Have good and evil changed? The Pontifical Academy for Life wants to know.
In recent weeks we have seen two presentations by members of the Pontifical Academy for Life which suggest that the very nature of good and evil has changed. Surely others could be cited, but I refer to a newly appointed member of the Academy, Maurizio Chiodi, who argued that contraception is sometimes morally required (despite Pope Paul VI having defined contraception to be intrinsically evil within marriage); and to a recently appointed corresponding member of the Academy, Gerhard Hoever, who asserted that the term “intrinsically evil” is too restrictive to be theologically useful.
Both men are priests.
One could write volumes penetrating the innermost recesses of these theories, which are extraordinarily vague, and which always seem to lose themselves in the labyrinthine ways of either personal angst or the space-time continuum. But instead I will make just three general points:
Both presentations and others like them are rooted in the classic Modernist premise that Divine Revelation is dependent on human cultural perceptions for its truth value. The theory is that, since we cannot know what God has revealed except through the lens of our own cultures, what the Church defines as good or evil will not only necessarily but rightly change over time. Typically coupled with a touching faith in human progress, Modernism also predisposes its adherents to view the latest cultural insights as not only “truth for us” but also as superior to those of more “primitive” cultures. An objective Modernist is thus as much of a self-contradiction as a humble one.
Modernism was quite correct to raise the problem of cultural perception in theology. Recognition of the problem is an important result of the West’s growing awareness that the human person sees reality largely in terms of the categories, insights and even myths which are characteristic of the culture in which he or she has been formed—not to mention individual psychological peculiarities! But Modernism remains incorrect in failing to see that it is precisely the in-breaking of Divine Revelation from the very ground of Being—from a source and foundation beyond our individual personalities and shifting cultures—that makes it radically different from all human theories; and it is always coupled with Divine grace to facilitate a response that transcends such limitations. By its very nature, then, Revelation is transcendent. The challenge is not to shackle Revelation to our perceptions but to shackle our perceptions to Revelation. This is theology; this is faith seeking understanding.
Both presenters, and many others like them, depend on the examination of complex situations for formulating what they see as a more flexible and realistic approach to moral judgment. Unfortunately, this approach always collapses into situation ethics, which has justly been rejected by the Church for its deeply-rooted tendency to judge according to the dictates of human empathy (which is typically driven by personality and culture) rather than by the application of moral truths to situations which would otherwise confuse us because of the emotions they engender.
It is the whole point of Divine Revelation—most fully and personally in Jesus Christ—to enable us to evaluate even ourselves in the light of God, so that we can find our true fulfillment in Him. Our Lord was never without sympathy, but he was also never without the ability to see the sin at the root of unfortunate situations—by which, in moral terms, we mean flawed patterns of human behavior. This is why he always insisted on personal conversion. “Your faith has saved you,” he often said. “So go, and sin no more.” That was the good news; the bad news was his condemnation of those who refuse to believe, who refuse the Divine invitation to transcend themselves, their situation, their culture.
Finally, all scholars who shy away from the absolute character of Catholic moral teaching ignore the very thing which popular culture thinks the Church is so very good at. I mean “Catholic guilt”. They are always eager to assure people that they are not guilty. The consequence is that evil cannot be condemned and change cannot be demanded. Moreover, since these theories are proposed the more frequently and intensively as the theorists are the more culture-bound, they are inescapably selective as to which sorts of guilt they define out of existence. That is why, in our era, it is always sexual guilt that must be repudiated, and never guilt about our poor choice of economic theories or our inadequate response to climate change.
So let us stop short and recognize that the selective dismissal of guilt in these theories really is a repudiation of the very thing that the Church is best at—just as the world has always said! Over the centuries, the Church has refined her understanding of guilt to more clearly recognize a critical reality which already provides the empathetic solution so many of our pseudo-scholars demand. The Church has always known that, while all sin is a violation of objective morality, the degree of guilt a person incurs for his sins must be determined subjectively. The very definition of mortal sin depends not only on the objective gravity of the offense but on the degree to which guilt can be imputed to the sinner.
Whether the sinner “knew it was a sin” and whether the sinner gave it the “full consent of his will”: These are what determine guilt without sacrificing moral objectivity, just as these are what demonstrate the incomparable mercy of God.
God has created the reality of guilt to temper what, in every age, some of us will consider the too-strict principles of right and wrong found in natural law and Divine Revelation. A loving Father has given us the gift of guilt not so we may despair but so we may turn and be saved. It is our recognition of guilt which stimulates our struggle, step by painful step, to give ourselves to God and become whole in Him. Conversely, it is precisely our denial of guilt which is the sin against the Holy Spirit, who again and again seeks to penetrate the hardness of our hearts with a growing awareness of our desperate need for Divine mercy.
Yes: Guilt is very much at issue here. The Christian life is a serious struggle to grow into guilt precisely so that it may be transformed into gratitude and love through a deeply personal exchange with the God who saves. That is why those who offer popular theories to eliminate guilt will have so much to answer for. I refer here to the forty-first verse of the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John. I mean all of the Church’s vain scholars who say, “We see”—and so their guilt remains.
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