The Personalist Project

The heart is greater than creation

The whole creation cannot fill the human heart, for it is greater than all that is not God.

Rev de Caussade, S.J., Abandonment to Divine Providence

Are mortal sins much rarer than we thought?

I don't mean, do we commit acts that are objectively and gravely wrong less often than we thought? I mean: how rare is it that, in committing an objectively wrong act involving grave matter, we act with full knowledge and full consent of the will?--keeping in mind that, according to Catholic teaching, an action needs to involve all three elements to be a mortal sin.

Just how prevalent are genuine mortal sins?

Well, it's kind of a trick question. We'll never know the answer--not about other people, not even about ourselves. No CBS commentator will ever announce, "Mortal sins rose by 3.2% this quarter, though experts differ on how much of the increase is due to a simultaneous drop in invincible ignorance." God keeps that knowledge to Himself, and for good reason. Could anybody imagine we'd put it to good use if He let us in on it?

And as Kate Cousino asked plaintively when I broached the subject on Facebook the other day:

Is it overly simplistic to say we do the best we can, walking in faith, and trust God to sort out the culpability in His perfect justice and mercy?

To which I respond: Well, OK. Good point.

What got me wondering about it was Rebecca Bratten Weiss' post the other day entitled "i'm glad Pope Francis has not responded to the cardinals." (I'm not opining on the merits of the article, but on this one topic.) She says:

If mortal sin involves not only grave matter, but also full knowledge and full consent of the will, is it very likely that – given the agonizing complexity of most cases of irregular marriage – such “full knowledge” and “full consent” are very possible? Note that I am not questioning the absolute objectivity of right and wrong. I am, however, questioning the degree to which subjective culpability can ever be absolute.

I wonder, though, if we need to unpack more fully what we mean by "full knowledge" and "full consent." Rebecca seems to set the bar pretty high--or at least, her estimation of people's abilities pretty low:

Given how stupid we all are, full knowledge even of the simplest truths must be very rare indeed. And given what we know about neuroscience, full consent of the will is not really possible for most of us, most of the time. This is a humbling thought.

I'm not sure what neuroscience she's referring to, but she has a point: our knowledge is very limited, and sin makes us stupider still. We tend to believe what we want to believe, and of the reality we do manage to discern, we pick and choose the bits that fit best with the fixed ideas that already populate our heads. It's possible to integrate new knowledge into our mindset, and it's possible to experience a metanoia and set about trying to live in light of the truth, but it takes work, and it takes grace. It's not the norm.

I'm not saying we're altogether incapable of knowledge or free consent of the will (and nor does Rebecca). Theories that deny free will have to ignore our immediate experience of exercising it. You don't need to take it on faith; you don't need to be an expert in moral theology or anthropology or neuroscience. Your immediate experience of your own acts confirms it.

But full consent of the will...maybe that's a different matter.

It's true that sometimes we think we're acting freely and realize upon reflection that we were acting under pressure to please someone, or to avoid offending someone else--or that we were being manipulated to choose something we only thought we wanted.

Then, too, our freedom is deeply compromised by concupiscence and malice. As St. Paul complains in his letter to the Romans,  "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." We all know what he's talking about.

So our knowledge is limited--but it's real knowledge. Our free will is compromised--but not overthrown altogether. I guess the question is: What does "full knowledge" and "full consent of the will" mean? Are they really all that rare? If we knew the answer to that, we still wouldn't be able to see into everybody's souls, or even our own. But maybe we'd have a clearer idea of when mortal sin is occurring and when it isn't.

What do you think?

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I'm noticing a basic misunderstanding about "hermeneutics of continuity" out there among conservative Catholics. Many apparently take the expression to mean that we are supposed to examine everything the Pope teaches and reject aspects of it that differ from what other popes have taught.

So, for example, when Pope John Paul writes in Mulieris Dignitatem that "subjection" in marriage is to be understood as "not one-sided but mutual" (MD 24), we can reject it as inconsistent with what Pius XI wrote in Casti Connubii about the primacy of the husband (CC 26).

But this a mistake, and one that inevitably leads otherwise good Catholics to adopt a bad disposition toward the Pope—one where they set themselves up as judges over him and his teaching ministry. 

What "hermeneutics of continuity" really means for faithful Catholics (as I understand it) is at least twofold:

1) That we are to receive papal teaching with a presumption of continuity, i.e., a basic disposition of trust in the charism of his office.

2) That where different interpretations of his teaching are possible, we are to choose the one that best accords with what has always been taught. So, for example, if a given passage in Amoris Laetitia can be read in two ways, one that is essentially continuous with the Tradition and another that breaks with it, we are responsible to assume that the former is the true interpretation. Even more, if a given teachings seems to us to break with Tradition, we are to look for an interpretation that accords with it.

We are also to keep in mind that the mysteries of our Faith are inexhaustible and beyond human comprehension. The Pope's office is guided and protected by the Holy Spirit because it is too much for merely human powers, no matter how theologically sophisticated and erudite. Further, while the fundamental teachings on faith and morals do not change, the Church's understanding of their practical exigences in each day and age does develop and change. And sometimes continuity on the deepest, most essential level involves discontinuities on a more superficial level. (A little boy's growing into a man involves a change from smooth cheeks to bearded cheeks without any rupture in his basic identity as an individual. If hormones are introduced to try to change the boy into a girl and keep the cheeks smooth, we have a rupture.)

So, the faithful Catholic mind is stimulated, not perturbed by apparent inconsistencies in papal teaching. They cause her to search eagerly—in an attitude of faith and and hope and love—for the deep continuity, which, as Pope Francis likes to point out, not infrequently comes as a surprise.

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Following their "dubia," the Cardinals offer what they call "an explanatory note." It too warrants some examination and critique.

It begins:

Dubia (from the Latin: "doubts") are formal questions brought before the Pope and to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asking for clarifications on particular issues concerning doctrine or practice.

What is peculiar about these inquiries is that they are worded in a way that requires a "yes" or "no" answer, without theological argumentation. This way of addressing the Apostolic See is not an invention of our own; it is an age-old practice.

I note three things right off:

1) Dubia are traditionally questions submitted to the Pope and the CDF, which is the Vatican Congregation responsible for the defense of doctrine. They are not published to the world. And why would they be, since the world has no competence to answer them? One possibility that springs to mind is that the real aim wasn't theological clarification, but public outcry. I don't know the Cardinals' motives, but I can't help suspecting this one from both the fact and effect of their publishing it.

2) My suspicion is increased by the second anomaly the Cardinals acknowledge. The dubia, as written, are "peculiar". Unlike traditional dubia, they are written in a way that "requires" a yes or no answer. "Requiring", spiritually speaking, is rather different from "inquiring", isn't it? The latter is a question; the former is a demand. Questions and demands spring from very different inner dispositions; they indicate different kinds of interpersonal relations. (One doesn't typically require something of a superior.)

3) The line following their acknowledgment of the dubia's peculiarity contains (irony alert!) an ambiguity. They say "this way" of addressing the Apostolic See is an age old practice, without indicating clearly whether by "this way" they mean their peculiar way or the general way of submitting dubia.  Since no explanation or example follows in support of the former, I gather that they mean submitting dubia is traditional. Their way of doing it isn't.

[NB: Jules thinks I am misreading the Cardinals on this point. He interprets "what is peculiar about these inquiries" to refer not their own inquiries, but to dubia as such. In other words, they are explaining that dubia are traditionally offered in a yes/no form. If he's right about that, then I have misjudged the Cardinals, and I would want to apologize and retract. I've been searching, but unable to find online historical examples of dubia. The only one I can remember from studies years ago is one offered in response to Pius IX's  Syllabus of Errors. I recall its reading along these lines: "Are these proposed or imposed?", which is not a yes no format. But I am unclear on the point and would be grateful if any theologians among our readers could help with references. My point that the dubia should have been submitted to the CDF, not the public, stands.]

Next the Cardinals offer further explanation of their specific questions. The first paragraph likewise seems to me to elide a key distinction, viz. between the unchanging teaching of the Church and the oft-changing discipline and practice of the Church.

For many - bishops, priests, faithful - these paragraphs [in Amoris Laetitia] allude to or even explicitly teach a change in the discipline of the Church with respect to the divorced who are living in a new union, while others, admitting the lack of clarity or even the ambiguity of the passages in question, nonetheless argue that these same pages can be read in continuity with the previous magisterium and do not contain a modification in the Church's practice and teaching.

To my reading, this paragraphs suggests that the Cardinals know (at least on one level) that the theology of marriage isn't at stake, though they would like to make it seem as if it is.

Consider: There is nothing strange or scandalous about a change in practice or discipline, is there? It's the sort of thing that has gone on continuously since the beginning of the Church, and it is undoubtedly within the bounds of the Pope's authority. But by contrasting it with the term "continuity" and "previous magisterium", the Cardinals suggest (at least to the ordinary Catholic mind) that something alarming is afoot in Amoris Laetitia.

I won't go minutely into the long explanation of their first "doubt". I will only say that, as I read it, it seems to want to force the Holy Father to do just the opposite of what he (in his office and charism) is calling on Christian pastors to do.

Let me explain that a little. I think that Pope Francis, like John Paul II, though in his own way, has noticed "an excessively objectivistic" and legalistic tendency in traditional Catholic mode and practice, which concerns him. It concerns him not because he is a closet relativist, but because he sees that it interferes with the Church's evangelistic mission. We are too apt to approach the world with a set of doctrines and rules, rather than with Jesus and the good news of our redemption. We are too apt to judge people, their situations and conditions, by objective standards and norms that don't do full justice to their deepest reality as individual subjects, which is alienating rather than welcoming. A too objectivistic tendency also interferes with the spiritual life, because it inclines us to measure ourselves and others by "the law", rather than by a Person, Jesus Christ (a far more exacting measure!).

The Pope, through all his words and witness, is asking pastors and laity alike to resist that excessively objectivistic habit, and to instead learn to focus more attention on the personal, the individual, and the concrete. He wants us to remember (and realize in our way of being and acting) that devotion to Truth does not mean only upholding objective doctrines, but, even more primarily, affirming the truth of persons, the truth incarnated in the individual persons we encounter, which is unique and precious and irreplaceable.

Now come these four Cardinals trying to drag the attention of the Pope and the faithful back to the objective plane: to rules and categories and standards and norms.

My most charitable explanation is that these Cardinals—all of them elderly veterans of the liberal/conservative culture wars that erupted in the wake of Vatican II—are so accustomed to fighting relativism that they are failing to perceive the all-important difference between a focus on subjectivity and a descent into subjectivism. To them, a call for more pastoral attention to individual circumstances must seem tantamount to a rejection of the objective moral law. But it isn't. Not at all.

The solution to the manufactured theological crisis surrounding Amoris Laetitia is, ironically, given in the Cardinals' explanation of their dubia. I'll try to draw it out more fully in my next post, which I hope will be the last on this subject.

Part 1 of my critique can be found here; part 2 here.

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In my earlier post about the Dubia, I slid past the Cardinals' introductory claim that by publicizing their doubts they are acting on "a specific duty":

According to the Code of Canon Law (cc. 349) the cardinals, even taken individually, are entrusted with the task of helping the Pope to care for the universal Church.

I let that stand without looking into it, because what do I know of Canon Law? But, since several critics of my post claimed that the Cardinals were acting canonically, I followed up this morning. Reading the number they cite, I find that my impression of their disingenuousness is much increased. [Links in the original]

The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college which provides for the election of the Roman Pontiff according to the norm of special law. The cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they performespecially in the daily care of the universal Church

Nothing in this item of Canon Law indicates "a specific duty" of Cardinals to publicly challenge the Pope when they judge him to be teaching ambiguously. Nothing indicates even that it's okay for them to publicly challenge the Pope on any grounds whatsoever, or to take ecclesial initiative independently of him. Nothing indicates that he is in any way accountable to them. As I read this item, it becomes much clearer that the Cardinals answer to the Pope, not vice versa. Their prime duty is to elect Popes. Their secondary duty is to assist him when they are convoked by him in college, or individually, through their appointed offices in the daily care of the Church. They are deputies. 

These four Cardinals, in publicizing their doubts, are acting neither collegially in a convocation called by the Pope, nor individually through their appointed offices. Rather, they are acting as a faction.

And let me raise this question with the defenders of the Cardinals: Assuming for a moment (what in fact I doubt) that they are genuinely confused themselves as to the meaning of that footnote in Amoris Laetitia, what good do they imagine will come from publishing their doubt and confusion among the faithful, who (be they ever so highly educated) lack the competence to weigh such matters justly? What can they hope to achieve, beyond an increase in worry and mistrust of the Pope? The laity are not the Pope's constituents; we have no right of oversight in his exercise of the Petrine ministry.  

On to the text of the Cardinals' questions:

After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (cf. n. 304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 79, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?

This is not an honest question. These Cardinals cannot seriously wonder whether it's now possible to consider a fundamental moral teaching "based on Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church" invalid. They know very well it isn't. They know that the Pope cannot teach that there is no such thing as a moral absolute or an exceptionless moral norm. They know that the Pope knows this. They are not asking for information; they are setting a trap. The question is designed (consciously or not) to insinuate into the minds of readers that unless the Pope conforms to their demand for clarification and explicitly affirms (one more time) the intrinsic evil of adultery and the binding nature of the moral law, they will be justified in presuming him guilty of false teaching, discontinuity with the Tradition, and moral relativism.

After Amoris Laetitia (n. 301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God's law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (cf. Mt 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration, June 24, 2000)?

On my reading, this question is either a meaningless tautology—Is it possible to affirm that someone who is habitually contradicting the moral law is habitually contradicting the moral law?—or it poses a false alternative: Either you must claim that adultery is sometimes okay, or you must disavow Amoris Laetitia n.301. Choose.

A genuine theological question would have read something more like, "Is it correct to interpret AL n. 301 as indicating that some who are in objectively irregular conjugal relationships might not be in a state of mortal sin and hence ineligible to receive Holy Communion?"

Framing it that way, though, would make that AL footnote seem much less dubious and problematic, wouldn't it?

I have the same objection to this question:

After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (n. 302) on "circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility," does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 81, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which "circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act 'subjectively' good or defensible as a choice"?

The Cardinals know that the Pope cannot (and would not) teach that an intrinsically evil act can be justified by subjectivity. Since they know that, a more honest question might have been, "Could you clarify how pastors are to understand the distinction AL implicitly draws between 'objectively irregular' and 'intrinsically evil'?" Such a question, instead of stoking alarm, would have served to relieve the anxiety of the faithful by reminding them that there is such a distinction and that it is an all-important one in the context.

Ditto for the following paragraph:

After Amoris Laetitia (n. 303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 56, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?

Some of my critics are pointing out that some priests and bishops are sure to interpret AL in just this way—as if individual consciences are free to authorize exemptions for themselves from absolute moral norms. (Some are already doing it. One friend told of a priest who has issued a blanket invitation to cohabiting and divorced and remarried couples in his parish to receive Communion.) To that I say that the Pope is not responsible for abuses of his teaching, just as the Vatican II Council fathers were not responsible for those who used its occasion to consider themselves free to abandon orthodoxy and moral precepts according to their personal imagination of the Council's "spirit."

Popes (and ecclesial councils) are bound to teach sound doctrine. They are not bound to ensure that their teaching cannot be misconstrued by bad actors, or even misunderstood by sincere members of the faithful. That would be impossible, even for the Vicar of Christ, since human beings are free.

You can say that Popes are bound in justice and charity to minimize the likelihood of abuses and misunderstandings to the best of their ability, and I wouldn't disagree. I would only point out that we have no grounds for believing that the Pope didn't do that. My supposition to the contrary is that the Pope convened the twin Synods exactly for the purpose of helping him find the mode and formulation for the change he wanted to institute that would be as little disruptive and susceptible to confusion as possible.

The reason that a lot of confusion has arisen even so is, in my view, threefold:

1) The matter at hand is objectively extremely complex and delicate.

2) Many liberals in the Church, who have a subjectivistic tendency, will be apt to read relativism into it and celebrate it as permitting what it doesn't permit.

3) Many conservatives in the Church, who have an "excessively objectivistic" tendency (in JP II's phrase), will also be apt to read relativism into it and denounce it as permitting what it doesn't permit.

The key to a right interpretation, I am persuaded, lies in a deeper penetration of the mystery of subjectivity and its relation to the objective moral law. 

But I'm not done with my critique of the text Dubia. More when I get a chance.

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I'm a sucker for call-in radio shows. My favorite is probably "The Doctor Is In," with Dr. Ray Guarendi. I also like "More 2 Life," with Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak.

They take very different approaches to certain things, which is fine with me. As I wrote here, not everybody who has good ideas on offer has to become your guru. There's no reason you can't pick and choose.

The disagreement is this: The Popcaks will often recommend--or at least take seriously--techniques for interacting with people that are jus that--techniques. Like using "I statements" instead of "you statements"--for instance, "I feel disrespected when you raise your voice at me," rather than "You're always yelling at me." Or trying to have a good ratio of positive to negative statements with your kids. For example, make sure there are at least four "Good job washing the dishes without causing a flood!" for every "Would you please quit sticking the scotch tape on the cat?"

Dr. Ray, on the other hand, sees such techniques as ways of complicating something very straightforward. People have been talking to each other for millennia without self-consciously employing these methodologies. A little common sense is a fine substitute for lots of this stuff.

I'm generally on Dr. Ray's side here. Sarcasm is my love language, and I have no patience for artificiality and affectation.

But I've come to take a brighter view of techniques, templates and scripts than I used to. Sometimes, in a conflict, it's both comforting and effective to not have to start from scratch. Not every word that comes out of your mouth needs to be spontaneous and "authentic." Sometimes, (especially if, like me, you don't really think well on your feet and are way more articulate in the seventh draft of a letter than you'll ever be in the heat of argument)--it's nice to have a game plan, a template--some way to move the conversation in a certain direction and help you remember not to take the bait, or get waylaid by irrelevant details or hot-button topics.

It occurs to me, too, that maybe it's not usually a question of authentic, spontaneous communication vs. rigid, artificial scripts anyway. The fact is, lots of us already revert unconsciously to our default scripts, our usual, inertia-driven patterns, whether they work or not. So maybe it's not really a question of shifting from spontaneity to script, but from one script to another.

Lack of spontaneity, then, is not necessarily a problem. 

The second misgiving I had about such techniques is that they seem manipulative. But my friend, Teresa Reimers Stringham, has helped me take a closer look at that assumption. What do I even mean by "manipulation"? Is every instance of trying to get someone to feel or do something "manipulation"? Or only when you have ulterior motives? When we use these techniques, are we inevitably acting like advertisers, trying to evoke the desired response in a person so that they hand over their money, or something else that I want to get out of them?

Teresa points out that "I statements" reflect the truth that "we can't control what others do, but we can control and own how we respond to it." Using such techniques "is manipulative in the sense that we want to affect behavior." But it need not be devious or malicious. Seeking to affect other people's emotions--or even your own--is not necessarily a bad thing.

Then, too, a conversational technique can be good for your self-knowledge. For example, if I were to decide to start aiming for four positive statements for every negative one in my conversation with my kids, I would no doubt be shocked at my current ratio. 

So I'm sure you'll still find me spontaneously telling my kids what I think of the way they put their socks in the fruit bowl. But theoretically, I've gotten very open-minded.

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