When people attack the Catholic Church and her teaching on morality, they point to laws in past eras that were brutal by our standards. They argue that these past laws show that the teaching that “X is a sin” caused brutal punishments. That presumes law and morality are the same, which is false. Not all sins are against the law, and sometimes law interferes with moral behavior. St. Thomas Aquinas makes this distinction:
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and suchlike.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, STh., I-II q.96 a.2 resp. trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne,).
In other words, Not every sin was against the law in Christian societies. Morality distinguishes between right and wrong behavior. Morality tells what we must do or must not do regardless of what the law says. If theft is wrong, then we must not steal even if the law allows it. But while morality deals with what we must or must not do, law deals with what penalty we give when people violate morality in such a way that harms human society. Morality does not change over time, but laws can change over time.
Those who think the Pope’s emphasis on mercy supports laxity—whether critics or people who wrongly hope for change of teaching—misunderstand what mercy is. I find that Bishop Robert Barron has a good response, rejecting that view:
Many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer matters. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness.
Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 199-201). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.
His response is a good one. Jesus showed mercy to sinners. He did not tell the that their sins did not matter. The Pope doesn’t tell people that their sins do not matter either. What the Pope does say is it is not enough to tell people what is wrong. We also have to help them get back to what is right.
Membership in the Catholic Church is different from memberships in other religious groups. Unlike other religious bodies that insist on members accepting the authority of holy books or certain practices, the Catholic Church insists her Pope and bishops are the successors to the Apostles and have the same authority which Our Lord gave to the Apostles. To reject the authority of the Pope and bishops is far more serious than a Presbyterian rejecting the authority of his minister. The Presbyterian can go to another denomination or to another church within his denomination and still be Protestant. But a Catholic who denies the teaching authority of the Pope and bishops has damaged their relationship with the Church we profess was founded by Christ.
That’s a serious matter. The person for whom membership in the Catholic Church is important, must justify rejecting the authority of the Pope and bishops in communion with him by arguing that he is not in opposition to the Church. Rather he is being faithful in larger matters. The people who do this have different motivations and political leanings. Some try to argue that the Church teaching is harsher than Our Lord ever intended and this justifies disobedience. But others claim that they follow the Catholic teaching as it was always practiced, claiming that the Church fell into error beginning with St. John XXIII and will be in error until the Church rejects Vatican II and all the changes which followed. This is the position of Radical Traditionalism.
Before continuing, we need to make some distinctions. A radical traditionalist differs from the Catholic who simply prefers the pre-Vatican II form of worship and devotion (commonly called “traditionalist.” [†] The traditionalist may wish the Church handled things differently, but recognizes the magisterium today has the authority to decide on these matters and seeks to obey despite misgivings over their prudence. The radical traditionalist rejects the authority of the magisterium when that authority challenges something they hold dear.
We need to remember that while all radical traditionalists are traditionalists, not all traditionalists are radical traditionalists. So we need to be careful not to assume that a Catholic who prefers the extraordinary form of the Mass must be guilty of disobedience. All A = B does not mean All B is A.
I find myself shaking my head in disbelief when I come across people who write off Catholic teaching with some variant of “that’s just your opinion.” I shake my head because rationally that means we can write off their views of right and wrong on the same grounds. If one rejects a Christian’s arguments on these grounds, one can reject the arguments of an atheist on the same grounds. Under those assumptions, we can’t find truth about anything and we can only use legal or physical force to compel anyone to accept something. It’s ironic that people who claim to champion reason and enlightenment should promote a throwback to “Do what I say or I will bash you with my club!”
It’s not surprising that people believe this tripe. I recall a teacher in High School once give us a couplet: “Opinions are never right or wrong. Opinions are only weak or strong.“ The couplet confuses “opinion” with “preference” or “feeling,” leading to people thinking that a religious view on abortion is no different than a preference for a flavor of ice cream. Many dictionaries give that interpretation to opinion as well. But that is only one of the meanings.
An opinion on matters of right and wrong, as Merriam-Webster describes it, “implies a conclusion thought out yet open to dispute.” This means that the value of the opinion depends on how it matches reality.
In recent days, we’ve seen Bruce Springsteen, Brian Adams and Ringo Starr cancel concerts in states which have religious freedom laws. The argument used is that they object to intolerance (or a similar descriptor) in the law and will not give concerts there so long as these laws exist. Putting aside any questions of sincerity [*] some have raised, what we have is a moral argument. These musicians believe that something is morally wrong and refuse to play where people could misinterpret their actions as supporting something they believe is morally wrong.
But their action is ironic. The laws they protest are laws aimed at blocking legal action targeting Christians for refusing to take part in something they think morally wrong. In other words, sincere or not, to oppose religious freedom laws they appeal to the same moral argument that these laws protect. That leads us to the problem: Why are these laws seen as necessary? Because recent laws and judicial activism refuse to accept the right of religion to conscientious objection. Activist judges and lawmakers claim moral obligation in religion is discrimination against people who reject moral obligation in religion. Such actions result in governments dictating to the Church what religious beliefs they can hold.
To avoid accusations of harboring sympathies, I’ll start off by saying that the recent antics of certain radical traditionalists openly rejecting Pope Francis and disavowing Cardinal Burke over Amoris Lætitia was wrong. Effectively it was an elevation of oneself over the authority God gave His Church. I’ll also say that the politically liberal Catholics who support and promote things directly condemned by the Catholic Church are wrong for the same reason. Neither group practices the Catholic faith properly because both groups reject something crucial—the fact that the Church teaches with the authority given by Christ.
Now that I made clear that I have no sympathy for rebellion against the Church (in this day and age, people forget it quickly), I want to cover something we might be doing wrong in responding with these people. That response is one of ridicule and contempt shown for those at odds with Church teaching.
Imagine this scenario. A doctor heading a prestigious medical association produces an official document involving health and dealing with helping people afflicted by difficult situations. In response, a group of people show up on the internet, denouncing this document, accusing him of incompetence, and claiming his article goes against all medical knowledge that preceded it. Would you accept the opinions of these people on their say so? Or would you look into their qualifications to comment on the matter before accepting their views over the head of the medical association?
What if you found out that these critics have been hostile to this doctor from the start, had no medical background, and constantly took his words out of context? What if you discovered these critics based their criticisms on the belief that they knew more about medicine than the head of this medical association? Could any sane person accept the words of these critics over the words of this doctor?
I believe we are witnessing this scenario in the Catholic Church today. A certain faction of Catholics are attacking the Holy Father (who has much more authority than the head of a medical association)…
What are we to make of the factions who are utterly convinced that the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Lætitia is about letting people in sinful situations continue, only disagreeing over whether it is a good thing (the secular media and some liberal Catholics) or a bad thing (some conservative Catholics)? I’ve read the Exhortation myself and find it entirely consistent with Catholic moral teaching, including the task of determining culpability for a specific individual struggling with sin (Pre-Vatican II works call this casuistry but nowadays the term has received a pejorative meaning of rationalizing sin).
Determining personal guilt has always been a difficult assessment, and for a person who is suspicious of Church doctrinal “corruption” or scrupulous, the task of determining culpability can seem like promoting sin. It reminds me of a joke that goes like this:
Claiming a person chose wrong and chose so out of malice is a strong accusation. We must prove the accusation is true before we look for motives why the person acted in a certain way. If we don’t give proof, then our charge is not proven and all our speculation on motive is meaningless. This is why so many news articles and blogs aggravate me. People assume wrongdoing, then make wild accusations over why wrongdoing occurred. Here are some examples from the past week.
Struggling to Pull Defeat Out of the Jaws of Victory
The Vatican released Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Lætitia, today. From what I have read so far (about halfway through), it is an excellent document which explores the meaning of marriage and family before considering the cases of people at odds with the Church teaching. The secular media is remarkably subdued, mostly keeping quiet about it. The text contradicts the predictions or accusations made about “opening doors” to changed Church teaching. Even one of the most notorious anti-Francis Catholic blogs posted a relatively subdued article about this Exhortation.
I was stunned when I first discovered this quote by St. Ignatius because I associated the soldier-saint, who founded the intellectual Jesuit order, with the serious, arduous Spiritual Exercises. I could hardly imagine St. Iggy spouting a phrase which appears at first glance to be flippant. Yet, this quote illustrates that Ignatius grasped a deep, spiritual truth which many Catholics do not understand: joy is a gift from God. The average Catholic does not associate joy with holiness, but believes holiness is synonymous with Christ-like suffering. However, the truth is even redemptive suffering is not miserable when we are suffused with the love of God and filled with His Spirit. Joy is at the core of our spirit when we live in, with, and through Christ. This holy joy is the source of a Christian’s strength.