This is the second article in a three-part series on the upcoming Synod. See the first article here.
Acts that violate human dignity can never be ordered to the love of God and neighbor (cf. Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, nos. 80-82). They are “dead-ends,” as I like to call them, that will not enable us to reach our spiritual journey’s end–the Kingdom of God. Thus, they will never bring us true happiness. It should not be presupposed–and here is where some in the Church let the secular culture dictate the basic terms of the debate–that upholding moral absolutes is not a merciful stance. It truly is! For the first effect of any act–good or bad–is the self-determining effect it has on the immortal soul of the person who performs it. So it is the height of compassion to gently but firmly warn someone that, by doing an act that is contrary to God’s holy law, we sin, make ourselves sinners, and endanger our eternal salvation. Certainly there are better and worse ways to inform people that some actions are always wrong–such as racism and rape–but it is no kindness to allow people to think that these actions can ever be good.
Talking about sin today
But doesn’t calling acts “sinful” sound like more of the same old “hard line” that the people of today, so secularized, supposedly reject? Isn’t this just more “fire and brimstone” scare tactics? I do not think so. Remember how St. Thomas Aquinas defined sin in the Summa contra gentiles: an act that is contrary to our own good. We offend God when we act against our own good. By speaking of sin this way, we appeal to a person’s legitimate self-love and self-interest. We warn people against toxins in cigarettes, food, water, and air; why wouldn’t we warn them against what is lethal to their eternal happiness? Our contemporaries can, I think, grasp an understanding of sin that shows how sin is not so much unnatural as it is counter-productive. Instead of being open to the realization of all of the human good in every human person, we settle for only a partial aspect of it when we sin, and that is unreasonable (This is especially true of mortal sin, which completely estranges us from God).
It is a false mercy, then, that would allow people to remain in their sin or to redefine sin in such a way that vice would become virtue, good become evil. I believe it was the dissenting moral theologian, Fr. Charles Curran, who once spoke somewhere tongue-in-cheek of the moral theologian as one who “takes away the sins of the world”! But we know that only Christ can take away the sins of the world, and he has empowered the Catholic Church to do so sacramentally through the ordained priest acting in persona Christi. But the Church must first remain clear and constant on what those sins are. Her authoritative pastors must take care not to undermine by ambiguity, timidity, spin, doubt, distortion, or denial the now decades-old work to bring the post-conciliar Church out of its conflict of interpretations and confusion over the Second Vatican Council’s work.
Speaking the fullness of the truth
When a bishop, priest, deacon, or even the pope himself speaks, the teaching must be articulated in its fullness, at least when that’s practicable. (If possible, they should be careful in their choice of the means of communication, their choice of words, and even their choice of speaking venue!). Partial answers to difficult and controversial questions can cause great misunderstanding, at times possibly leaving the impression that that teaching is “up for grabs,” so to speak. For example, if I say, “We Christians are not to judge,” I should quickly add, “but we can and should judge the sin, not condemn the sinner.” Lately, it seems, we have had too much advice of the “Read the signs of the times…” kind, but not enough of the “…interpret them in the light of the gospel.” (cf. Gaudium et spes, no. 4). The problem, therefore, isn’t always only what some churchmen say, it’s often what they don’t say.
Hence, it’s not good enough to say–as a good and faithful priest I know recently wrote in the parish bulletin–that the Catholic Church is not in a position to “accept” same-sex marriage. Rather, because it’s a matter of unchanging moral and sacramental truth, the Church absolutely cannot recognize gay marriage (Despite the U.S. Supreme Court having imposed it on the nation in Obergefell vs. Hodges!). Neither is it good enough to say, as this same priest put it, that the Church will continue to express “reservations” about all non-marital sexual acts. People can have reservations about whether to buy a second car or not, but on the matter of gay marriage and other forms of non-marital sexual activity, the Church expresses more than mere reservations. She has a deep opposition to these acts precisely because she always loves the person who does them and does not want that person harmed or denied eternal salvation. The Church’s goal is Christ’s goal: to bring the person out of the darkness of sin and into the light of virtue.
The question of ideals
Another difficulty stems from the fact that the Church’s moral teaching is often portrayed, as it was in the media and even by some bishops and cardinals during the Synod, as some kind of ideal (Shortly after the Synod, e.g., Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke of Humanae vitae’s teaching on contraception as an “ideal”; understood as: “It’s great if you can live it fully; but it’s okay too if you fall far short of it.” This legalistic way of seeing the teaching more as mere “club rules” or the “party line” rather than as moral truths, blocks people’s efforts to grow in the Christian spiritual life. It induces a moral minimalism that is satisfied with just “getting by”…sometimes just barely. Yes, the teaching is an ideal in the sense that, at times, we all fail – sometimes miserably – to live it in an integral and faithful way. We stumble – even fall flat on our faces. But that failure on our part doesn’t imply that the teaching itself is a mere ideal. The Ten Commandments and our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, as understood and taught by the Church, are not pious suggestions. The teaching is normative for everyone–saints and sinners alike–in every personal vocation and state of life. By living it with the help of God’s grace in the sacraments, we become the persons God destined us to be when “he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him” (See Eph. 1:4).
Editor’s Note: The final article in the series will address the way this understanding of the Church’s role of teaching and mercy can be applied to the upcoming Synod.Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
- The Five Phases of the Sexual and Cultural Revolution
- Is It Ever Immoral Not to Practice NFP?
- Fundamental Distinctions for the Upcoming Synod
- Speaking the Truth in Love
- Whose Agenda? Reflections on the Upcoming Synod