Tag Archives: Aquinas

The Limits of Conscience | Commonweal Magazine

“Conscience” is a difficult term; it has an absolutely essential place in our construal of morality, but its place frequently becomes obfuscated by descriptions that are too broad and too narrow, especially when those descriptions are placed in service of social and ecclesiastical power games. Creighton theologians Todd Salzmann and Michael Lawler have written an article in NCR on conscience and Amoris Laetitia which recognizes one side of this problem, but then perpetuates the other side. They contrast two ways of construing conscience. The first sees laws as “outside the subjective conscience. The role of the conscience is to know and apply these norms as a deductive syllogism.” This approach is assigned specifically to Archbishop Chaput. The second “sees conscience as having both the objective and subjective dimensions.” Its subjective dimension involves “having inner knowledge of the moral goodness of the Christian” as created in the image of God and living in a constant relationship with God, while its objective role “gathers as much evidence as possible, consciously weighs and understands the evidence and its implications, and finally makes as honest a judgment as possible that this action is to be done and that action is not.” This approach is assigned to Pope Francis, and is interlaced with (selective) quotations from the documents of Vatican II.

Source:  Commonweal Magazine

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“Sacramental” Same-Sex Unions?

In recent years, it’s been notable how Christian responses to committed same-sex relationships have evolved, from universal hostility half a century ago, to a diversity of responses that range from  full-blooded acceptance of same-sex marriage, in church, and openly gay church leaders, to a more cautious “hate the sin, love the sinner”.

Even in the Catholic church, there have been signs of some acceptance that committed same-sex unions may be sacramental, and deserving of formal blessings by the church, just as they were once done many centuries ago. This has been seriously proposed by many individual priests and theologians, and has even been formally discussed by the German bishops. (It’s entirely possible that with Pope Francis’ new emphasis on a more decentralized church, that such blessings in Germany will now continue, with at least tacit approval from the bishops, as long as they are “private”).

A recent book by Adriano Oliva OP, a distinguished theologian and specialist on Aquinas, a specialist in the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas, has provided sound theological support for the principle. In  Amours : L’église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels  he argues that contrary to the popular presentations, the great Thomas’ celebrated theory of Natural Law in fact supports committed relationships between same-sex couples with a natural orientation to the same sex.

The main thrust of his argument is that based on Aquinas’ teaching, we should accept that:

  • for some people, homosexual orientation is entirely natural
  • that for such people, loving same-sex relationships are good, and in accordance with divine plan
  • that their relationships should include sexual expression
  • that although being non-procreative, their unions can not be equated with marriage, they have intrinsic sacramental value of their own
  • and so, they deserve church blessings.

Among other delights, he quotes Aquinas using both Adam and Eve and the Holy Family to show that marriage is not all about procreation – and then uses Humanae Vitae, of all things, to make the same point himself.

Watch this space. Even with my limited French, with the help of the Google ebook edition and  Google translate, I’m finding a huge amount to treasure. As I work my way through it, I’ll have much more to share from this valuable new insight.

Recommended Books

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People In Western Europe From The Beginning Of The Christian Era To The Fourteenth Century: Gay … of the Christian Era to the 14th Century
Moore, Gareth: A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality
Oliva, Adriano: Amours : L’église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels 

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Catholic Moral Theologian, on How Existing Teaching Could Support Same – Sex Couples.

What is particularly interesting about Professor Alain Thomasett’s recent paper on narrative theology, in that he shows how existing teaching could accommodate support for same – sex couples, without any change in core sexual doctrines. It is also important that he made his argument to an important gathering of German, French and Swiss bishops, as part of a study day to prepare for the forthcoming Rome synod on marriage and family.

Thomasett

Calling for a change in sexual doctrine, or for respect for same – sex couples, are no longer particularly new in the Catholic Church, at least not in Europe. It’s been claimed that probably a majority of moral theologians now agree that fundamental change in needed, and in recent years, many of them have gone on the record with formal calls for just such a change. Also, there are now many senior bishops and cardinals who have said publicly that the Church should be able to recognize the value of civil unions.

The problem is that the synod has not been called to consider any change in teaching, which would be fiercely resisted by a solid block of more conservative bishops. The key to seeing the significance of Thomasett’s argument, is that he is not calling for any change in teaching, but simply the application of all the teaching in appropriate context, and not a reflex reaction to abstract sexual acts.

He notes, for example, that while homicide is clearly regarded as unacceptable in formal Catholic doctrine, the context makes all the difference: killing in self – defence is not the same as premeditated murder. He also draws attention to the overriding importance of personal conscience, and of attention to the sensus fidelium (or “sense of the faithful”). And so, while doctrine continues to assert the teaching in Humanae Vitae that artificial contraception is not acceptable, in practice, pastoral tolerance for contraception by particular couples is widely accepted. In the same way, an extension in pastoral practice to recognition and acceptance of particular same – sex couples, including civil unions or possibly even church blessings, is not all that far – fetched.

There is certainly no prospect of any change in Church teaching at the October synod. However, the bishops of Germany, France and Switzerland in attendance will be well – briefed on how the interpretation and application of existing teaching could well be accommodated. We can expect that these ideas will also be well received by many of their colleagues, especially those from elsewhere in Europe – and also by Pope Francis himself, who will ultimately sign the final assessment of the synod’s conclusions.

After the synod, we should expect that some bishops at least, again especially in some European countries, will return to their dioceses with an enhanced understanding of how acceptance of same – sex couples in pastoral practice, is not after all, necessarily in conflict with Church teaching.

From the start of his papacy, Pope Francis has frequently noted that Catholic teaching not only can change, but must constantly evolve. This idea of the need for evolution in teaching has been widely taken up also by others, and was a common thread running through all the papers presented to the Rome study day. Francis has also expressed a desire for many decisions in Church governance to be taken lower down the hierarchical chain, for example by national bishops, without referring everything to the Curia. Such decisions at national level would certainly include the application of pastoral practice.

Could this include blessing same – sex unions? Possibly, yes. When Germany’s association of lay Catholics recently called several changes in the Church, including the blessing of these unions, the response of Cardinal Marx was that these could not be accepted “unreservedly”.  The implication is that they could be acceptable, with some reservations. He did not specify quite what these reservations would be.

Already, there are individual priests in many countries who are willing, under the radar, to conduct blessing ceremonies for particular same – sex couples, especially where these and the quality of their relationships are personally known to them. It is likely that after the synod, an improved tone in pastoral practice would encourage more to do so – and encourage some bishops to turn a blind eye to the practice. As the number of same – sex couples in legally recognized unions continues to increase, and as the Protestant churches increasing accept both gay clergy and gay marriage, in church, we should expect that in practice, Catholic blessings of same – sex couples will likewise increase – both in number, and in visibility, just as the use of contraception, and cohabitation before marriage, are now widely accepted in practice.

Recommended Books

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People In Western Europe From The Beginning Of The Christian Era To The Fourteenth Century: Gay … of the Christian Era to the 14th Century
Moore, Gareth: A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality
Oliva, Adriano: Amours : L’église, les divorcés remariés, les couples homosexuels (French Edition)

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Moral Judgements and “Intrinsically Evil”: The Subjective Perspective

Professor Alain Thomasett SJ of Paris University began his paper to the German French and Swiss bishops’ study day for the 2015 family synod, with a reflection on the concept of “intrinsically disordered” acts, and  the difficulties which it raises for many Catholics in making moral judgements.

This is the section on the importance of taking into account the subjective context of the person and her/his story, in my own translation from the original French text

The issue of intrinsically evil acts

The interpretation of the doctrine of acts known as “intrinsically evil” seems to be one of the fundamental sources of the current difficulties in the pastoral care of families, as it largely determines the condemnation of artificial contraception, the sexual acts of remarried divorcees and of couples in stable same-sex relationships. It appears to many to be incomprehensible and seems pastorally counter productive. If it rightly insists on objective benchmarks necessary for moral life, it neglects precisely the biographical dimension of existence, and the specific conditions of each personal journey, elements to which our contemporaries are very sensitive and which contribute to the current conditions for the reception of Church doctrine. Several arguments point in the direction of greater integration of the history of the people.

The subjective side, the need for discernment of the situation and the place of conscience

a) The final report of the Extraordinary Synod itself acknowledges this difficulty (no. 52), because it poses a “distinction between the objective situation of sin and mitigating circumstances, as ‘the accountability and responsibility for an action can be reduced or even eliminated’ by various ‘psychological or social factors’ (Catholic Catechism No. 1735).” According to this doctrine, although the objective evil remains, it can be mitigated (Veritatis Splendor, No. 81.2), subjective responsibility can be reduced or even eliminated. An objective disorder does not necessarily produce subjective guilt. To state it more clearly, the intent and the circumstances can influence the objective qualification of the act, and secondly, they are necessary to determine the moral responsibility of the subject who must decide and act according to conscience.  All Catholic moral tradition calls for discernment that takes into account these different elements for a moral judgement that is  left in the last resort to the conscience of the people. Vatican II recalled the primacy of conscience which must be the judge of last resort (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n ° 16.50). (Note 1)

b) Individuals and couples often face conflicts of obligations which force them, when it is impossible to satisfy all values ​​at once, to choose after deliberation to prioritize the most important duty.

In practical situations, discernment is needed: for example if openness to life and the preservation of marital and familial equilibrium conflict with each other. The pastoral notes of nine episcopates after Humanae Vitae (including those of the French , German and Swiss  Bishops for 1968), also go in this direction; in cases of conflicts they refer to the judgment of conscience and responsible parenthood, repeating the arguments of the Council. Must this not restore to its place the conscience of the people? This in no way removes the need to form the conscience,  but demands that conscience not be replaced.

c) A biographical perspective and narrative forces us to think that moral evaluation is not about isolated acts, but about human actions inserted into a history.

A single act, isolated from its context and the history of the subject who may be responsible (which the term intrinsically means) is not yet a human act but an element of assessment which must be completed to be judged. A homicide is a gesture, a physical act. To make a human action involves determining who is the author and to understand the reasons and circumstances that led to this action. Is it self-defence, an accident, a crime of passion, a murder, premeditated or otherwise. Likewise, do not be too quick to call a sexual act of contraception ‘intrinsically evil! Paul Ricoeur and the contemporary philosophy of action remind us that an act can be assigned to an author who can be held accountable solely through the medium of narrative.

This is the set of elements of the story that can give meaning to action, and therefore qualify to evaluate it (Note.2). This is the judgement of conscience that ultimately can carry it. Moral standards describe acts. Conscience must judge an action. The objectives ethical guidelines given by the Church are only one element (admittedly essential but not unique) of moral discernment which must take place in conscience. We must give a fair place to moral standards and conscience to avoid giving the impression that conscience is reduced to blind obedience to rules that are imposed on it from outside. To omit this would reduce Christian ethics to a pure moralism, which Christians moreover reject overwhelmingly and justifiably. (Note 3) 

Notes:

1 “Only the conscience of the subject can provide the immediate norm for  action (…) Natural law can not be presented as an already established set of rules imposed a priori on the moral subject, but it is an objective source of inspiration for his eminently personal, approach to decision making.” International Theological Commission, “In search of a universal. ethic A New Look at Natural Law, Rome, 2008, No. 59. See also GS 50.2: “This judgement  is ultimately that of the couple themselves who must decide it before God

2 See, among others, Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as another, Seuil, 1990, especially Chapter 5 and 6.

3 For further details, see Alain Thomasset, “In fidelity to the Second Vatican Council: the hermeneutic dimension of moral theology”, Journal of Ethics and Moral Theology, No. 263, March 2011, p. 31-61 and No. 264, June 2011, p. 9-27

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