The Hubris of a Tax-Code System of Morality
Humility is a commonly misunderstood virtue. Humility does not deny legitimate talents and attributes; it is the honest assessment of our relationship with God and others.
A humble person recognizes the sovereignty of God. We are His creatures and servants. Adam and Eve violated His Kingship, persuaded they would “be as gods” (Gen. 3:5), and, in their arrogance, committed Original Sin. The ancient temptation reappears throughout history and takes many forms.
Communism, National Socialism, and modern secularism are variants of post-Enlightenment atheism. Increasingly, the clergy—and even the highest ranking clergy—also undermine the sovereignty of God and their proper relationship with the Church. They treat the Catholic faith as an elaborate tax code.
The US tax code is the most complicated collection of statutes the world has ever known. Only a few dare to prepare their own tax returns. Most of us rely on experts for help. We don’t know when the laws will change and rarely understand motivations. The changing regulations render even the most astute tax professional obsolete without continuing education. A tax-code mentality is incompatible with the eternal truths of the Catholic faith.
Jesus teaches us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) Yet He never codified His commandments in texts. The Gospels were born into the Church and presented to us in the Sacred Liturgy that extends throughout history. The Mosaic Law, with its intricacies, gave way to the Gospel of freedom and the eternal truths accessible by the Catholic mind, culturally formed. Popes and bishops convened councils, summarized the faith in creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene), adjudicated controversies, wrote catechisms, and promulgated relatively short codes of canon law. The precepts of our religion never succumbed to the equivalent of an elaborate tax code pandering to changing interests and economic demands of constituencies.
In the 1950s, Dr. John Rock introduced the innovation of the contraceptive pill. It gained popularity during the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI deferred a ruling on “The Pill” subject to a study by a group that became popularly known as the “Birth Control Commission.”
Before the release of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, priests in the confessional abandoned their Catholic sensibilities and encouraged penitents to—without direction—“follow their consciences.” Many made peace with contraception and, later, even with abortion. By 1968, the “Birth Control Commission” voted to approve The Pill. Paul VI overruled that decision in Humanae Vitae. Dissent erupted. The authoritative decrees of a papal document could not substitute for a healthy Catholic conscience formed in a Catholic culture, nor could it heal consciences deformed by moral expedience.
The crisis accelerated a corrosive pattern in the Church. Precepts of moral theology would henceforth take shape as the Vatican responded to a myriad of dissident priests, bishops, and theologians. Church leaders exposed their Christian witness to the dangers of legalism, distorting their relationship to the Gospel. Until recently, the orthodoxy of these documents was beyond reproach. But the pattern of legalism arguably encouraged a subliminal way of thinking. Only official pronouncements could determine good and evil, right and wrong. The sense of the faithful—the Catholic mind—became hostage to a tax-code mentality.
People often ask priests whether it is morally licit to attend an invalid marriage “outside the Church,” hoping for legalistic official guidance. Without it, most choose to celebrate the sin rather than inflame discontent. (If memory serves, the Church never made an official pronouncement on the matter, although the Church canonized Saint Thomas More for his heroic witness to the sanctity of marriage.) But decrees are not necessary. A Catholic mind accepts the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and its presumed derivative: “Thou shalt not condone adultery.” These words of Jesus form a Catholic mind: “I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt. 5:28)
The demand for a tax-code Catholic morality, detached from the overall life of the Church, undermines the Gospel of Christian freedom and the merits of an authentically Catholic mind. The proliferation of Church responses to moral difficulties (is it better for a prostitute to require a condom, for example) quickly erodes priestly and episcopal authority with a welter of unnecessary detail. A tax-code morality overstates the power of bishops and priests. Ominously, what they deign to prohibit, they can easily allow. The tax man giveth, and the tax man taketh away. The arrogance of legislative and executive power replaces the humility of clerical and Christian witness.
In the upcoming months or years, the gay lobby within the institutional Church—including most German bishops, the cardinal archbishop of Luxembourg, and even the Holy Father himself— threatens to approve some variation of “same-sex unions.” Based on multiple redactions of the paper chase of the so-called synodal process, an alleged demand for a “change” in the Church’s teaching on homosexuality will undoubtedly emerge. Vatican dicasteries—perhaps pronouncements from the highest level—will almost certainly nod approval to significant violations of the Sixth Commandment.
These departures from the Church’s teaching violate Catholic consciences and will only serve to confuse. By severing the moral teaching of the Church from authentic Catholic sensibilities, these officials will open a Pandora’s Box of moral horrors. Sordid examples will invariably arise: Describe the detailed steps for LGBTQ genital mutilation. When are fellatio and anal sex permissible? Before a gay union, or only afterward? When is it licit to use devices for sexual pleasure? An elaborate encyclical on animal rights will be necessary. Arbitrary, chaotic, and obscene? Of course. They started it.
Authentic Church authority requires humility and a Catholic culture centered on the Eucharist, not only on the part of the sheep but especially on the part of the shepherds, the Pope, and the successors of the apostles. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI reminds us that we are “not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator” (HV 13). Similarly, Church authorities are not the masters of the sources of morality but humble ministers of the design established by the Creator.
The purpose of my writing has always been to defend the faith. As necessary, I provide pathology reports to contrast the truth with its counterfeits. A pathology report also suggests the remedies of reasonable and faithful responses. I meant this piece to remind us to recover a sense of an authentic Catholic culture that provides the context for Christian truth, a culture we mostly find in the Sacred Liturgy. The clergy complicit in spreading error pose an immense challenge. We need not deny the inevitable conclusions of right reason and sound an alarm. I’m confident the Holy Spirit will someday sort out the mess. Who knows? Maybe we will partake in His glorious plan of restoration. So we need vocal orthodox Catholics on the field of battle. Abandoning the Catholic faith isn’t so much about cowardice—although perhaps it is. Leaving the Church is wrong and a violation of logic.
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Posted by: Retired01 -
Sep. 04, 2022 1:25 PM ET USA
Fr Pokorsky, thank you for your courage in shedding light on what is currently happening in the Church. May God bless you for helping us understand it. May God bless you, keep up the good work!
Posted by: phil L -
Aug. 30, 2022 4:36 PM ET USA
See Father Pokorsky's response to a reader's comment, which we have added as a postscript to his piece.
Posted by: CorneliusG -
Aug. 29, 2022 11:20 AM ET USA
If the Church does indeed "nod approval to . . . violations of the 6th commandment" then she has become a blind guide, leading men to hell. At that point, I'm outta here. The Church will have failed - indeed, it's hard to see how she hasn't failed under this egregious "pontificate".