My only reaction to the Synod: in an age of such great concern for pastoral effectiveness, why cannot the body of bishops working together for three weeks speak plainly? “Adultery is a mortal sin. If you do it and don’t repent, you will go to HELL, and you probably won’t care while being tormented in fire for all eternity how integrated you once were in parish life.” Is that so hard? In fact it seems to be. Even aside from the cowardice of our bishops, there is an idea that keeps them from being able to formulate this simple truth. Let us consider this idea.
There’s not much creative in Catholic progressivism, mostly just aping the prejudices of the secular mainstream. If there’s anything distinctive in it, it’s the focus on “conscience”.
The reasoning seems to be as follows: one is only culpable for a sin if one understands and believes in the sinfulness of one’s act. Therefore, people who reject the Church’s teachings about certain acts being naughty are not sinning–one almost infers, not incurring any spiritual consequence whatsoever–when they engage in those acts. There is thus presumably no urgency in convincing them of their sinfulness, since they are not, in fact, sinning. In fact, making people aware of the moral law only increases their spiritual peril, since they are only responsible for laws they are aware of and accept. This is related to the “salvation by invincible ignorance” story that many of us even in conservative Catholic environments picked up in childhood. (Kasper is right. There is a connection between religious and moral indifferentism.) The impression we got was that heathen had it much better than us, getting into heaven almost automatically, while we Christians have all these rules to follow. In fact, one might perversely reason that people should not be given the Gospel and not be told the moral law. If they’re given the law and don’t obey, then they’ll go to hell. The pastoral thing to do is to keep the sinfulness of peoples’ actions secret from them.
So, we Catholics have created this monster, and now we’ve got to slay it. What to say?
- First, it’s fair game to question the sincerity of people who invoke it. It is only ever applied to sexual sins. (And maybe usury. See Zippy.) No prelate ever says that they should refrain from preaching against the alleged sins of racism or of wanting to restrict immigration.
- What’s more, it’s just not the case that people are invincibly ignorant. Catholics all know that the Church condemns remarriage and contraception; they just choose to defy the teaching. It may be true that they don’t understand why the Church condemns these things, that their consciences are not well-enough formed to see anything wrong with them. Even so, they would gravely sin simply by defying the legitimate authority of the body of Christ. No one’s conscience commands them to commit adultery; it may merely fail to forbid, but the silence of one’s conscience is not a permission slip to disobey orders. We make it more difficult for people to do their duty by failing to explain to them why the Church’s teaching is true, reasonable, and ennobling.
- Even those who have never heard of Catholicism’s condemnation of divorce and contraception are in spiritual peril. Regardless of culpability, these acts invariably cause spiritual harm (that’s why they’re sins), and the damage they do to people’s souls makes them more likely to commit what are sins even by their own lights. With sexual sins in particular, any more permissive set of rules tends to seem arbitrary and degrade under pressure. Also, Saint Paul affirmed that the natural law is written onto the hearts of the Gentiles specifically to show that they are culpable for their sinful behavior and are in need of salvation. We can’t count on people’s innate moral intuitions being sufficiently underdeveloped or deadened to give them get-out-of-hell-free cards.
- Knowing the truth is an intrinsic good, and people deserve the chance to be able to freely conform to it. As in some theodicy arguments, just because people will probably misuse their freedom (in this case, the freedom of knowing the truth and being able to choose whether to follow it) doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be given it.
- Even if preaching moral truth does lead to more people going to hell, God has commanded us to do it. Catholic morality is not consequentialist. We could probably send more people to heaven by killing lots of just-baptized infants, but this would still be a wicked thing to do.