It seems that there is a loss of understanding by many in the Catholic blogosphere about what makes an act immoral or not, and the role of the papacy in “declaring” acts sinful. In fact it goes beyond the blogosphere; it now extends all the way to the Pope himself. (More on this later…. But it seems that Pope Francis has called for the abolition of life imprisonment. (See this article at Catholic News Services)
I am not sure exactly what he would have in mind as the appropriate punishment for multiple murders like Ted Bundy, or Charles Manson. Given his opposition to capital punishment, He does not want them executed, and he seems to want fixed prison terms… so apparently he would want them released at some point? (Ted Bundy of course was executed by the state of Florida in 1989 for the serial murder and rape of a number of young women so too late for him, Manson is imprisoned for life in California for his involvement in the particularly brutal, even satanic, murder of actress Sharon Tate and 4 other people in her home. Surely the Pope is not in essence calling for the parole of the likes of Manson!) Papal edicts that would logically lead to the release back into the community of the likes of Bundy and Manson are meaningless since they will most certainly be ignored. (Rightfully so…) They simultaneously undermine the authentic authority of the magisterium. They mark a departure from the Catholic moral tradition, and given their “off the cuff” nature only appear to have papal authority, but in fact are not really a use of that authority at all.
In fairness to the Pope he has not explicitly addressed any of the specific cases and is really just speaking in vague generalities, but we have many in the Catholic blogosphere acting like “Papal fundamentalists”, in that they seem to believe every papal statement caries the same weight and authority, even when some of them manifestly contradict things said by other Popes!
This may be because many well meaning Catholic commentators come from an Evangelical Christian background and basically use papal statements as “proof texts” in the same way that they would have used Bible passages as “proof texts” to show some doctrine is true. This is a seriously flawed approach since it often results in using a passage in isolation apart from other conflicting passages and in a way not consistent with how the Church lived its life. Enemies of Christianity often do this kind of thing in reverse by citing passages in the Old Testament that seem to have God ordering Israel to destroy its enemies in a fashion that would amount to mass slaughter and get you tried as a war criminal today. This is not to say that papal statements or scripture are without value, but it is to say, in Catholicism they must be interpreted in the light of the whole tradition. It is not fair to argue that St.John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae that capital punishment was “wrong”, while ignoring that other Pope’s said it was ok. You need to reconcile these kinds of things by understanding the context, what specifically was said and what issue was being addressed, and considering all this in light of the entire tradition. This includes but is not limited to what was the common understanding of the Saints, and particularly the Doctors of the Church. This is real intellectual work and is perhaps hard to do in a blog. It must be done however when searching for the truth.
It also needs to be understood that for the most part moral theology is not revealed, it is not contained in Scripture, or Papal statements. We understand what is morally required through the use of reason. It is based on natural law. That is it is based on what we need to do in order to fulfill our nature or end as a human being. This does not require revelation, and it is why the New Testament does not concern itself with a huge number of moral arguments, most of the time when scripture talks about morality it says things like Roman 2: 14-15
“ For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them. “
We have discussed this in a previous post at length which can be read here.
Now it is true that the Church can preach about these matters and God will protect the Church from error when she does so. God gives us the Church as a help, because humans are weak and prone to error to a greater or lesser extent, so God gives us additional help beyond unaided human reason to understand how we must live. Still reason is the primary method for ascertaining moral obligations.
Since human nature does not change the principles of the moral law do not change ever, so if the Church appears to teach contradictory things then one of two things are true:
Either the Church is not a reliable guide to truth or the teaching is not truly contradictory. At the end of the day then the real question is whether the teaching is truly contradictory. The key is to understand the nature of what was actually taught in the past and what can reasonably be said now in the light of this, and what is currently being said with what level of certainty and authority. Let’s be clear that the Pope cannot suddenly change a teaching. He cannot say you know adultery is ok, or self defense is now immoral.
An example of an apparent conflict often cited is the teaching on usury. Usury is the taking of interest on the lending of a completely consumable fungible good. This would be a good that can only be immediately used or hoarded. Its vice is that it seems to exploit one man’s immediate need for a thing and capitalized on another man’s comparative wealth. In ancient economies it meant a rich man with hoarded food could “loan the food” to a poor one and exact interest (sometimes exorbitantly) from the poor man, thus exploiting him. At one time this was taught to be sinful and of course it no longer is taught to sinful so what gives? The simple answer is that this kind of activity remains sinful. But what we think of as taking interest on money no longer corresponds to this kind of thing. This is because the nature of money has changed over time. Money can know be almost always invested, is never hoarded in the same manner and the lender is entitled to some compensation for lack of use of his money in some other profitable manner and to the risk of not being paid back. This taking interest on a loan is not intrinsically wrong but wrong based on circumstances. For a full discussion see this article at the “Catholic Culture” site . Leaving aside objections to this line of reasoning, it is obviously convincing to a committed Catholic. If one merely believes the Church is able to contradict itself, than it is not a guide to the truth, and it is really irrelevant what the Pope thinks as he has no more authority than any other widely known figure.
Ok fast forward to our time. We now have a situation where the Pope is calling for things which are not obviously consistent with prior teachings. Rather then recognizing such statements as an expression of the Pope’s opinion, and even suggesting they deserve a hearing, they are being treated as statements of new doctrine developments of the old teachings. It is easy to see why the heterodox and the liberal left do this. They pretty much hate the tradition, car nothing for Church authority and merely like the propaganda value if it is apparent. So they quote the Pope selectively. Its a bit more puzzling when those who claim allegiance to Church authority do it. They seem to not understand this is crazy. A real “development” of doctrine must result from organic growth out of, and be plausibly connected to the original teaching via some sort of internal logic. It cannot basically be a reversal! The teaching of Vatican II on religious freedom was clearly foreshadowed by teachings dating back to the time of Aquinas and even earlier. These teaching declared it would be wrong to coerce another man to become a Christian. Vatican II’s declaration on religious freedom is clearly linked to these older ideas. In contrast we now appear to have teachings coming out of the ether that are clearly in conflict with common sense and the past understanding of the Church.
We have a notable and egregious example of this kind of thing in blogger Mark Shea’s reaction to the Bush administrations use of Water boarding on Jihadist terrorists, and we will discuss this in our next post.