I am very grateful to the four cardinals who submitted dubia about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia to the Holy Father. With humility and reverence before the Vicar of Christ, and “supreme teacher of the faith,” they ask him to answer some specific questions about how Amoris Laetitia is consistent with previous teachings of the Church. As they note, uncertainty has been caused by conflicting interpretations, and they ask the Holy Father to bring clarity by responding definitely to their questions.
I felt something like relief when I read of the dubia, as I had expressed somewhat similar concerns to those of the four cardinals in my letter to Cardinal Schönborn. Moreover, I had later signed a list of censured propositions drawn up by certain theologians, and sent to the cardinals with the request that they ask the Holy Father to make clear that none of the censured propositions can be held to have been authoritatively taught by Amoris Laetitia. My Abbot objected to the tone of that document, and has asked me to withdraw my signature. I hereby publicly withdraw my signature. I am all the more willing to do so as the most essential concerns expressed in the censures have now been taken up in the dubia of the four cardinals.
Apparently the Holy Father has decided not to respond to the four cardinals’ dubia. I hope that he will change his mind. His decision fits, however, with his preference for “initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (Evangelii Gaudium, ¶223). The idea of “initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” is a think a helpful key not only to understanding why the Holy Father might choose not to respond to the dubia, but also more broadly for understanding current conflicts in moral theology.
In a discussion with the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, the Holy Father praised Fr. Bernhard Häring for having helped overcome a decadent scholastic moral theology that had been fixated on negative commandments, and opened up a way for moral theology to flourish. Now, Häring’s moral theology is a great example of what it might mean to begin processes as opposed to occupying spaces. Häring’s theology is focused on the free response of the Christian to the love of God given in Christ. This response of the Christian is a dynamic process in which the Christian learns ever more what an adequate response could be. In this process the Christian must follow his conscience, which might initially be an erring conscience, but which will slowly lead him to a more and more adequate response to God’s love. Häring liked to quote a dictum of Bl. Cardinal Newman’s: “I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light.” (Apologia, ch. 4, §2). This dictum, however, takes on a somewhat different meaning in Häring than it had in Newman. For Newman it meant that one must not begin with private judgment and criticism of the religious system in which one has been raised, but must rather generously submit and obey. Consider the passage in context:
For is it not one’s duty, instead of beginning with criticism, to throw oneself generously into that form of religion which is providentially put before one? Is it right, or is it wrong, to begin with private judgment? May we not, on the other hand, look for a blessing through obedience even to an erroneous system, and a guidance even by means of it out of it? Certainly, I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light, and that it mattered not where a man began, so that he began on what came to hand, and in faith; and that anything might become a divine method of Truth; that to the pure all things are pure, and have a self-correcting virtue and a power of germinating.
Häring puts all the emphasis on the part of the context following the dictum, rather than on the part preceding it. One must, he argues, follow one’s conscience even in opposition to the authority of the Church. Even if the Church is right about the matter in hand, it is better for authorities not to apply any pressure on someone who disagrees in conscience, as if they were to act against their conscience out of fear, this would be a sin, whereas to act against the authority of the Church in good conscience is not a sin. The person who consistently follows conscience will eventually come to see more perfectly what the response to God demands. So, to exert pressure would be to “occupy space” whereas to respect conscience by advising someone to follow private judgment against Church authority would be to “initiate a process” which will lead them toward the truth. As Häring puts it:
It is very important not to see the erroneous judgment of conscience in a purely static manner. It would be a fatal error if a pastor or confessor or any one else wanted to press someone into acting against an erring conscience, or would hamper the development of his conscience by indiscreetly insisting on an objective norm.
[E]s ist sehr wichtig, vom irrigen Gewissensspruch nicht nicht in einer rein statischen Weise zu reden. Wollte ein Seelsorger, Beichtvater oder sonst irgend jemand diesen Menschen bedrängen, gegen sein irrendes Gewissen zu handeln oder durch indiskrete Eintrichterung einer objektiven Norm die Entfaltung seines Gewissens zu stören, so wäre das ein verhängnisvoller Fehler. [Bernhard Häring, Frei in Christus, vol. 1 (Freiburg: Herder, 1989), p. 242].
Part of the reason why Häring thinks it so important to respect conscience in this way is that he thinks that there are cases where conscience is in fact right and the “objective norm” laid down by the Church is wrong. One can see here the influence of modern historicism on Häring’s thought. He thinks that the proper response to God’s love is worked out slowly through history, and that the Church learns that certain things are not helpful to such a response by the prophetic voice of persons who stand up to her in conscience. He gives the example of the morality of torture (Frei in Christus, vol. 1, pp. 168, 282). This is a soft version of certain strands of modern historicism, indebted to Hegel. Having abandoned nature, and an objective teleological order, Hegel and some of his followers give to history a role analogous to that played by nature in classical philosophy. History judges about which social developments are in accordance with the flourishing of human freedom and which are not. Hence the ubiquity in modernity of talk about “the judgment of history.” Häring is proposing something similar for the life of the Church.
I call this sort of historicism “soft” since its proponents would not all be willing to affirm the dark core of Hegel’s account of the good. But by adopting historicist terms they tend to draw conclusions that imply the basically subjectivist, modern account of the good, and the account of freedom that follows from it. Thomas Stark has shown how these problems play out in the theology of Cardinal Kasper. And similar difficulties are found everywhere in the “new moral theology” that Häring did so much to initiate. In a telling passage, worth quoting at length, Richard Gula contrasts the “classicist” world view of the old moral theology with a world view marked by “historical consciousness” that marks the new moral theology:
Stated briefly, the classicist worldview assumes that the world is a finished product. In principle, everything that can be done has been done; “there is nothing new under the sun.” Moreover, the classicist worldview mistakes knowing for looking. One only needs to look upon the world to discover its order because a good look grasps the unchanging principles of the moral order. Since the natural, unchanging principles remain valid forever, they yield a high degree of certitude in the conclusions which are deduced from them. According to this worldview, moral living requires that we reproduce the order given in the world and learn to live by it. The Greek Parthenon and the Roman Forum are symbols of the classicist worldview. Each represents a world standing in well-balanced proportions. Stability is the principal virtue; change is a threatening vice. “Abstract,” “universal,” “eternal,” “necessary,” “essential,” and “fixed” are adjectives which characterize the classicist worldview. It is most reluctant to admit that moral theology itself could change or that the specific conclusions drawn in one historical period may not be valid in another era. From this point of view, moral theology only needs to make different applications of its eternal principles to the new problems and questions which may emerge.
The modern, historically conscious worldview, on the other hand, sees each thing as part of a whole which has yet to be discovered. Since life is an ongoing process of knowing more and more, thinking in developmental terms is quite natural. The historically conscious view conceives the person as growing closer to the truth but not being so bold as to know the whole of it anywhere along the way. This point of view recognizes that all knowledge is conditioned by time and place, limited self-awareness, and limited grasps of reality. “Specific,” “individual,” and “changing” are adjectives which characterize this point of view. Change, development, and revision are not signs of imperfection but ways of coming to the truth. This point of view believes that, although we come to possess truth slowly, we are not wandering aimlessly with nothing to give us direction. The truth can be grasped in some reliable way, allowing us to obtain a foothold in our journey before moving on to new discoveries.
Historical consciousness recognizes that humanity is both a product and a maker of history. For this reason, historical consciousness requires that all statements of moral teaching be interpreted from within their context and for a new audience. Since it does not absolutize any one particular culture or one particular moment in history as having grasped the whole of truth, the modern worldview is not satisfied with the mere repetition of the formulations of another age for a new era with new people and new experiences. [Richard M. Gula, Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 31].
We are faced here with a form of what has been called the “dehellenization of Christianity.” And dehellenization carries a risk that something essential will be lost. “The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance,” as Pope Benedict XVI put it in Regensburg. It was providential. And there are truths found in Greek philosophy that cannot be denied without betraying the faith. It is of course possible for moral theology to learn certain things from the “historically conscious worldview,” but a moral theology that would consistently follow historicist principles would find itself giving up essential truths.
In an early (and mostly favorable) assessment of Häring’s work, presented as a lecture in November of 1962, Fr. Ernest Fortin pointed out the following dangers that the approach involves:
The problem of the mode of procedure is, in any event, directly related to the more fundamental issue of the general principles, or, as Häring calls them, the “essential concepts” of moral theology. Häring’s key concepts are those of “call” and “response,” which in the present context are obviously taken to mean God’s call and man’s response. The choice of this starting point is dictated by the author’s understanding of Christian life in terms of an interpersonal relationship between God and man, and it leads to an articulation of moral philosophy along lines that may be described roughly as those of personalism, as P. Delhaye has rightly pointed out in his preface to the French edition of the Law of Christ. Häring’s sympathy with the position is linked to, and corroborated by, his criticism of Aristotelian and Thomistic eudemonism in the first part of his book. […] The fact that Häring should prefer a different approach from that of the classics does not mean that he is automatically wrong. It does compel us, however, to examine the relative merits of these two irreducible positions; and it also means that, even if we should finally decide in favor of the modern position, sooner or later we shall have to face the enormous theoretical and practical difficulties to which it is exposed. One cannot help wondering whether, by rejecting eudemonism or, differently stated, by refusing to base his study of human behavior on a previous analysis of man’s perfection or natural end, an author can still do justice to the intellectual or objective component of Christian morality. [Ernest Fortin, “The New Moral Theology,” in: Collected Essays, vol. 4, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), pp. 113-129, at p. 127].
The encyclical Veritatis Splendor was largely to be concerned with that last question: does the new moral theology do justice to the objective component of morality? Already in 1975 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had began to address this question in the instruction Persona Humana. There we read:
[T]here can be no true promotion of man’s dignity unless the essential order of his nature is respected. Of course, in the history of civilization many of the concrete conditions and needs of human life have changed and will continue to change. But all evolution of morals and every type of life must be kept within the limits imposed by the immutable principles based upon every human person’s constitutive elements and essential relations — elements and relations which transcend historical contingency. These fundamental principles, which can be grasped by reason, are contained in “the Divine Law — eternal, objective and universal — whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community, by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of Divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever increasingly the unchanging truth.” This Divine Law is accessible to our minds.
There is, then, a fundamental order that persists throughout all historical change. And this order is accessible to our minds. But what does it mean that it is accessible to our minds? In an eloquent attack on my thought on these matters, the author of the blog Entirely Useless writes:
It is not by chance that P. Edmund basically holds that the truth of Catholicism is supremely obvious. His integralism cannot be true, unless his “Catholicism is obvious” thesis is also true. Both are false.
One way or another, the thesis of hiddenness and the thesis of obviousness are in direct conflict and cannot both be accepted. P. Edmund rejects the hiddenness. Pope Francis, and most of the Catholic Church, rejects the obviousness. And ultimately Amoris Laetitia is simply drawing out consequences of this. If the truth of Catholicism is not obvious, it is not obvious even to Catholics, nor are particular doctrines, like the Church’s doctrine on marriage, obviously true.
Leaving aside questions of the differences between supernatural faith and natural knowledge of the natural law, I would respond to my anonymous friend by saying that a truth need not be “obvious” in every sense for it to be blameworthy for someone not to know it. Consider St. Paul’s famous words in the Epistle to the Romans:
For from heaven is revealed the anger of God against all the impiety and unrighteousness of people who in their unrighteousness suppress the truth; since what can be known about God is plain to them because God made it plain to them. Since the creation of the world, what is his and invisible, his eternal power and divinity, has been perceived by the mind through what he has made, so that they have no excuse; because, while knowing God, they did not glorify or thank him as God, but they were beguiled in their reasonings and their uncomprehending hearts were made dark. (Romans 1:18-21)
Now, the existence of God is surely not “obvious” to the gentiles in the sense employed by Entirely Useless. Their minds are darkened by sin, and so it is difficult for them to see the truth. But St. Paul teaches that this darkening by sin is blameworthy, and can be overcome. As I wrote in my letter to Cardinal Schönborn:
It is possible for conscience in the sense of the particular judgment about what is good to be in error. It is even possible to be habitually in error about the moral good. But there is something indelible about conscience in the sense of synderesis, the knowledge of the good that God has inscribed in our hearts. Hence moral error always includes an element of “suppressing the truth” (cf. Romans 1:18) that gives witness against us in the depths of the soul.
This is why, contra Fr. Häring, it is important to insist on the objective norm, which the person is capable of recognizing. One can even exert “pressure,” not to make someone act against their conscience, but rather to correct the judgement of their erring conscience by reminding them of the truth that is engraved by synderesis in the depths of their heart. As Tom Pink put it:
Where an authority does have the right to punish, then in [Suarez’s] view, as we have seen, the bearer of that authority can legitimately combine argumentative persuasion with the threat of coercive pressure. Now the pressure is indeed intended to motivate compliance through exploiting dislike of the penalties; but dislike of the threatened penalties is supposed to work by engaging the attention of those threatened, and motivating and directing them seriously to consider what is being argued, thereby facilitating right understanding. [Thomas Pink, “What is the Catholic doctrine of religious liberty?” p. 38]
I remember once getting into an argument with a distinguished moral theologian from Germany in a seminar on IaIIae q 19 a 6, where St. Thomas teaches that an erring conscience does not excuse. The theologian said that St. Thomas did not take into account the “prophetic” character of conscience, and was unwilling to accept that the norm proclaimed at his time might be wrong. I answered that he wasn’t talking about the socially accepted norm of his time, but about the natural law, which is immutable. “Well,” said the theologian, “how does he know about the definite content of the natural law? He accepts what is assumed in the culture of his time.” This position seems to me clearly false. And the question about divorce and “re-marriage” gives us pretty much the opposite case. The “culture of our time” tells us that it is OK to “re-marry,” but the Church appeals to the law written in the depths of the heart. The truly “prophetic” role of conscience is not to insist on private opinion, backed up by the custom of our time, against the perennial teachings of the Church. Rather, the truly prophetic act of conscience is allow oneself to be reminded by that perennial teaching of the eternal truth.
Now, I do not think that the Holy Father is a consistent follower of the “historically conscious” strand of moral theology represented by the likes of Häring. He certainly disagrees with Häring on some particular conclusions. On contraception, for example, Häring famously dissented from from the teaching of Humanae Vitae, whereas the Pope certainly does not. But the Holy Father’s praise of Häring, and the whole approach of “initiating processes” that marks his teaching on the moral life in Amoris Laetitia and beyond is bound to raise difficult questions about the extent to which that approach can be reconciled with the perennial teachings of the Church. The dubia of the four cardinals raise those questions with great clarity and precision. A clear and precise answer would be most helpful.