The road to Hell is paved with Catholic ideals.
It is becoming increasingly common (again!) for bishops and theologians to refer to the moral law as an “ideal”. This is simply more evidence of the secularization of what passes for Christian thought. For example, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago has used this language in commenting on those who enter into gay marriages:
It’s a lot easier to tell people what they are doing in black and white. The important thing in all of this as we move forward is to recognize that people’s lives are very complicated. There are mitigating circumstances, psychological, their own personal history, maybe even biological. It’s not a matter of detracting from what the ideal is.
Never mind that it actually takes moral courage to tell people what they are doing wrong rather than to appear to tolerate it. This should be self-evident, but the quotation also goes a long way toward explaining why Cardinal Cupich has not adopted the policy of another bishop in Illinois, Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, ruling that those in same-sex marriages should not receive Communion or ecclesiastical funeral rites.
In a similar instance, Cupich, who had told the National Catholic Register that his role as a pastor “is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church”, went on to mute the obvious effect of that statement by adding that he would lead homosexual couples “through a period of discernment, to understand what God is calling them to at that point” (emphasis added).
But what God is calling them to do (as we know from the natural law and the objective moral teachings of His Church) is to abandon their false marriages and avoid homosexual relations of any kind—not “at that point” but always and universally.
The falsity of gradualism
Such confusing statements are fairly obviously designed to comply with a modern myth pertaining to faith and morals, the myth of gradualism. Gradualism always presents the moral law as an ideal toward which we are to strive. It allows for the relative goodness of falling short of the ideal, mainly so the Church can accommodate herself to the values of the world. In other words, Catholics who subscribe to this myth can say that violations of God’s law are simply “less good” than adherence to it. It is, after all, harder for the world to dismiss a useful Catholic leader or teacher who simply maintains that Catholic morals are “best” or “ideal” but that violations of them are okay too.
But this language is very dangerous. Pope St. John Paul II had already put the spotlight on the problem in 1981 in his Apostolic Exhortation on the family Familiaris Consortio. He did so in the context of marital love, openness to life, and contraception (for pressure to baptize homosexuality was still quite muted four decades ago). The passage, with emphasis added to assist the reader, is worth quoting in full:
Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to gain ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God. They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy.
“And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace and in his or her own will.”95
On the same lines, it is part of the Church’s pedagogy that husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality, and that they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm. [no. 34]
Good and better, good and bad
Gradual moral and spiritual development is something we all experience, and to which we are all called. As we progress in self-understanding, in understanding God’s law as a law of love, in our reception of and openness to grace, we see more clearly our own weaknesses and shortcomings in comparison with the perfection of our Father and our merciful Lord. And so we grow in understanding of the good, and strive to encompass more of the good in our own being, as reflected in our own thoughts, words and deeds.
But the one thing which stops this process is setting our own understanding against the moral laws which God has revealed to us through both nature and Revelation, as infallibly articulated by the Church He established. When we recognize a conflict between our own understanding and the given moral law (often but not always involving our own attraction to something evil), there are two things that we may not conclude. The first is fairly straightforward: We must not conclude that we are right and the natural law, Divine Revelation, and the Church are wrong.
The second is more subtle: We must not say that the thing we value, though contrary to God’s law, is good but not the highest good; or that the thing we value (though contrary to God’s law) is morally acceptable but not ideal. That distinction might exist in the decision to donate $20 rather than $200 to CatholicCulture.org (depending on your means)! But in the cases we are considering, what we are clinging to is actually bad or evil because it represents a privation of the good. For example, when we “beat somebody up”, it may be good that we did not commit some greater evil (such as murder). But while it is good to avoid any particular evil, it is not good to commit some other evil. It is not morally good to physically damage or injure another person deliberately.
In the same way, it may be good to avoid engaging in sexual acts with different people every night in a variety of gay bars. But that does not make it good to enter into a more permanent gay sexual relationship with one particular person, or to call that relationship marriage. There may be other good things which happen in consequence of this relationship, and even other positive values that are sought within it. Perhaps the two persons involved combine their incomes and give more generously to the poor. Perhaps they share a genuine appreciation for Gregorian Chant. No human person is all bad, or all good. But the homosexual relationship in itself is categorically evil.
This relationship may even prove in the end to be, for particular persons, an experience through which God in His mercy acts to help the participants to recognize that it is wrong. In his surpassing love, He always tries to bring good out of evil if we will but permit Him to do so. But God does not consider this relationship good, and neither may we.
Repent and believe
It is precisely these critical moral judgments that are swept away when we refer to Christian moral teaching as an “ideal”. We can commit ourselves more or less generously to lesser and greater degrees of perfection. But neither Christ nor the Church has called us to “an ideal”. Here, rather, is what Our Lord has called us to, as succinctly summarized by the evangelist Mark:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” [Mk 1:14-15]
Moreover, in three different places, Our Lord emphasizes the importance of avoiding sin in very graphic terms:
If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. [Mt 5:30; cf. Mk 9:43; Mk 9:45]
Now we humans do not have angelic natures. Neither our intellects nor our wills operate with perfect freedom. Various impediments limit their effectiveness, some of which may even be severe enough to absolve us from moral responsibility. But most often they simply make moral progress somewhat more difficult. The spiritual life proceeds by stages as we progressively habituate ourselves to Divine grace so that we see with greater clarity and act with greater constancy in confronting the difference between good and evil. God seldom judges us based on a single decision in a single moment of reflection, as He did the angels. He recognizes our weakness, understands our falls, and gives us even more grace to overcome them and make further progress: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds the more” (Rm 5:20).
But the condition for beginning the entire Christian program is to repent and believe the Gospel.
Finally, there is this: Those who continually refer to Catholic sexual morality as an ideal, with a great tendency to welcome those who refuse to accept that morality on an equal footing in the Church, typically share another interesting habit. They fasten onto popular moral causes as defined by the larger secular culture (environmental or social programs, for example), and flatly condemn those in Hillary Clinton’s infamous basket of deplorables who disagree with their preferred policies on prudential grounds.
I have written before of this tendency to relativize the absolute and to absolutize the relative (most recently in The priorities of Catholic leadership today, and how they must influence praise and blame). What is this phenomenon but another form of secularization, when Catholic leaders and teachers allow for the rejection of what Christ has taught while insisting on the acceptance of so many popular causes about which Our Lord had absolutely nothing to say!
Such false prophets seem incapable of stating the obvious. If we are in denial about what natural law, Divine Revelation, and the Church tell us is sinful, we cannot make spiritual progress. And if we attempt to define such evils as legitimate lesser goods within the Church herself, then the Church cannot help us to make spiritual progress either.
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Posted by: Retired01 -
Oct. 21, 2018 4:48 PM ET USA
"...Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one's limits, while not fully the objective ideal..." Amoris Laetitia par. 303. To me, this sounds like leading to gradualism
Posted by: rjbennett1294 -
Oct. 20, 2018 3:16 AM ET USA
Excellent analysis of some very wrong-headed thinking among clergy and others who should know better. As you write, their language is very dangerous - in addition to being very misleading.
Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Oct. 19, 2018 10:50 PM ET USA
Dear Cardinal, yeah it's complicated; that's because we're fallen. Sin, you know, behavior inconsistent w/ right relationship w/ God, disobedience, tends toward the gray. Look, just stop it. Either stand up & be a leader in Christ's church or go somewhere else. Don't be another example of why we have problems in the Church. You want Christ to be someone else w/ some other message. He's not so get over it. Stop infecting us with confusion. We want the God revealed by Jesus. Come Holy Spirit!
Posted by: bernie4871 -
Oct. 19, 2018 10:30 PM ET USA
Ideal sounds so noble, doesn't it? In reality it is meant to sidestep the "Idea" that is in God's mind. Ideal is a fraudulent excuse for not living as God intended. Thank you Dr. Mirus.
Posted by: Catholic in Seattle -
Oct. 19, 2018 8:28 PM ET USA
Amen! After acting as recording secretary at a parish listening session last evening, it is thoroughly delightful to encounter such clear-sighted reasoning and perspective. I weep for the Church. She is mired in deep trouble yet so many of Her members imagine that there is such a thing as "legitimate lesser goods." The way such "lesser goods" were bandied about by fellow Catholics last night was discouraging--yet it was done with such confidence! I am tempted to call these errors "lesser gods".