose, and violates neither fairness nor mercy.

At least in times past, however, and perhaps even today in places where modern medical equipment and skills are unavailable, certain life-saving operations meeting the four conditions would fall among procedures classified by the classical moralists as “direct” killing, since the procedures in question straightaway would lead to the baby’s death. This is the case, for example, if the four conditions are met during the delivery of a baby whose head is too large. Unless the physician does a craniotomy (an operation in which instruments are used to empty and crush the head of the child so that it can be removed from the birth canal), both mother and child eventually will die; but the operation can be performed and the mother saved. With respect to physical causality, craniotomy immediately destroys the baby, and only in this way saves the mother. Thus, not only classical moralists but the magisterium regarded it as “direct” killing: a bad means to a good end.

However, assuming the four conditions are met, the baby’s death need not be included in the proposal adopted in choosing to do a craniotomy. The proposal can be simply to alter the child’s physical dimensions and remove him or her, because, as a physical object, this body cannot remain where it is without ending in both the baby’s and the mother’s deaths. To understand this proposal, it helps to notice that the baby’s death contributes nothing to the objective sought; indeed, the procedure is exactly the same if the baby has already died. In adopting this proposal, the baby’s death need only be accepted as a side effect. Therefore, according to the analysis of action employed in this book, even craniotomy (and, a fortiori, other operations meeting the four stated conditions) need not be direct killing, and so, provided the death of the baby is not intended (which is possible but unnecessary), any operation in a situation meeting the four conditions could be morally acceptable.”

We can see the attractiveness of the Grisezian position. It removes the uncomfortable conclusion that we must allow two people to die rather than save one. However, it simultaneously introduces an uncomfortable conclusion: that we may ignore the immediately terrible results of our physical exterior act in favor of further consequences of that act due to the psychological reality of our intention, in this case contingent on even further action (viz. actually extracting the child after crushing the skull – presumably, a surgeon may perform the craniotomy and then simply leave the child in the womb, thus failing to save either life).

Hold on to that thought.

The “Traditional” Position:

I put the word “traditional” in scare-quotes because it is the position which follows the cautious prohibition of the Holy Office, but it is not very old and is merely probable opinion. It is taken by a good number of moralists who are “conservative” and “traditional” in other areas. And it doesn’t have a modern champion the way Grisez was for the pro-craniotomy camp.

Folks in this school often make more or less good critiques of the Grisezian position, zeroing in on the lack of the appreciation for the immediate physical effects which flow from an external act. How is it that crushing a child’s skull does not equate with “direct killing”? It seems that such an action-theory, as proposed by Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle (GFB) in their landmark essay in The Thomist back in 2001, is utterly at odds with common sense. The plain truth then, is that craniotomy, just like ripping the organs out of someone healthy to save 5 other people, functions based on consequentialism.

This position, however, must bite two bullets. First, there is the sour prescription to let two people die when one could be saved. Second, it throws into confusion the topic of private lethal self-defense… Doesn’t shooting a person in the head also directly kill in order to save another’s life? GFB made this point in their Thomist essay, and, in my opinion, it is their strongest counter-argument. It pulls us back to the fundamental text in the discussion, q. 64 a. 7 of the Secunda Secundae, whence supposedly cometh PDE.

Hold on to that thought too.

The Rights-Based Position:

The final position for our consideration comes most recently from Fr. Rhonheimer, who seems to be at least in part following Avanzini. Basically, the argument goes like this… In some vital conflicts, like the problematic pregnancy at issue, one has two options – save one life, or allow two deaths. Everyone has a right to life, but in cases where we find acute vital conflicts, it sometimes makes no sense to speak of rights. The case in which a person in a vital conflict (the child) will not even be born is one such example. Therefore, while the child retains the right to life, it makes no sense to speak of this right, and so it does not bear on the decision of whether to perform an act which would end in the child’s death if it will save the mother.

Leaving aside the problem of the language of rights in moral discourse (see McIntyre’s scathing critique in After Virtue), we can simply observe that this is a position which does not evidently derive from virtue-ethics but is made up wholesale out of a desire to appease an intuition. Rhonheimer, as far as I recall, does not even attempt to integrate his position into the broader framework of moral theology. In sum, the damning question is, “Why precisely does acute danger to others and shortness of life remove the necessity to respect the bodily integrity/life of a person?” To me, it seems little more than an appeal to intuition followed by foot-stomping.

I credit Fr. Rhonheimer for making an attempt to present a different solution, and certainly, not all of his work is this problematic. But we are presently concerned with this particular topic. Anyway, I suggest that this is not a serious position for further consideration.

A Brief Synthesis

I recently wrote my STB thesis on moral liceity with respect to “per se” order, which is to say that those acts with “per se” order form the fundamental unit of moral analysis upon which the whole question of “object” vis-a-vis “intention” turns. I look at Dr. Steven Long’s truly excellent groundwork in his book The Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act, but I expose what I found to be some ambiguities in his definition and presentation of what exactly constitutes per se order. Skipping over all the details, let me quickly show how problematic the first two foregoing positions are and then give a rundown of the basic solution and its integration with respect to capital punishment. (It is Finnis’ articles on the death penalty which brought us here, remember!)

There are 3 dilemmas we have already mentioned: the central problem is craniotomy. At the two poles are the “transplant dilemma,” with one healthy patient and 5 critical patients in need of new vital organs, and the standard case of private lethal self-defense (PLSD), such as shooting a person in the head in order to stop his lethal attack.

The Grisezian position ably explains the craniotomy and PLSD. Nowhere – and I have looked pretty hard – do NNL theorists explore the implications of their action-theory (such as presented by GFB in their article) with respect to something like the transplant dilemma. One could easily appropriate the language of Grisez’s passage in TWOTLJ to accommodate such an obviously heinous action as ripping out the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, etc. of a healthy man to save 5 others. (It should be noted that the individual’s willingness to give his body over to such an act, while good in its remote intention, is totally inadmissible. I think basically all Catholic moralists would agree with this.) To rip out the man’s vital organs could certainly be described as “reshaping the body” or something similar to Grisez’s description of craniotomy as “reshaping the skull.” After all, the surgeon need not intend to kill the man – he could simply foresee it happening in view of his means to save these other men.

GFB evidently miss the point in their Thomist article, as they claim a causal equivalence between craniotomy and procedures done on a person for that person’s own sake, on page 23: “It is true that crushing the baby’s skull does not of itself help the mother, and that to help her the surgeon must carry out additional further procedures (remove the baby’s body from the birth canal). But many surgical procedures provide no immediate benefit and by themselves are simply destructive: removing the top of someone’s skull, stopping someone’s heart, and so forth.” We can see, then, that the principle of totality is undervalued by GFB and those who follow them. Serious damage done to a person must at least help that person. Any help to other persons is secondary, and I would argue per accidens rather than per se… One human substance is always related accidentally to another human substance.

The traditional approach more or less throws the teaching of St. Thomas into a cloud of ambiguity. By stating that the craniotomy is illicit because of the directness of its physical causation, the language in q. 64 a. 7 becomes unintelligible. We have to see the whole thing:

“Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (II-II:43:3; I-II:12:1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in ‘being,’ as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], ‘it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.’ Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.”

Without launching into a critique of the Cajetanian strain of commentary which ultimately gave rise to the crystallized formulation of PDE which pervades most moral discourse on vital conflicts, I will again follow Long and say that the “rules” of PDE really only work if one already knows what one is looking for. In this respect, PDE is like the moral version of St. Anselm’s ontological proof for God’s existence – it is nice to have in a retrospective capacity, but it is not actually that helpful as an explanatory tool.

As we have seen, GFB take Thomas to mean that one does not “intend” to kill the aggressor, just as the surgeon does not “intend” to kill the child in the craniotomy. The traditional school does not have as clear of an answer – it seems forced to say, somewhat like Fr. Rhonheimer, that the rules just “don’t apply,” yet without a convincing explanation. After all, the principle of totality does not bear on the slaying of one person for the sake of another, even in the case Thomas addresses. Furthermore, because it appears that it is only due to the death of the aggressor that the attack is stopped, thus implying “intentional killing” as a means, how do we explain St. Thomas’ position?

We can note a few things in response. First, it is in fact not death which stops the attack initially – it is the destruction of the body’s capacity to continue attacking, which itself is the cause of death. The separation of the soul and body (which is what death is) need not be the chosen means or the intended end. In every single case, the aggressor is incapacitated before dying, and such incapacitation is what is sought. (This is at least part of what makes Finnis’ argument about “unintentional killing” in war plausible.) Second, the child stuck in the womb is a radically different kind of threat than the rational aggressor. Third, Thomas is quick to turn the discussion to public authority, as a kind of foil. All of this is quite significant and points to an answer.

To the first point… It is true that the private citizen can’t have the death of the aggressor as a goal, meaning, death can’t be what is sought as a means or as an end. He doesn’t need to do anything to the soul-body composite as such, he only needs to do something to the body’s ability to be used as a weapon.

To the second point… A gunman in an alley is a very different sort of threat than a child growing in the womb. There seem to be two classes of threats – non-commutative, and commutative. The non-commutative threats are those which result from principles not in themselves ordered towards interacting with the outside world, viz., the operations of which are without a terminus exterior to one’s own body. These would be the material principle itself of the body (the act of existing as a body), and the augmentative and nutritive faculties of the vegetal soul. So a person falling off a cliff, or a child growing in the womb, are not acting on the outside world… Threats which proceed from the animal or rational appetites, however, are indeed acting externally. The crazed gunman who is not morally responsible and the hired hand are both trying to do something to another person, whereas the child growing in the womb is not. So perhaps different kinds of threats allow for different kinds of defense.

To the third point… Without a full exploration of the famous “self-defense” article quoted above, Thomas is eager to explain that public authority can kill intentionally – evidently meaning it can be the end of one’s act rather than just the means. (“Choice” refers to means, “intention” refers to ends – they are only equivocally applied in the inverse senses in scholastic morals.) Here’s where it gets weird.

Because the soul-body composite is its own substance (a living human being), the act of killing a person (regardless of one’s psychology) destroys that substance insofar as the world of nature is concerned. (We leave aside the interesting questions of  the survivalism vs. corruptionism debate among Catholic philosophers.) It forms a per se act – that is to say, there is nothing further which can come from this action which will be per se an effect. This is because, as I argued in my thesis, per se order exists only within the substance chosen to be acted upon. Per se effects are those effects which necessarily occur in the substance an agent acts on which come from the agent’s act itself, given the real situation of the substance. So to destroy a substance necessarily ends the per se order. At the end of per se order there is the intended effect – such as debilitation (which is only logically distinct from self-preservation and therefore is not a separate/remote/accidental effect – what it is to protect oneself simply is to remove a threat) or death. Of course, this intended effect can itself be part of a chain of intended effects which function as means with relation to some further end. If I defend myself in order to live, but I want to live for the sake of something else (like acquiring wealth), then there is a chain of intended ends which function as means. The necessary process of moral evaluation, however, is to look for the per se case of action and examine whether it is rightly ordered in itself.

We have seen with the transplant dilemma that it is wrongly ordered to damage one innocent person’s body lethally with the good aim of helping many others. The answer to the craniotomy seems to be the same… The child does not have an unjust appetite, he has a rightly ordered vegetal/material appetite which is inconvenient to others, so he may not be attacked, unless that attack also proportionately helps him and is chosen in part for that reason. (Such a case might really exist – for example, an inviable fetus is causing the womb to rupture… It’s foreseen that delivering the child will both save the mother and allow the child to live longer than he would have otherwise, even though exposure to the outside world will be the cause of his death. It certainly seems that this would be permissible given the principle of totality.) Finally, we reach the case of PLSD… There is no principle of totality at work here, even though the intended effect of self-preservation is immediately achieved with the debilitation which causes death. Rather, the normal rule of totality is indeed suspended. This is because of the kind of threat which the aggressor poses – it is a threat to the commonwealth due to a disordered external appetite.

Because “it is natural to everything to keep itself in ‘being,’ as far as possible,” and “one is more bound to take care of his own life than another’s,” it stands to reason that in a case in which there is public disorder due to the external act of a person, that person becomes the rightful recipient of correction at the hands of those whom he threatens, without his own good being a barrier to protecting the good of oneself or the community. The blows to the aggressor, we can see, actually help him – they keep him from being a bad part of society. And the private citizen’s duty is indeed to protect the commonwealth insofar as he is a part… This would include a kind of “natural delegation” to dispense with individual totality for the sake of communal totality – he is at liberty to risk the good of the one person (while, remember, he actually does something good to the aggressor by rectifying his disordered exterior act) for the sake of the commonwealth. The private defender may not try to kill the aggressor, but he may knowingly cause it with no benefit to the aggressor beyond keeping him from being harmful. Even though death is a per se effect, the defensive act is legitimate – the private defender acts like a miniature public official in this urgent situation, without psychologically taking death itself as an end.

This plugs in very nicely with Thomas’ vision of capital punishment… Stay tuned for part 2, though I’m sure a lengthy tome like this won’t be too necessary, given that a response from Dr. Feser is likely forthcoming, due in no small part to having been called out personally by Dr. Finnis.

Interesting times indeed.

The double-effect gauntlet has been thrown…

Eamonn Clark

John Finnis has published the first part of a two part series on capital punishment at the Public Discourse.

It is wrong.

I will wait for the second part to appear to launch a full critique, but note now the startling assertion that he makes: all intentional human killing, of any kind, is forbidden by the 5th commandment.

For those unfamiliar with Finnis, he and Grisez (and to a lesser extent, Boyle,) were the chief architects of what is widely now considered to be a failed normative ethical project called “New Natural Law.” Its arch-proponent, Dr. Grisez, was a long-time professor at my own undergraduate university. He died only a few months ago.

NNL has its rhetorical advantages, but it suffers serious theoretical problems. I won’t explore those any time soon… Except for one, which I just did my thesis on. It centers around NNL’s vision of the so-called “principle of double effect.”

Without getting into it too much – and hopefully without spoiling the possibility of publishing my thesis in some form in the future – suffice it to say that Finnis and friends face “unintended consequences” of their own when they take the line that “intention” reigns supreme in the way they suggest.

Note that NNL theorists, while typically opposing the death penalty, would also support the use of craniotomy. (Don’t google it. It’s essentially medical abortion necessary to save the life of the mother.) This debate extends back into the 19th century, when Cardinal Caverot of Lyon inquired of the Holy Office about the matter, and Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore wrote against the procedure in his moral theology handbook. This sparked a round of debates which has swirled for more than a century. Eschbach, Pennachi, Waffelaert, Avanzini… and on and on until we have the three camps of today, one represented by NNL theorists, one represented by the teaching of the Holy Office and most Catholic moralists, and then finally one represented almost exclusively by Fr. Martin Rhonheimer.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Briefly, however, the paragraph in the Catechism about the 5th commandment and war which Finnis proof-texts (2307) is either simply poorly worded (although it does use “intentional destruction” rather than “intentional taking,” for what it’s worth), or it is just a lacuna.


More to come… Stay tuned and be sure to subscribe.

A Breakdown of Positions on the New Catechism Text

Eamonn Clark

Basically, there seem to me to be available 16 positions on the new text of the Catechism. They break down according to the following bifurcations: the text itself as an objective piece of magisterium vis-a-vis the author’s subjective intention behind the text, whether the putative development  is practical or speculative (viz. a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine or a principled definition of universal moral prescript), and whether that development is legitimate or illegitimate.

I consider the various readings of the text as having attempted sincerely to use the standard hermeneutic of magisterial documents, namely, to read them within the context of what has gone before, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and without otherwise relying on the subjective intent of the author except insofar as it is incontrovertibly expressed in the text. In other words, when in doubt, try to find the most sensible meaning which does not contradict established doctrine.

For my purposes here, a legitimate prudential judgment would be a correct judgment, even if it is not binding. I do not consider here the various positions on the binding character of either practical or speculative characters of the text (which would add even more positions), although it seems rather clear that it can only be the text itself in which such a binding character could be found (and not in the hidden recesses of the author’s mind), and it could only be binding if legitimate (viz., it does not contradict a past infallible teaching). It furthermore seems clear, if we are to take Ratzinger’s instruction on the matter seriously, that merely prudential applications of the Church’s teaching on capital punishment cannot be binding, even if they are uttered by the Holy Father. So that leaves us only with the possibility of a binding or non-binding legitimate speculative judgment.

Let’s see this drawn out in its combinations… I have marked commonplace positions in bold.

  1. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  2. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  3. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  4. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  5. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  6. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  7. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  8. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  9. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  10. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  11. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  12. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  13. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  14. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  15. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  16. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself illegitimate.

Personally, I find it possible to torture the text into being a merely prudential application, solely due to its partial reliance on “more effective systems of detention” as a criterion for calling the death penalty “inadmissible.” This application, in my opinion, is the result of a very bad judgment, not only because of the vast disparity among various countries’ justice systems, and the violence which can be caused directly or indirectly from within even a good prison, but also because it ignores some of the major arguments in favor of capital punishment, such as deterrence and an incentive to individual repentance.

Had there been no mention of systems of detention, my position would probably be different. While the last paragraph does say, “the Church teaches,” thus seemingly putting the text into the realm of speculative claims, the foregoing is enough in my view to render it “toothless.” It seems one can, and therefore should, read the text as meaning, “the Church teaches in the way that She can teach prudential applications of doctrine which properly belong to the legitimate civil authority,” which is to teach merely in a hortatory way, i.e., “Think hard about not killing!”

Given the other two reasons for the putative development (the clauses about the “increasing awareness” of dignity and the “new understanding” of penal law), it seems difficult to deny that the author’s intention was speculative. Because of the staggering litany of popes, saints, Fathers, and trustworthy theologians who have not merely tolerated capital punishment but have taken a positive stance in favor of it, if the teaching of the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment does not belong to the infallible body of ordinary magisterial teaching then one must wonder what does. One could very easily replace some words to form a “development” of the teaching on abortion, contraception, gay marriage, women’s ordination… All that needs to be done is to say that there is “an increasing awareness” of the dignity of the pregnant mother, or the financially burdened spouse, or the homosexual, or the woman, which would allow for a “development” on a connected issue which, while leading to a differing praxis would not be a “contradiction” because what has developed is the awareness or understanding of the dignity of the person or their desires which naturally leads to that new praxis, and even if there were a doctrinal contradiction, the doctrine was not directly defined by the extraordinary magisterium anyway. Watch:

The sacramental ordination of men alone was long considered an appropriate response to a male-dominant culture and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of avoiding scandal.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of women is equal to that of men. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of the Church’s conferral of ordination.

Lastly, more effective systems of ecclesiastical administration have been developed, which ensure the due protection of traditional mindsets with respect to the role of men in the Church but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive women of the possibility of sacramental ordination.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that restricting sacramental ordination to men alone is inadmissible because it is an attack on the talents and dignity of women, and the Church works with determination for the implementation of women’s ordination worldwide.

It’s that easy.

I don’t think that the intense exasperation and Sedevacantism which are now cropping up are warranted. We have seen such antics before with Honorius I (over Monothelitism) and with John XXII (over the Beatific Vision). These issues were resolved without a deposition, and without an antipope. Furthermore, it does not seem to me that we are in the kind of situation at issue in the increasingly relevant debate between St. Robert Bellarmine, Suarez, and Cajetan about manifestly heretical popes. (It is also unclear who is right, or if there might be some middle-path.) For what it’s worth, Bellarmine thought the situation of a manifest heretic (as opposed to a merely occult heretic) occupying the See of Peter was impossible, and surely he knew of Honorius and John. Bellarmine did, however, see capital punishment as an item over which there could be heresy.

At any rate, a troubled mind will not help to resolve anything. So let’s all calm down.

Much to ponder… More to come… Stay tuned.


Main image: screenshot of the Hydra from Disney’s Hercules

Bishops and Borders

Eamonn Clark

I had endeavored to write a post some time ago when all eyes were turned to Catalonia because of the separatist fervor threatening the unity of Spain, but I never got around to it. Let this supplant it.

The recent history of the Iberian peninsula is rife with political conflict… (In fact, it is only barely out of living memory that Spain was in a war with the United States.) It should be entirely unsurprising that there are still problems… And only time will tell if Catalonia earns its independence, with violence, with voting, or with a mix of the two.

There is a singular voice in the Catalonian Church which sticks out like a sore thumb, aching to teach us an extremely important lesson about the way ecclesiastics ought to treat politics. It is St. Anthony Claret – priest of the Diocese of Vic, 3rd Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, and confessor to the Queen of Spain, Isabella II.

During his entire life and ministry, St. Anthony was surrounded by fierce political controversies and enemies of the Church, including the Carlist civil wars raging around his home, an attempt on his life in Cuba, the confiscation of the Papal States, and the dethronement and exile of the Queen. Certainly, St. Anthony’s immense tact guided him during all this – such as when he would say he was from the Diocese of Vic when questioned by Carlistas and that he was from the town of Sallent when questioned by the Isabelinos – but beyond this, two things are striking about St. Anthony’s response to political clamor.

First, he was positively and intentionally aloof from political affairs which did not directly concern the Church and the salvation of souls. This is most evident during his time in the Queen’s court, an assignment which he utterly despised, calling it a “continual martyrdom.” (Anthony Claret is one of the few saints who left us an autobiography. It is excellent.) By that time in his life, his fame was widespread, and to have the Archbishop’s approval on some matter would carry immense weight, especially with the Queen. He wanted no part – it would be alienating to those who did not agree with his decision, threatening their relationship with the Church, of which, after all, he was a steward and representative. Despite an average of a hundred letters a day asking for his help in various matters, he remained disinterested, answering none. He saw involvement in politics as an abuse of his office, as something beneath his dignity; his principal duty was the care of souls, not care of the country. When affairs did directly concern the Church or salvation of souls, such as the unification of Italy, or the anti-clerical sentiment in Spain and Cuba, he was ready and willing to act appropriately. During the Risorgimento, for instance, the Queen faced immense pressure to give her approval of the dissolution of the Papal States, but her confessor was there to warn her of the grave spiritual danger which such a move would bring… He was also there to lift the canonical penalty she incurred after having finally given her assent to Italian unification, as she sat in exile in France, disgraced and contrite.

Second, he was engaged in entirely non-partisan works as a civic leader. Given the incomprehensible amount of preaching and sacramental work which Claret performed – in his 6 years in Cuba alone, he wrote many books and pamphlets on spirituality and doctrine, validated over 9,000 marriages, confirmed some 300,000 people, and conducted 4 missions in every parish in his large and rugged diocese, always traveling by foot – one would think he would have time for little else. On the contrary, he was up to his neck in public works, such as supporting orphans, educational institutions, scientific research, agriculture, and healthcare. All of this was neutral work that no reasonable person could object to. Those who smeared him for it did so because of an animus against the Church or his own person, not because the work was partisan.

All this brings us to comments made by some bishops on illegal immigration which are only the most recent manifestation of a disturbing trend.

Unlike other so-called political issues, such as euthanasia or abortion, the Church has no teaching on the treatment of illegal immigrants as such. All we have are some basic ideas about human dignity and the authority of the state. Who could object to a preacher who says, “We should treat every human being with charity because all are made in the image and likeness of God”? It is easy, however, to imagine an objection to a preacher who says, “It is uncharitable to defend our nation from illegal immigrants,” and yet this is the kind of thing which is sometimes said, including presently. Not unlike the rhetoric which surrounds the current debate on gun-control, those of a liberal mindset accuse those of a conservative mindset of immorality prima facie – to oppose stricter gun laws is simply to care too little about people’s lives, especially children’s lives. In this case, to oppose sanctuary cities and spotty border patrol is simply to care too little about the oppressed who are fleeing from the south.

Of course, this trick could be reversed easily enough (and sometimes it is done to good effect), but making accusations of immorality due to differing prudential judgments does not make for a healthy political forum. Let me suggest that it makes for an even unhealthier ecclesiastical forum. Perhaps – or even, dare I say, probably – both sides really do care about the common good of the nation and have compassion for the suffering, but they simply have different ideas about how to reach the goal of political flourishing and the role of jurisprudential factors in border control and deportation.

Since I am not a cleric, I will go so far as to say that the past shows us that our current tolerance of illegal immigration has been extremely expensive and dangerous, the principle of subsidiarity seems to be violated by accepting a long-term responsibility for people of other countries who do not legitimately become part of our own, and that writing laws based on empathy for those who suffer is, in general, a bad idea, because it blinds one to the broader impact of that legislation.

And what good does it do for a bishop to risk scandalizing the faithful who might hold a different prudential assessment of the situation than himself by insisting that a certain position on DACA is immoral? Usually little to none; it is either ignored, is used by those who already agree as a moral sledgehammer, or simply annoys people who disagree, as they rightly sense that this is not a matter for the Church to be involved with directly. It certainly seems good for a bishop or any cleric to have a well-informed opinion on immigration policy, but it seems extremely unwise to reveal it. Perhaps the time of an ecclesiastic could be better spent by prayer, devotional and doctrinal preaching, administering the sacraments, studying theology, or building up the common good by entirely neutral means. Anything more is a waste of time at best and positively harmful at worst.

“A sacerdotes,” says St. Anthony, “must never align himself with any faction.” This is the great lesson our Catalonian saint teaches us: that a cleric is to render unto Caesar what is his by simply leaving him alone.


Main image: the Cathedral of Vic, where St. Anthony was ordained a priest and bishop

Death, Light, and Bunnies

Eamonn Clark

We expect monsters to stay under the bed. In the closet. In the dark. When they do come into the open, it’s usually easy to spot them, but it can be particularly difficult when they masquerade as something good, benign, or even necessary. It’s the sickest when these sorts of things target kids.


Enter Bunny Token.

Anyone who regularly watches YouTube (even kids watching cat videos!) will by now have seen the ubiquitous advertisements for “Bunny Tokens,” a cryptocurrency designed to unify the “adult” entertainment industry. The currency is, unlike BitCoin, (which you may have heard of,) limited, meaning that once they’re gone from the first shelf, you have to buy them later on at a higher price. This adds a real sense of urgency to the market. (Apparently, they’ve reached their soft cap for initial investments.) It’s not the first cryptocurrency for the industry, but it looks like it’s going to be extremely dominant based on the strength of their advertising campaign.

The monster has come out of its hiding place into the digital version of primetime, apparently with a plan to crawl back home into the darkness with its prey. (Cryptocurrencies allow for a much higher rate of anonymity of the buyer and seller than do currencies regulated by the government. It is actually an ingenious business move. Wise in the ways of the world indeed.) While this cute little bunny-monster is in the light of day, it provides us with a good opportunity to call pornography what it is – childish, unnatural, shameful, and deadly.

  1. Childish – The qualifier “adult” is usually applied to pornography and the things that go with it. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine a more childish activity than watching people abuse themselves and each other, let alone paying for it. Why an 18-year-old instantly becomes eligible for this kind of thing makes no sense whatsoever, and deep down we all know this. (And you can safely bet that the industry subtly pushes towards younger kids with a voluptuous wink and an approving nod.) We expect little kids to have no sense of self-control. We expect adults to be above what most people still consider perverted or at least think should stay hidden in the dark, even if they won’t admit that view in polite company. We teach our children not to be selfish. We teach them to respect others’ bodies and privacy (although this one is being threatened with trans-bathrooms and trans-lockerrooms). We teach them that some pleasures are immoderate, even if there’s no evident and immediate harm done. Pornography unteaches all of this, and study after study shows the long-term damage that an addiction can do to social and psychological flourishing. And now, hundreds of millions of kids who just wanted to watch a harmless cat video are being tempted to buy some Bunny Tokens. Wonderful.
  2. Unnatural – We are talking about the proper functioning of the reproductive part of the “vegetal soul,” which also has nutrition and augmentation (growth) as essential parts. The twisting of the sexual faculty to order it towards one’s own immediate gratification “free of consequences” is an unnatural vice (which would include the free and willful choices of self-abuse, contraception, sodomy, etc. – anything which pre-excludes the possibility of human generation based on the lack of the complementary organ in the faculty’s system, or based on the willed introduction or willed perdurance of some deficiency which destroys the faculty’s proper functioning, like a hysterectomy which is presumed upon for its contraceptive power in each sexual act)… It is not merely an excess or deficiency, as most vices are, it is something different. If we switch the faculty in question from the sexual to the nutritive (or digestive), we can see this relationship quite clearly. An excess of eating is bad because it causes obesity and sometimes even the death of the body through contracting diabetes or high cholesterol. A deficiency of eating is bad because it causes malnutrition and can also, obviously, be deadly. An unnatural digestive vice, if practiced with the full consent of the will, would look something like this. (NB: of course, true eating disorders usually involve a constraint of the will which inhibits moral freedom and therefore reduces culpability proportionately.) We know that “food porn” is not to be treated like actual porn – that should tell us something, shouldn’t it… The unnaturalness of this kind of thing could possibly be bad for the body, but it won’t kill a person who’s careful enough. Why, then, does the clip above work as a means of demonstrating the vice of the characters? (Yes, go watch it!) The aspect of exploitation of other people adds to the seriousness of the offense, just like physical violence adds to the gravity of fornication or adultery. With pornography, let us remember, the person acting or posing on the screen, despite definitely being a son or daughter to real parents and being created in the image and likeness of God, might by some chance be one’s own friend or relative. Imagine the horror of such a discovery, when an anonymous and faceless actor or actress turns out to be your sibling, or parent, or child. It’s also possible that those people aren’t even alive anymore, and the pleasure being derived is from a person whose body is now ash or rotting in the ground. Let that one sink in.
  3. Shameful – A proper sense of shame is one which causes repulsion from immoderate acts of the lower powers of the soul. The acts of which one should be ashamed are the ones that are most properly called “shameful.” While there is less guilt in sins against the Sixth Commandment than in other sins (like theft or lying, which don’t “tug” as hard on our wills as the fires of the lower passions for bodily pleasure do), there is certainly more shame. And the more removed the act becomes from its proper mode, the more shameful it becomes. I recall learning in seminary about how to deal with people – usually lonely, elderly men – who come to confess the sin of bestiality. (No, not the kind with another human – though that is wrong too.) They will usually mutter something about their dog… and, well… struggle to mention it. The lesson was that the best thing to do, other than perhaps gently mentioning the possibility of finding the dog a new home, is to ignore it. The penitent likely knows full well how shameful that act is and doesn’t need to be reminded. He’s just that lonely. Well, a quick glance at St. Thomas’ list of the order of gravity in the parts of lust – probably one of the most studied Articles in one of the most studied Questions in the Summa – reveals that the sin of self-abuse is only a few steps away from being too friendly with an animal, and resides above other sins in its essential gravity which even Western society considers wicked. (Of course, there can be mitigating factors in this sin, as the Catechism explains. Personally, I think they are often over-applied, but surely, someone who is going out of their way to invest in a cryptocurrency to purchase pornography long-term does not deserve as delicate of a treatment as an 8-year-old who is just discovering that touching down there feels good.)
  4. Deadly – Pornography is a scourge that can and does pull souls down into the darkness of sin, killing the life of grace within the soul, ruining social functioning, brain chemistry, and actual relationships in the meantime, not to mention exploiting often very vulnerable people who become the objects of one’s lust. If you are a parent, and you have been shying away from this topic, RIGHT NOW is a good moment… Bunny Token ads have been all over YouTube, and they have provided you, ironically, with a great occasion to bring this subject up, into the light, with your kids, in order to root out vice. (And no, you don’t have to be already watching questionable content for these ads to find you. The industry is looking to grow its audience.) What are you waiting for? Wake up and smell the concupiscence!

The further the monster comes into the light – especially if it is dragged there – the less it will seem like an innocent bunny, and the more it will seem like what it really is.

The Most Relevant Thinker You Have Never Heard Of

Eamonn Clark

I have argued elsewhere that postmodern millennial culture is shaped by two dominant strains of thought – the positivist strain, and the existentialist strain. These opposing worldviews have merged to form an intellectual chimera that prompts a kind of neo-Albigensian approach to anthropology and ethics… But I have not investigated postmodern millennial politics.

Enter Herbert Marcuse.

Postmodern millennial (PMM) culture has taken the so-called “Frankfurt School” and run away with it as their own. The Frankfurt School’s “Critical Theory” gave rise to what is known today as “cultural Marxism.” Haven’t heard of it? Wake up, it’s on your doorstep (language warning):

I have just recently read the essay by Herbert Marcuse which is referenced in the video. It’s typical dense German writing, but there are lines which leap out… The general idea is that the “majority” which is in charge tends to allow for a kind of false tolerance of free speech on the part of the “minority,” which is designed to keep the majority in power and is therefore necessarily repressive (thus “repressive tolerance”). Therefore, the minority needs to push back against the ones in charge (of government, culture, schools – whoever is “repressive”) and silence them in order to make things fair.

“The telos of tolerance is truth,” writes Marcuse (Repressive Tolerance). To borrow and elaborate on Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of this aphorism, tolerance is ordered toward rational discourse… In other words, there is an intermediate step, because – guess what – a person in a minority group might actually have an opinion or desire which is wrong or bad, even about how he/she/ze should be treated!

Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilization (1955) undergirded what little intellectual justification there was for the 1960’s sexual revolution, with the basic message being, “Don’t work, have sex.” The integration of Marx and Freud (both pseudoscientists, of course!) which Marcuse attempted in this book then played itself out in wonderful rejections of capitalism such as were found at Haight-Ashbury and Greenwich Village back in hippie heyday. Can you imagine if that were all of human society?

As far as I can tell, this was the kind of “libertarian socialism” which Marcuse envisioned as utopian, although until that utopia was universal he perhaps wanted it to be less about pot smoking and more about activism, including violent activism. Think angry hippies who are protesting more than a war in Asia… Think angry hippies who are protesting not being given free stuff all the time and not being treated as demi-gods for being part of a minority. That is what he wanted, from what I gather.

He’s got it now.

His ideas aren’t on the fringe anymore, they are mainstream Leftist doctrine. They aren’t just fueling sporadic uprisings like ’68 in Paris, they are causing the countless campus riots over conservative guest speakers. (Here are just a few recent examples.) They aren’t for the dustbin or relegated to historical studies in philosophy, they are living and breathing in PMM activism. They are running the mainstream media. They dominate liberal arts departments at universities. They are the Western Left.

I am still researching this man and his ideas. I am still learning about the effect they are having in Western culture (especially American colleges). I have no clue what the answer is other than to know who we are and what we believe as Christians, to pray for mercy, and to be happy about sharing the Faith with those who want to listen. Most of these folks do not want to listen – that would be too threatening. They would rather stay comfortable in their identity politics than allow themselves to be challenged, which might cause discomfort. Exposing them to threatening or offensive ideas, some of them argue, actually counts as a kind of physical violence against them. Let that sink in.

This is where “political correctness” grows out of all proportion (if there ever was a healthy proportion for such a thing, which is doubtful, at least as public policy or law), as this is where microaggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings come from: they are about protecting people from violence. That is how you shut down the other side’s legitimate act of free speech. And the Church is high on the list of entities to silence and compel to fall in line with Leftist identity politics. Think “hate speech” and anything normal that goes on inside an even remotely conservative church, and then you will see the scary, scary picture.

Herbert Marcuse. That’s the name… Even though very few PMM’s have ever even heard the name, that’s where it’s coming from. This is what the Church in the West is up against. Read him. Study him. Denounce his ideas where you find them.

This topic deserves more attention, especially in terms of evaluating Marcuse in terms of Catholic teaching (namely anthropology and social teaching), but this will have to suffice for now. Derrida is also someone to investigate as connected with this phenomenon.

In the meantime… God help us.

Incest – The Surprising Thomistic Objections

Eamonn Clark

*WARNING: Put on your Charity Goggles*

A disappointing article appeared recently in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled, “Archbishop not backing gay marriage – yet.” (See Phil Lawler’s commentary here.)

While one might argue there are several problems in the article, I want to focus on His Eminence’s explanation of consanguinity in marriage. I think he is off-base and risks coming across as a consequentialist.

The Angelic Doctor lists four reasons why consanguine marriage is illicit – and guess what? The risk of birth defects is not one of them. To me, it seems unlikely that Thomas was altogether ignorant of the likelihood of sickly kids coming from kissing cousins, but suppose he was… He is still against it, and with today’s rapid advances in genetic manipulation, the “problem” of incestuous birth defects could eventually be overcome. We should see the causal link between incest and sickness as a sign that something is wrong with the act, not as a random feature of an otherwise virtuous behavior. Thomas gives us a more principled account of why consanguinity (and affinity) is such a big deal.

With that, the four reasons are:

  1. Shame (in its proper sense) before one’s parents – and those closely united with them by blood and law – is good on account of the special respect owed to them on account of one’s special relationship with them.
  2. Families often live together, and this would provide an untold number of occasions to lust if there were not a clear, strong, and constant prohibition against incest.
  3. Inter-family marriage increases the social good of individual human beings, and in so doing it also builds up the community.
  4. We already have a natural inclination to love family members, and if this had the possibility of intercourse added to it then there would be an occasion for too great a sexual desire for that person.

So, for St. Thomas, it is about filial piety, intemperance in itself, and the good of the commonwealth, not scoliosis or clubfoot.

Again, it is not that birth defects are irrelevant to the discussion, but it is a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself – and it is a symptom which theoretically could be eliminated. If we are to win the battle of the minds against secular culture, then we need to do better. Going back to Thomas is almost always a good idea, and I suggest that this is one of those moments. Incest is one of the last sins against chastity that Western society actually considers immoral… Let’s be sure not to lose that ground.

St. John the Baptist – pray for us.

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)

On the Fernández Document: PART III

Eamonn Clark



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.


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.


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.


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.


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)