When questions are perceived as threats, a guilty conscience is at work.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 29, 2016

As the fallout from Amoris Laetitia continues to settle, it is difficult to imagine a more illuminating exercise than to compare recent statements by San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy and Cardinal George Pell. Bishop McElroy’s new policies invite the divorced and remarried to discern for themselves whether or not they should receive Communion. But Cardinal Pell emphasizes that “the idea that you can somehow discern that moral truths should not be followed or should not be recognized is absurd.”

Meanwhile, the dean of the Roman Rota, Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, noted that Pope Francis could, if he so chooses, discipline the four cardinals who recently raised questions about Amoris Laetitia by stripping them of their rank. The issues at stake are more complex than these brief references can express, but a few critical thoughts do spring to mind.

For example, I find it striking that both Bishop McElroy and Msgr. Pinto place great emphasis on the authority of synods. McElroy claims to be implementing proposals generated by a diocesan synod held last month. And Pinto claims that questions about Amoris Laetitia are inappropriate because the document reflects the work of the Synod of Bishops, and so “the action of the Holy Spirit cannot be doubted.” In reality, of course, neither the San Diego synod nor the synods regularly held in Rome have any special authority. And while one hopes that those involved in all such gatherings are open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the recommendations of such synods most emphatically do not enjoy the protection of the Holy Spirit.

Still, apparently it is now the fashion to claim synodal authority for new interpretations of Catholic doctrine, Canon Law and pastoral policy. This is extraordinarily odd, especially since—on that basis—it could be fairly easily proved that the majority of bishops at the two Synods on the Family opposed the very proposal that Pope Francis has privately embraced and encouraged, despite the fact that he could not bring himself to state it clearly in Amoris Laetitia.

Questions and more questions

It is no wonder, then, that high-ranking Churchmen continue to ask the Pope for clarifications. When Cardinal Pell was asked whether he agreed with such questions, he gave the obvious answer: “How can you disagree with a question?” Unfortunately, those who favor the famous “shades of gray” theory regarding reception of the Eucharist steadfastly refuse to answer the questions. Following the precedent set by Pope Francis, they elect not to explain the moral principles involved, not to resolve the conflicts with Canon Law, and not to give examples of the kinds of situations in which a divorced and remarried couple (without benefit of annulment) could rightly present themselves to receive the Eucharist.

Moreover, in San Diego, Bishop McElroy appears to be on the cusp of advocating the same sort of personal discernment for gay and lesbian couples, as well as couples cohabiting before marriage, arguing that the creation of a supportive environment for such couples “might require reconsideration of practices which, while they have a certain legitimacy, alienate young couples and leave them feeling that they are unwanted in the life of the Church.” Once again, an observation by Cardinal Pell is very much to the point: He cited Blessed John Henry Newman’s concern about a “miserable counterfeit” of conscience that promotes “the right of self-will.”

There are a great many factors in the life of the Church that have led us directly into this confusion. But surely one of these is the utter failure of bishops over the past two or three generations to draw any significant distinction between Christ’s moral teachings and the values of the larger secular culture. Astonishingly, in a great many dioceses and parishes Catholics can fall into contraception, fornication, homosexuality, and irregular marriages without ever squarely facing these temptations as a battle between Christ and the world for the possession of their souls. Since we do not take the sins seriously in the first place, it seems extraordinarily petty to withhold Communion after the fact.

We have slipped to the point at which even the effort to clarify the Church’s teachings and policies is perceived as threatening. Our new pastime is to speculate on the punishments which may be meted out to those who ask for help in properly understanding which new initiatives are compatible with the Catholic Faith, and which are not. But there is something familiar about treating those who raise questions as trouble-makers. We typically encounter this behavior among those who are trying to push through changes before others can figure out exactly what they mean, and what their consequences are likely to be. A guilty conscience always sees questions as threats.

Not in the Gospel

That assessment is right on target. Therefore, the usual response is to obfuscate. In some circles such murkiness is considered a singular service to the Gospel, as if it fosters a generous emphasis on Christian essentials in marked contrast to a petty concern about moral norms. Unfortunately, the only problem with this approach to the Gospel is that we cannot find it in the Gospel. In Scripture, the mercy of Christ is almost invariably accompanied by a heartfelt injunction, which Our Lord expressed repeatedly in a wide variety of forms:

  • Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (Jn 8:34);
  • If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin (Jn 15:22);
  • Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again (Jn 8:11);
  • If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away (Mt 5:29);
  • Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea (Mk 9:42);
  • For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery (Mk 7:21);
  • There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Lk 15:7);
  • If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, “We see,” your guilt remains (Jn 9:41).

We find this same condemnation of sin, particularly sexual sin, throughout the letters of St. Paul. The great Apostle to the Gentiles repeatedly demands that those who are guilty of sodomy, fornication, adultery, impurity and licentiousness be corrected or shunned. Such things, says St. Paul, “must not even be named among you” (Eph 5:3; cf. inter alia Gal 5:19; Col 3:5; 1 Cor 5:11). “Do not be deceived,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians, “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

None of this argues against love, repentance or forgiveness. But all of it argues against fostering or even tolerating spiritual blindness. How is it that we cannot understand the Word of God today? As Cardinal Pell pointed out, we would never advise racists to decide for themselves whether they are in a state of serious sin. Each and every Catholic needs to ask why so many of us—from top to bottom—condemn only what the world condemns, and accommodate only what the world accommodates. And if that question pricks our consciences, we can be relied upon to dismiss it as a threat.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 10 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: impossible - Dec. 05, 2016 6:40 PM ET USA

    Good thing you don't have a red hat at stake. Good work! And well and clearly said.

  • Posted by: pb54337711 - Dec. 01, 2016 5:31 PM ET USA

    Beautifully articulated, sound as a bell, Jeff. Thank the Good Lord for the likes of Cardinal Pell and Cardinal Burke, helping us keep our Catholic feet firmly planted in the Truth. It's really not that complicated ... Apropos of this, re: your recent request for comment on it being time to relax our preoccupation with Pope Francis's oft-generated confusion (if I paraphrase you correctly), OK but PLEASE continue columns like this one. We GREATLY need your and Phil's compensating clarity!

  • Posted by: susana8577 - Dec. 01, 2016 2:22 PM ET USA

    I've been thinking about the "distinction between Christ's moral teachings and the values of the larger secular culture," how we've missed the battle, didn't even know it was happening. This reminds me of Ezra, Nehemiah and idolatry. Surrounded by the pagan gods of the nations, we joined ourselves to them. We need to rediscover the Law, cast away our idols, reclaim our heritage and traditions, remember who we are and Who God Is. Like Nehemiah, you are rebuilding the walls. Thank you!

  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Dec. 01, 2016 10:15 AM ET USA

    The environment of the Sacrament of Reconciliation strikes me as the only responsible site to discuss such serious moral matters. Spiritual direction can/may pave the way to the confessional (And as a confessor/director I think a prudent separation between SpDir and the Sacrament -- a Confessional comes immediately to mind -- shows the fuller scale involved here.). Counsel, specifically given to a particular penitent, must not be glibly publicized as the panacea for all. Its happening here.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Nov. 30, 2016 4:50 PM ET USA

    All these sins derive from the refusal to follow the marital commitment. One sin clings to the next. Divorce, adultery, solitary sex, contraception, abortion, same sex activity, perversions of every sort. How rare has been the confrontation with the salient elements by our priests and Bishops. Fear of offending man, not God. Now the Universal Pastor himself tells us we can discern for ourselves. He wouldn't want to offend anyone. Surely, we must be near to the end struggle - the "end times".

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Nov. 30, 2016 4:29 PM ET USA

    In re: Mark 9:42, I'm afraid there are a great number of millstones being prepared for those who abuse their office as shepherds. It is increasingly difficult to give them the respect that should be due to them, since feelings of anger and contempt naturally spring up when one sees wolves in sheepdog's garb, harming the flock that they are supposed to be protecting.

  • Posted by: Jerome - Nov. 30, 2016 12:22 PM ET USA

    "might require reconsideration of practices which ... alienate young couples and leave them feeling that they are unwanted in the life of the Church." But isn't it precisely the case that those young couples have already decided that they themselves don't actually want the life of the church. What they want is for the church to want their life?

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Nov. 30, 2016 8:11 AM ET USA

    I can think of only four words to describe this article by Jeffrey Mirus: "Breathtaking sanity, breathtaking excellence."

  • Posted by: susana8577 - Nov. 29, 2016 7:05 PM ET USA

    Excellent! Thank you!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 29, 2016 6:05 PM ET USA

    You rightly point out that it is the insecure who points the finger of accusation at those who he feels threaten him.