A reader has some very good questions

Published April 21, 2021

…and I have some replies that, along with five bucks, will get you a cup of Starbucks, but which some may find helpful.

He writes:

I have a question I hope you can answer. You have been writing about Paul and how we unfairly criticize what we would call un-evolved views. I think you are right about this, it’s a fair point. It isn’t fair to judge the standards of the past by the way they have evolved today.

But my question is this: if morality evolves, then what of the claim of the Church that treats herself as a step ahead, or outside of the melee of the era?

I would question the premise. I don’t see where the Church treats herself as a step ahead, and vastly less that she sees herself as outside the melee of the era. I don’t see how she can, given that the Incarnation commits the Church to the proposition that God has invaded time, space, matter, and energy in the body of Jesus Christ and that he calls us to redeem, not exit, the times. The Barque of Peter navigates and negotiates the rapids of history. It does not pretend history does not exist. What other lesson can be drawn from the fact of her 21 councils to deal with the controversies and problems of the day than that she lives inside, not outside, the times?

For example, we are told that faithful Catholics will not contracept even though all of the culture finds no inherent moral issue with it, because the authority to pronounce on faith and morals is built into the Church to correct the errors of the age. Even though my conscience says it is ok to do in certain circumstances, I have to yield this belief to the Church who is wiser than I. But when we look at the ways the Church has failed morally, the story switches. All of the sudden, we see the humanness of the institution that is a product of its time.

Once again, I question the premise. The Church defines as dogma very little in the Tradition. Unlike with ideology, which claims to explain *everything* with a single monomaniac All-Explaining Theory of Everything, the Church says, “We don’t know much, but we *do* know this…” and recites the Creed and a couple of dogmatic claims and then leaves nearly all the rest of life, the universe and everything to be worked out by experts in their fields, and ordinary people making their own judgment calls in light of the Tradition. Nearly all the Church’s “practical” teaching is a prudential judgment about how to apply certain first principles–including its prudential judgments about the use of artificial contraceptives. When it comes to prudential judgments about sex, as a rule of thumb, the counsel of the Church is to keep sex natural (i.e. in accord with the design of the body, which comes from the Creator of the body). But, of course, other matters can and do enter into the question.

For instance, if memory serves, a few years back, some nuns working in an area that put them at high risk of rape were permitted (or argued to be permitted, my memory is fuzzy) to use Pill to protect themselves from pregnancy in such an event. I can’t remember enough to say what happened, but I can certainly see their case as reasonable. I think there can be other reasonable arguments as well, depending on circumstances. So, for instance, I can see why many a Catholic can and does argue that if you want to cut the abortion rate, contracepting lessens that evil. This is precisely the argument brought to bear in pointing out that cutting funding for reproductive health in sub-Saharan Africa has resulted in a 40% spike in abortions. I’m not clear on the fine points of Catholic debates about this, but I for one can say that it appears me to be, as a matter of public policy a matter of lessening evil, not of supporting a lesser evil to think that I will not lose too much sleep if abortions are lowered by 40%.

As to contraception arguments closer to home in this country, I’m no moral theologian and no pastor and don’t tell other people what to do, which is why I have not followed that debate very closely as it is not addressed to my condition. My wife and I obeyed the Church’s teaching on this matter because we think her guidance is sound here and had no extenuating circumstance to prompt us to do otherwise. We both believe that a marriage should be open to life and see children as gifts to be welcomed, as well as marriage to be fundamentally ordered toward union and fruitfulness. But I would not be in a hurry, personally, to bring down the hamjmer on the average layperson who used artificial contraception. What business is it of mine what other Catholics do? And since I am not a shepherd tasked with the guidance of souls–and even pastors wrestle with such things–I take a hands-off approach to other Catholics. And I take an even more hands-off approach to people who are not Catholic and have assumed no obligation to obey a gospel they not believe and may be wholly ignorant of.

The rhetoric of a Church guided by Spirit to lead the world into a correct moral understanding disappears.

I am, again, not really confident that the function of the Church is to “lead the world into a correct moral understanding” with one size fits all answers to granular questions. I think the case can be made that the function of the Church is to obey Jesus to the best of our abilities as his disciples and let the Spirit do the job of enlightening the world. Peter didn’t especially provide a stainless moral example or dazzle the world with his moral perfection. But he did give the world an example of man who kept his eyes on Jesus no matter how often or badly he sinned.

I don’t think many in our culture will have a hard time understanding that Paul was a product of his time and may even get credit for being ahead of his time. But we are told that the Church is perfect and absolute in her guidance of Faith and morals.

We are? By whom? What on earth does “absolute” mean here? It sounds as if you take the Church’s charism of infallibility to mean that no pope, bishop, our council can ever err or sin in any prudential judgment ever. But there is not and never has been such a claim by the Church. Infallibility is, paradoxically, predicated on the absolute certitude that every pope, bishop and council is staffed exclusively by sinners and dunderheads and weaklings who are absolutely guaranteed to sin and fail. Infallibility is a confession of weakness, not strength, sinlessness, brilliance or omniscience. The Church his given a sort of bare minimum promise that the Spirit, not her chuckleheaded members, will make certain that no matter how stupid we are, he will not allow the core teaching of the gospel to be lost or falsely defined, and he will make sure Christ himself is handed on in the sacraments. That is strikingly minimalist and very very far from a claim of “perfection”. The overwhelming bulk of the Church’s moral guidance, particularly in the confessional is *highly* provisional, tentative, flexible, and open to the condition of the person. So too, in canon law, where “the rules” exist under the provision “In most cases” and under the condition that applying them does not harm the person.

(A priest once remarked to me that the Anglo-Saxon conception of law is “Make laws about as few things as possible and then obey them even if it’s stupid” while the Latin conception is “Make laws about everything and then list all the exceptions”. He said this explains Italian vs American drivers and it also explains why scrupulous Anglos worry that the Church’s rule put an undue burdens on them while Latins blow off dumb rules with the innate understanding that the law is made for man, not man for the law.)

So when the Churches’ own scriptures are seen as just a product of the time, why give it any special authority?

Because they are not “just” the product of their time. The scriptures derive their authority from Christ, who is both a historically conditioned man (speaking Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, not modern English) but also God Almighty and helping the Church’s understanding of his revelation grow and develop down through the centuries.

When Church councils demand persecution and religious intolerance, why treat it as specially guided by the Holy Spirit?

This seems to me like asking why, if a five year old can make his letters, but not do integral calculus yet, we should believe he has a teacher. The Church is a mustard seed, growing into a mustard plant. She has all the DNA she needs on Pentecost to mature. But she is not mature. Nor is she mature yet. But she is still growing.

Now, it might be that it is guided by the Holy Spirit in a way that all humanity is. And I see something like Dignitatis humane as marvelously guided by the Spirit. But the truth is, if you had read Dignitatis humane to the fourth Lateran council, you would have been burned as a heretic. (Lateran 4, Paragraph 3 is a notable read) Those documents do not show an absolute Church unified over time guiding history towards an improved understanding of morality, they show a product of the time.

That’s because the idea of an “absolute Church unified over time” is not real. There is no such thing, if by “absolute” you mean a Church absolutely perfect in every moral and prudential judgment ever made. No such thing was ever promised, nor ever claimed by our Lord. Indeed, the story of Peter seems to be tailor-made by God to remind us that Jesus is the only treasure the Church possesses and the Church is the jar of clay. The Jerusalem Synod he spoke at was guided to one crucial dogmatic insight. We are saved by grace through faith and not by works of the law, so Gentile don’t have to become Jews to be baptized. The synod then had to put practical legs on that using ordinary human wisdom, guided by the Spirit. In their letter to the Churches, they advised Gentiles to. among other things, refrain from eating blood. Why? Because it was scandalous to Jews and the goal was not to cause unnecessary offense. Centuries ater, such dietary restrictions were relaxed. Why? Because as a practical matter many Gentiles in Europe could go their whole lives without ever meeting a Jew and so it was no longer a missionary imperative to avoid giving such scandal. Culture evolved.

In the same way, Lateran IV is a council situated, like all councils, in a particular time, place, and culture. At the time, what mattered (to both Jew and Gentile alike, by the way) was the idea that “error has no rights”. Before you denounce that proposition, bear in mind that you believe it too about every error that really matters to you. That’s why you don’t think morons who insist the earth is flat or COVID is a hoax or Trump won the election deserve a platform to spew their views. The way everybody in that culture dealt with error was by violence. And it would take centuries of violence before Westerners arrived at the realization that “While error has no rights, persons in error do have rights.” There is not and never has been a guarantee that the Church’s ministers, in their prudential culturally conditioned judgments about how to proceed practically, cannot err. (Nor, by the way, is there any guarantee that every person who rejects every prudential judgment of the Church is a visionary prophet who sees further and more clearly than the Church’s ministers. Laity and unbelievers are capable of being ignorant, fanatics, fools, stupid, and wrong too. Just listen to MAGA Catholics attacking Francis.) Bottom line, we can say frankly that Lateran IV erred when it oppressed Jews. What it did not do was prove that the Church’s dogmas are false. Nor did it even show that all moral guidance from the Church is henceforth worthless.

Or what about a practical problem? If Strickland was my Bishop and I was under his authority, I would be under pain of mortal sin if I did not start going back to weekly mass.

No you wouldn’t. Mortal sin requires that you knowingly violate your conscience in a grave matter. That takes a helluva lot more than one dumb prelate’s fiat. St. Joan was condemned to death as a witch by a corrupt bishop who was not merely dumb, but himself guilty of violation of the Confessional Seal and the murder of a saint. Was Paul guilty of mortal sin for confronting Peter over his capitulation to the Circumcision Party at Antioch? No. He was obeying his conscience in light of the Church’s (and Peter’s) teaching from the Jerusalem Synod.

The Church has made clear repeatedly that we have an obligation to protect innocent human life. If your knowledge of the pandemic tells you that you are endangering your neighbor’s life by obeying an ignorant directive from a dumb bishop who has stupidly condemned vaccination in addition to recklessly reopening Churches before public health officials say it is safe to do so, you are obeying your conscience and seeking to love your neighbor. That’s not a sin. That’s an act of virtue.

Yet in my conscience that’s a wildly irresponsible thing and one that would lead to more death. So what do you do?

Exercise prudence, listen to competent health officials, love your neighbor. An unjust law–even from a bishop–is no law at all.

The entire purpose of a Bishop is to guide you where your conscience is unformed, yet they contradict in a way that what he is asking people to do is downright immoral. You might say trust the Pope, which is well and good, but what if you don’t have access to that? That’s great in the age of the internet, but what about the peasant in 1300 ad? If a peasant is told by his bishop that if they harbor a heretic and protect them from being persecuted, they will be anathema and by inference, go to Hell. Yet that peasant who does harbor a heretic and follows his conscience can’t resort to the “general teaching of the Church” or the pope to help ease his conscience. He is stuck choosing to help someone in distress or hand them over to the Church for persecution. He is stuck with Huck Finn’s dilemma. Turn in Jim which he is told is right, or protect him and choose to go to Hell? What good is the authority of a Church that makes you choose hell in order to do the right thing?

This sort of speculation is not terribly helpful. I think it’s wiser to focus on real stuff than hypotheticals about medieval peasants. Particularly since there are numerous occasions when the problem was not pacifist peasants forced to commit outrages by bloodthirsty popes, but popes having to rein in bloodthirsty peasants and reminding them that Jews were not drinking the blood of babies. (Funny how QANON repeats these myths and targets the current Pope as a “dictator” whom Catholics should reject in obedience to their conscience. Not every appeal to conscience against an allegedly oppressive Church is a slam dunk triumph of righteousness over tyranny.) The reality, right here and now, is that the Church–and in particular this pope–is asking the faithful to do loving, humane, self-sacrificial things for the common good and the least of these, not calling Crusades.

Today many are deconstructing their Faith because they have decided not to hate LGBT people and will choose to go to Hell with them rather than persecute them.

Which I regard as an obvious and clear movement of the Holy Spirit, who is still guiding the Church into all truth. The recognition of a abused class of human being as having dignity flowing from their being creatures made in the image and likeness of God is always in accordance with the teaching of Jesus–and the Church.

This is why people are frustrated with Christian religion. We are told that the Church stands outside of the present culture in order to guide it.

Again, By whom? The Church never, so far as I can tell, stands outside the culture in which it is instantiated. This seems to me to be contrary to the Incarnation. Yes, the Church draws on revelation that comes to it from God and, yes, she draws on wisdom that comes both from the past and from her experience around the world. But the notion that the Church somehow stands aloof from, outside of, and over human culture seems to me absurd on the face of it. Its soul is the Holy Spirit. But its members are all broken people who are trying to make their way forward in a morally complex world.

Except when it doesn’t. Then it’s just a product of its time. It’s a heads I win, tales you lose apologetic.

No. It is always both a creation of God with the Holy Spirit as its soul, participating in divine wisdom given her through no merit of her own and collection of broken, fallen sinners trying to work out how to take the next step.

We find that our conscience tells us one thing and the Church another and that we supposed to submit our thought to the Church on the pain of eternal damnation even when it seems to be siding with hurting people.

The Church herself tells us that we are bound to obey our conscience–always. It is better to do your conscience and disobey the Church than it is to obey the Church and trample your conscience. If it turns out later that the Church’s prudential guidance was bad or inadequate, you have kept your conscience clean before God. It is not possible to be damned for doing your conscience. And if your conscience was ignorant or badly formed, it is far easier for the Holy Spirit to enlighten it when you are trying to obey it, than for him to do so when you are trying to ignore it.

As to the question of hurting people, this is a highly conditional matter and requires prudent to navigate. Sometimes we have to hurt people out of respect for their dignity or ours. I had to hurt my kids many times at bedtime because they wanted to stay up and I knew it was time for bed. A surgeon’s duty is to hurt people for their good, but the goal is their good, not to hurt them. The issue whether we seek their dignity. The Church herself has articulated, only at Vatican II, a profound insight that her members have only barely begun to plumb: that “Man is the only creature on earth whom God has willed for its own sake.” This means that there is no human system–political, moral, philosophical, economic, military, scientific, bureaucratic, or ecclesial–to which the good of the human person can be subordinated.

It is one of the paradoxes of the Church that, being the clay jar in which the treasure lives, she can, in council, speak beyond herself by the Spirit’s guidance. That is, bishops in council literally don’t know what they are talking about. That formulation from Gaudium et Spes is a classic example. It’s a brilliant, never-before-put-quite-that-way summary of the Church’s eternal teaching on the human person. Profound, rich, deep, and true.

And then the bishops, just like Peter at Antioch in Galatians 2, forgot about it and went back to their ordinary bureaucratic habits when faced with victims of sexual abuse just as Peter went back to avoid contact with Gentiles and treating them as second class citizens in the Kingdom. It takes us forever to really absorb the word of the Spirit.

The Churches claim to being an authority on issues of Faith and morals is falling flat. It’s hard not to notice it these days, and it’s making it hard for some of us to call ourselves Catholic or Christian at all.

The Church is the moon. Only the Spirit is the sun. The notion that bishops have “moral authority” is and always has been a pernicious one. Bishops lost their “moral authority” in the Garden of Gethsemane. Saints can, at times, manifest moral authority, if by that we mean “integrity that we can respect”. But most bishops, like most of us, are not saints but are simply the custodians of a tradition. If a bishop or priest is a saint, I regard that as a huge and gracious bonus from God. Most of them are just ordinary schleps like us, trying to do their best and failing a lot.

I respect your work very much and I thank you for taking the time to read this. I know you are a good and honest man who is trying to sort through a crazy time in history as we all are. Bless you for your work.


Thanks. You too. FWIW, I make a big distinction between the Tradition and the bishops. Jesus hands himself over the Church and he is what is handed down, first and foremost. He also hands down a body of teaching, and his body, both Eucharistic and ecclesial. His Spirit is the soul of the Church. She is not holy because of us, but because of the Spirit.

6 Responses

  1. Super article that is going to require rereading with a pen and paper to hand!! On the subject of conscience, how do we differentiate between human feelings on a subject and our conscience talking to us and how do we form a properly functioning conscience that we can trust?

    1. The Church has consistently recommended forming our consciences by studying the Bible and the teachings of the Church. Both of these are specifically mentioned in the Catechism, 1785. That paragraph is part of a section specifically on conscience.

      An education which provides an appropriate emphasis on the use of reason helps with this, as well.

      As a practical matter, I try to regularly check myself by looking for reasons that my view on a moral matter might be biased by self-interest, habit, or peers in a way that could conflict with scriptures, Church teachings, or reason.

      If you want to go more deeply into the topic, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor should be a good theological resources on the principles of morality and conscience.

      1. Many thanks for that useful info. I well remember asking a priest this question many moons ago and being told that I would know my conscience was properly formed when it agreed with the teachings of the church which to my mind did away with the need for a conscience in the first place.
        I have to say that i do struggle with some of the church’s teachings where no matter how I approach the matter my conscience tells me that the teaching is lacking fullness, infallibility, gay relationships & the place of women in authority for example. Mark’s article above is great in that he shows me that there are nuances that I had not considered before & that a black & white approach to church teaching is not the way to go.
        Once again thanks for the reply.

  2. I have to admit that I can’t find a fight in me to challenge Humanae Vitae. My kids are my favorite mistakes. They have made me poorer, but what would I hope for in exchange, had I not had them?

    On the other hand, I have done all kinds of creative things within the rules and in the outer gray area not to have more kids. A Jesuit once told me with exasperation to cool it and do what everybody else was obviously doing.

    I said no.

    On the other, OTHER hand, I have been sorely provoked by teachings of the Church, read in a vacuum– like when my friend had cancer and couldn’t licitly use birth control in the eyes of some. If she obeyed their rules she would have had to spend 10 years not sharing physical love with her husband before she died in her forties, and after generously giving birth to 7 kids. I don’t know what she actually chose because I was too upset on her behalf to ask. I also know that God gives us the strength to endure things that look traumatizing to those that haven’t been given the grace to endure them.

    At the end of the day, we break the rules of kindness and generosity all the time (why do we hyper-fixate on this thing at the expense of that thing?)

    Selfishness is real. That is why rules help us to hold ourselves to an ideal.

    What’s scary to me is that if it had been up to me and my husband alone, it would *never* have been an ideal time to bring a new soul into this world. We live for our kids so I’m incredibly grateful for Humanae Vitae. We would never have had the courage.

    That said, I can see through the eyes of my own children that life has never been more difficult for young people to bring children into this world. We need to ask ourselves why. It is so sad.

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