Conscience: Catholicism’s contribution to world sophistry

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.

6 Responses

  1. Catholics all know that the Church condemns remarriage and contraception; they just choose to defy the teaching.

    Not so on contraception. Where I live, a marginal Catholic could easily never hear this in CCD nor a single sermon his whole life.

    Knowing the truth is an intrinsic good, and people deserve the chance to be able to freely conform to it.

    This is a powerful point. I don’t find the whole fire and brimstone argument for the spiritually ignorant very convincing, but what is truly sad that the Church doesn’t seem to get? People are missing out on the pursuit of virtue, which is the reason we are all here. They even lack the beauty of permanent marriage, strong family, and properly ordered sex. Nobody wins with sin. I don’t know why the whole “mercy” crowd doesn’t seem to get this. The ignorant don’t need mercy. They need desperate instruction, yesterday, even from a mere secular POV. Vice makes nobody happy. Virtue does.

  2. I think Dr. Charlton’s suggestions of “theosis” as critical to understanding God’s plan would provide a solution to many of these problems. Aquinas does mention theosis, but the church puts little or not mention or emphasis on this.

  3. One recalls a well-know episode at the time of Napoléon’s marriage to Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria. Cardinal della Somaglia told M. Emery, Supérieur of St. Sulpice and a notable moral theologian that he could not attend without wounding his conscience. M. Emery told him that, in that case, he should on no account do so, for any consideration whatsoever. It transpired that M. Emery had been consulted by a number of the other 18 cardinals, then in Paris, and he had told them he thought they could attend the ceremony with a clear conscience.

    In response to a letter from Cardinal Fesch, the Emperor’s uncle, M. Emery explained this apparent inconsistency. He personally saw no harm in attending, but he had given his advice to Cardinal della Somaglia on the basis that one should never act against one’s own conscience, even if it were erroneous [qu’on ne devait jamais, agir contre sa conscience, même erronée]. “Not that the inconveniences could authorise an assistance that was illicit,” he added, “ but these inconveniences are the strongest reason [une raison très-forte] to consider the more attentively whether it is possible, whether assisting is really illicit and whether the conscience one has formed on that subject is not, perhaps, an erroneous conscience.”

    In the event Cardinal della Somaglia kept to his view, contrary to M. Emery, and did not attend the marriage ceremony.

    M. Emery was following the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council: “’Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam.” – He who acts against his conscience loses his soul. Of course, as Bl John Henry Newman has it, “if a man is culpable in being in error, which he might have escaped, had he been more in earnest, for that error he is answerable to God, but still he must act according to that error, while he is in it, because he in full sincerity thinks the error to be truth.”

  4. John Zmirak’s comic book is a very nice discussion of this topic.

    The comic’s antagonist is a cardinal who has followed the reasoning of the “salvation by invincible ignorance (and pretty much all ignorance is invincible dontcha know)” heretics to its logical conclusion. He advocates not teaching the Faithful, or anyone else, the Faith. That way, everyone is saved. Everyone, that is, except him. He understands and believes that he gets the millstone. Thus, he describes himself as “a second Christ,” taking damnation upon himself in order to save the world.

    It’s a brilliant interpretation of the contemporary madness in the Church. The bad cardinal’s scheme could not work unless it was shared only by a tight conspiracy, all of whom are willingly damned. You can’t let on what you’re doing or the whole thing is spoiled—if the Faithful get wind that you are teaching them lies, then their ignorance maybe becomes culpable. This, then, explains the fact that the Churchmen so industriously teach lies—they are either idiots or in on the “I’m as good as Our Lord, maybe even better” conspiracy.

    In the climactic scene in the comic, the cardinal tries to recruit another cardinal into the conspiracy. The bad cardinal, seeing that 1) the good cardinal understands how unlikely it is that normal people can be saved in our current, depraved world and 2) that the good cardinal is smart enough that he will eventually glom on to what’s going on, decides that he needs to come out to the good cardinal. Perhaps because Zmirak is a craven coward or perhaps because he is commenting on the array of forces current in Christianity, the bad cardinal is a white guy and the good cardinal is a black African.

  5. […] is his usual fantastic in Conscience: Catholicism’s contribution to world sophistry. Which goes something like: “The pastoral thing to do is to keep the sinfulness of peoples’ […]

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