Papal confusion or what?

In a recent letter to this magazine (Wilfred Jones 10 Feb) a younger, and clearly devout, Catholic describes his and his friends’ doubts about Pope Francis’s approach to Catholic teachings on human sexuality. Yes, it is messy. Many years ago I suggested that we would be helped by a computer program which, written correctly, would solve any moral choice and even estimate the proper penance for defiance. It may still be valuable for some but I doubt if Pope Francis would use it. In trying to deduce his direction of travel, I can only speculate.

Several decades ago I had ten years of Jesuit education, for which I am grateful. The moral teaching which I received was comprehensive and firm. I knew exactly where I stood. It conformed to Fr Davis SJ’s Moral and Pastoral Theology: “(The Church) says to the child you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.”

Such an explicit view is of course most comforting to those who find their security through certainty, but there is a price to be paid. As one educator, commenting in the 1960’s on a survey of schoolgirls, wrote “…the autonomy of conscience, fundamental to Christianity, has practically disappeared from our teaching.” A secondary price is that, according to temperament, it can lead to intolerance or to scrupulous fear.

“If you love me, keep my commandments” would seem to settle the matter. But we need to remember that it is not the law which saves; only love can do that. The law is there to formulate the principles which guide us into loving action. As Bernard Häring wrote, “One who is exclusively concerned with the normative formula, without being taken up with the value which is its foundation, will inevitably descend to moribund legality.“

“Thou shalt not kill” is clear. And so is “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. But once we consider the values which are their foundation even the most orthodox accept that, in the matter of killing, there may be exceptions. Such exceptions do not negate the law: they are derived by considering circumstances where justice, which the law protects, is better achieved. One value behind marital fidelity is preserving the long term security of the relationship required for successful procreation. Under quite different social circumstances, polygyny (a form of group adultery) was once reluctantly countenanced by the Old Testament for similar ends. Polyandry was always forbidden because it did not contribute to reproduction.

My guess is that Pope Francis believes that in certain circumstances the values of procreation may be better served by recognising a second, non-sacramental, marriage. He, too, is reluctant because a serious mismatch has been the cause. But, provided that the necessary circumstances are established, a patching up may be the best available solution. He does not suggest that the marriage act should automatically be prohibited as technical adultery. Procreation, which requires both reproduction and stability, would not be served by this.

A suggestion that a pope is prepared to permit exceptions to explicit and absolute traditional moral teachings is dangerous. But Francis has form. His reaction to Zika infection, which can damage the foetus, was that condoms might be used. Everyone is now strangely silent about this. And understandably so because it negates the claim that artificial contraception used in voluntary sexual intercourse is invariably wrong. Here, too, he is looking at the value behind the moral principle rather than the “moribund legality”.

We see that much of the law allows for such exceptions. But this has not been so for actions which are judged to be intrinsically evil. It is claimed that they violate structures which have been created directly by God. Homosexual behaviour, telling lies, direct sterilisation are everyday examples. But of course we know now that God’s creation of such structures is indirect since they are the outcome of evolution. While they continue to guide our understanding of natural law because they are imbedded in our natures, they too allow for exceptions. I believe that Pope Francis is indicating to us, as incidents arise, that a law may be firmly maintained while allowing for exceptions when the values for which the law itself was designed are endangered. Gradually, but rather slowly, the centrality of conscience, always present but re-emphasised in Vatican II, is coming to the surface.

There is a price to pay. Recognising exceptions is a messy matter. We lose the on/off switch which conveniently tells us wrong from right. Autonomy is a messy matter too; it is far harder to manage than automatic obedience. Pope Francis is not trying to give us an easy time; he is challenging us to take responsibility through our deeper understanding of the law.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Pope Francis. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Papal confusion or what?

  1. Brian Hamill says:

    You introduce, Quentin, a word into your article which arrives like an asteroid crashing into the Earth, namely evolution. As human beings we are the result, both in bodily and psychological terms, of millions of years of development through the biological process of evolution and its concomitant cultural changes. As such we are not fixed entities; we are developing all the time, even if very slowly. All our customs, the translation of the Latin word mores, have developed over much time and space. Nothing human is fixed, except love, and that too has a long development in thought and practice. Pope Francis is, I believe, aware of this and seeks the most creative solution to insoluble problems.

    Incidentally, polyandry was a cultural feature of life in Tibet, I believe. The land was not fertile enough to support a large population and so polyandry, one woman in a marriage relationship with more that one man, often all brothers, acted as a natural birth control mechanism. Very practical and simple. Wrong? Ah, who is to judge?

    • St.Joseph says:

      Brian Hamill.
      You mention the word evolution.
      As I see it we are evolving forward to Genesis and God’s Word with His instructions to Adam and Eve in Paradise.
      We are all cast out but not left on our own without the Truth .
      Jesus came to show us the Truth as His Father told our first Parents, ‘You must not eat of the fruit from the Tree in the Garden.’.

  2. Hock says:

    ‘Who shall prepare for battle if the trumpeter makes an uncertain sound?’ St Paul

  3. G.D. says:

    Everyone …… as long as the christian causes no harm to everyone.

  4. Olive Duddy says:

    St Ignatius of Antioch wrote to St Polycarp that a couple should marry before the Elder to avoid marrying for lust.
    Nowadays, the couple marry .in church to ask for God’s blessing (Genesis Chapter1). They can expect and hope that God will support them through all trials and difficulties. The promises they make are clear and succinct.
    However, the requirements for a valid marriage are the same as those for a mortal sin, viz. full knowledge, full consent and grave matter.
    How many couples today receive sufficient instruction in the sacrament of marriage to fulfil those requirements? Pre-marriage preparation courses may be as short as one day making a mockery of marriage preparation.
    It is no wonder that some of these ill prepared for marriages fail. They were not valid in the first place.
    The Holy Father has made it easier to obtain an annulment. This I think is the Holy Father’s position.
    But couples should seek this annulment before entering another relationship.Better publicity of this should be made.

    Regarding the recommending of condoms by both Pope Benedict (protecting the partner form HIV)and Pope Francis (protecting the wife from Zika} I feel very sad that such confidence is placed in the ability of condoms to prevent the transmission of the viruses which will not just be on the penis but in the genital fluid which will be on the external genitalia too.
    Recently at the Anglican Synod concerned with homosexuality the BBC showed the lone voice saying that sexual intercourse is reserved for the marriage of a man and a woman as God intended. She was a very brave woman.

  5. G.D. says:

    Our need for certainty in sexual morality … in most cases what we consider as ‘right’ should be right for everyone (i.e. what suits our agenda) is understandable.
    But to love and accept others as they are is the prerequisite; no matter what is ‘right’. That entails loving them as they are, not as we assume to be right for them. Who can say what causes them to be the people they have become? God alone knows.

    To tread the line between Law and Spirit is much more open to criticism. That is what Francis, it seems to me, is doing in sexual matters.

    Forgiving the ‘sinner’ and saying look at it in the way that i see it …… without imposing ‘morality’ or ‘law’. Nor saying ‘this is the way i see it as right and you must be like that’ or you are comdemd by God.

    To my way of seeing that is the only way people open to the grace God gives each one, or not. FREELY.

    Jesus did the same, did he not? Stating his case, in no uncertain terms, with compassion and humility, not IMPOSING but forgiving; healing and loving anyway. Presumably he could have imposed with the power of God (legions of angels to back him up) but he didn’t. He left the people to forge their own path thereafter. Why?
    Why choose a much more insecure way, that leads to death. Why?

    Unless you have faith in a greater power than your own ‘to sort it’, it’s impossible to let go of your own need to IMPOSE, by hook or crook or power, what you believe as ‘right’.
    If it is or not makes no odds..
    Jesus did have that faith; so has Francis.

  6. Brendan says:

    Yes , life is messy; and to this self-evident truth Pope Francis , with no doubt Romans Ch.8:1-4 ringing in his ears….” What the Law could not do because of the weakness of human nature..etc.”… asks us to take on that mantle of perfect Love ( Christ ) won from God for the human race for all time. He ( Pope Francis ) knows that he cannot deny the Law of God ( His Church ) allied to the fact that personal conscious ( autonomy ) leads to / cannot contradict Christ’s Church- His mystical body on Earth. So what is he left to a Vicar/Teacher of The Faith ?
    Simply , to point to the realisation that …” the Law’s requirements might be fully satisfied in us as we direct our lives not by our natural inclinations but by the spirit.”
    In producing ambiguity/confusion in his pronouncements ….and example , Pope Francis wants to induce this ‘ Spirit-of-Christ ‘ in us to look beyond the Law and to fully ‘ live-out ‘ the new life won for us by Our Saviour. This through the ages is the only response to the dynamic of Christianity throughout our history.

    • G.D. says:

      Yes, Brendan broadly speaking i agree……
      But equating the ‘Law of God’ with ‘(His Church)’ seems to be misleading for me.
      When, in ‘The Institutions’ of churches and all walks of life, in the name of God or social justice, there are so many members who preach & act out of motives that are not of God or love.
      Yes we fall short and are less than perfect. And for that very reason we cannot ‘preach’ laws to others. (Inside or outside of any group membership). None us embrace the ‘Law of God/Love’ enough to do so.

      Whereas if we preach ‘to look beyond the Law and to fully ‘ live-out ‘ the new life’ of love that binds (the mystical body to God) then there CAN BE a common universal (truly catholic) spirit of love shared by all.
      Despite our ego need to justify our selves as ‘the chosen right ones’.

      Then truly selfless examples of that mystical body can be nurtured seen to grow, and known, through sharing that Spirit. No matter what the personal take on it is. Unity in diversity is a joy, and truly compassionate love.
      That is what i see Francis ‘preaching’.

      Then real moral corruption can be known beyond any laws and norms preferred. No matter of what political sexual or social status.

  7. John Thomas says:

    “a law may be firmly maintained while allowing for exceptions when the values for which the law itself was designed are endangered.” – but surely if there are many, many, “exceptions” (even if they each accord with, or support, the reason for the law being created in the first place) then the law disappears – or is only known by way of the exceptions …?

  8. tim says:

    All tricky stuff. I can’t contribute to the substance of the discussion, because what I feel is not adequately supported by what I know. But the mention of evolution is interesting. “But of course we know now that God’s creation of such structures is indirect since they are the outcome of evolution.” How can that be right? If you (like me) believe in evolution as a mechanism that reasonably explains how living beings develop, then surely (as a Christian) you must believe that it is (like everything else) under God’s control? I see no reason to believe that this control is ‘indirect’ nor what difference it would make if it were.

    • Quentin says:

      Thank you for raising this issue. Let me give you an example which may help. Average female fertility is an outcome of evolution. If it had not so evolved, the human race would have died out. However historically the rate of early human mortality has been so high that it was necessary for women on average to conceive about six children if enough were to survive and reproduce the population. But in many countries nowadays early human mortality is much rarer and only just over two children per woman are needed. Six children per female head nowadays would be disastrous.

      Do we say that God is in control so we must just stand back and allow a huge increase in human population or do we say that God gave us intelligence so that we can recognise that evolution is no longer balanced because of new conditions, and use our ingenuity to solve this? So is God’s control of evolution such that it prohibits human corrections, or are human corrections intended by God as part of his plan, expressed in the dominion over the earth given to Adam in the beginning?

      • St.Joseph says:

        There seems to be a very compitent way of controlling human population with whether it be Gods plan or mans over the Centeries with wars,hunger,poverty diseases HIV abortion, abortfacients etc.
        Is that God’s plan for mankind on this earth or mans sinful ways from disobedience

      • tim says:

        Thank you, Quentin. God being in charge of evolution (as of everything else in the world) does not (I think) imply that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Clearly the world is imperfect and we must do what we can to improve it. But what we do must be licit. The rules about sex may be more obviously appropriate when childhood mortality is high. Personally I do not see compelling reasons for abandoning them as the world becomes more healthy. If we are to waive traditional rules for convenience, there are many things that we could do – but should not. In any event, the risk of world population expanding beyond our ability to cope with it is not so high. In developed countries at least, a falling and ageing population seems a more immediate danger.

    • Alan says:

      Tim – “I see no reason to believe that this control is ‘indirect’ nor what difference it would make if it were.”

      Can you tell me more about how you believe this operates?

      I’m trying to imagine some of the things I have direct and indirect control over and see if this makes sense to me in terms of God’s interaction with evolution. I’m not doing very well!

      I start the engine of my car, I accelerate, I steer left or right. The engine wouldn’t start, the car wouldn’t move, the vehicle wouldn’t turn unless I acted directly to make it. Direct control?

      If I crash then some things happen which aren’t in my direct control. The a.b,s. might engage, the seat belt lock, the air bag deploy. Put a dummy in the seat instead of me and these things still happen in the given circumstances. They are designed to do so and I could modify them not to or to do something else if I chose to. If I made and designed them perfectly, and I didn’t change my mind about what I wanted them to do, they would do their job without ever needing further intervention from me. Indirect control?

      Are either of those like God’s control of evolution? Would the self-replicating molecule still self-replicate if God weren’t actively making it?

      • tim says:

        Alan – not easy.? I’ve tried two or three times to reply to your post, but the replies are not appearing – sorry!

      • tim says:

        [maybe I can post in bits?]
        Alan, your response helpfully makes clear that I haven’t thought my position through, How does God control evolution? Or everything else, for the matter of that?

  9. John Nolan says:

    John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio restated that the divorced and civilly remarried can only receive Communion if they refrain from sexual relations. Cardinal Müller has confirmed that it still applies (although by way of an interview rather than an official CDF ruling). Some bishops are interpreting Amoris Laetitia in this sense, others are not, assuming that they have correctly divined Francis’s intentions (in Nazi Germany this was called ‘working towards the Führer’). Meanwhile the Pope is refusing to clarify matters which gives rise to suspicions that he is deliberately sowing confusion, which is not what popes are supposed to do. We should not have to speculate as to what might be his ‘direction of travel’.

    Meanwhile those in irregular relationships who have never had qualms about presenting themselves for Communion will simply carry on as before. For decades now going to Mass for most people automatically involves receiving Communion – after all, you don’t visit a restaurant unless you intend to eat something. As for scrupulously following the letter of the law, it’s a bit like the 70 mph motorway speed limit – it’s not enforced and most of us ignore it.

    All the evidence appears to indicate that a majority of Catholics in western Europe and north America do not let the Church’s teaching on sexual morality impinge too much on their private lives.
    Human nature being what it is, this is not a new phenomenon. Casanova was actually quite devout, and French kings kept mistresses despite hearing Mass every day (prudently banishing them from court when death threatened).

    • St.Joseph says:

      I believe that Pope Francis is very much aware of the situation regarding the Churches attitude since Vat.2 especially on the Sacrament of marriage, and understands the situation that marriage has not taken on the Sacramental values which God intended in the first place. They will be civilly married, however not Sacramental.
      It is easy to criticise those who receive Holy Communion and have turned their life around with children etc; Who are we to judge.
      Is anyone worthy to receive Holy Communion, if we really believed ‘we would crawl on our knees with true love and humility to receive Our Lord and thank Him for the Grace He has given us and the agony He suffered on His Cross for us to do so.

    • John Candido says:

      John Nolan, there have been news reports that both Pope Francis and a deputy of his have recently canvassed the need for the church to allow married men to become priests in certain contexts such as the extreme shortage of catholic priests in Latin American churches such as Brazil.

      Most importantly, Francis has also said a couple of years ago, that there is no genuine impediment that would forbid any discussion about the need to keep the discipline of celibacy, which completely contradicts the position of Pope John Paul II who, acting like a Fuhrer of sorts specifically wrote in an ecclesiastical document that it is forbidden for any catholic that is loyal to the Holy See to discuss the matter of celibacy.

      ‘Working towards the Führer’.

      What an interesting, curious and funny parallel, John Nolan! One that I readily approve of by the way!

      In a healthy reversal of Rome ruling from the top down, it looks as though the church may well ‘work towards the Pope’ on a multitude of contemporary issues that are before it.
      One of them is most certainly the issue of celibacy, regardless of whether or not it is a catalyst for the decline of vocations, regardless of whether or not it is a factor in the development of clericalism, regardless of whether or not it is a factor in the attractiveness of the celibate priesthood to paedophiles and regardless of whether or not it is a catalyst of, or a correlative factor in, the sexual abuse of children by catholic priests.

    • John Candido says:

      One of Great Britain’s greatest scholars on the life of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, Sir Ian Kershaw, wrote a book called ‘Hitler 1889 – 1936: Hubris’, published in 1998, which first introduced the idea of ‘working towards the Fuhrer’ in chapter 13 of the same title.

      In fact, chapter 13 is called, ‘Working towards the Fuhrer’.

      That was no doubt one of Kershaw’s historical insights or discoveries when he came upon several primary sources that clearly enunciated that such a culture as ‘working towards the Fuhrer’ was an important social construct or directive, that existed in that destructive society.

  10. twr57 says:

    [Nailed it!]
    Alan, your response helpfully makes clear that I haven’t thought my position through, How does God control evolution? Or everything else, for the matter of that?

    Well – I don’t know. So why did I specify both direct and indirect control? I think the answer is that Quentin used the term ‘indirect’, so that had to be dealt with. He says that no exceptions [to laws] are allowable for “actions which are judged to be intrinsically evil…” [if] .. “they violate structures which have been created directly by God” . But (he says) these structures (or some of them) have not been created directly by God, but indirectly by evolution. In such cases, exceptions should be allowable. My view is that evolution is the means whereby God generated human nature (compare the old question, is London lit by Man, or by electricity?). I don’t think it important whether this is to be considered direct or indirect action – and am indeed doubtful if this distinction means anything when applied to an omnipotent and omniscient Being. So I evade answering your first question. But “Would the self-replicating molecule still self-replicate if God weren’t actively making it?” is slightly easier. Science assumes the persistence of physical entities in accordance with physical laws – an assumption that is frequently found to hold true. But theology (I think) says that both entities and laws persist only because God continually sustains them. If that is right, God’s action is required for continuing self-replication. But whether this action is direct or indirect is not so easy to decide, and maybe not important.

  11. John Nolan says:

    J Candido

    The analogy relates to bishops who want to admit divorced and civilly re-married couples to Holy Communion without their practising continence. They assume, with some justification, that Francis wants this as well; but as this is a doctrinal matter (unlike priestly celibacy, which is a disciplinary matter), the Church must speak with one voice – the alternative is schism.

    The pope’s duty is ‘to confirm the brethren’ in matters of faith and morals, and if he does not do so, he is failing in his duty. One cannot confirm someone in uncertainty. Nor can doctrine be a matter of personal choice, however you like to dress it up as ‘conscience’.

    That is why many informed people, inside and outside the ecclesiastical establishment, are coming to see this papacy as increasingly dysfunctional. It even merited a discussion on BBC Newsnight. I have a gut feeling that we shall reach crisis point before the year is out.

    BTW, I’m glad you admire Kershaw’s work.

    • St.Joseph says:

      John Nolan.
      It will take up to 7 years for a priest before he comes ordained.
      It will take up to 7 minutes for a couple to take their vow for the Sacrament of marriage, even living in mortal sin, or aborting a child at the Altar if on abortfacients etc or even lapsed,in other duties as Catholics.

  12. Geordie says:

    Well said John Nolan

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