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.