The scandal of the idea of mortal sin iv: Hellfire

he scandal of the idea of mortal sin is really the scandal of the idea of everlasting punishment.  That a person may deprive himself of heaven doesn’t really bother us.  Nobody deserves heaven, and for heaven to end up filled with the defiantly unrepentant would contradict its nature.  No, what bothers us is the idea of eternal physical torture.  This is not just an issue of sexual sins.  An infinite punishment of this sort is out of all proportion to any human offense, according to our very basic intuitions of fairness.  One may say that these intuitions are wrong in this case, but they cannot just be dismissed as “feelings”, since they are integral to all our moral reasoning.  One must show how they are wrong.

Continue reading

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.

Catholic integralism announces itself

It would seem a new school of internet antiliberals has become conscious of itself.  Gabriel Sanchez divides Catholic political thinkers into liberals, radicals, and integralists.  The liberals think some sort of reconciliation between liberalism and Catholicism is viable and desirable–First Things under Father Neuhaus would be a classic case of this.  Radicals and integralists reject liberalism as a philosophical error and heresy.  The difference between these two camps is less sharp (see here).  From my reading of Sanchez, integralists are those who base themselves on pre-conciliar theology and Magisterial teaching, while radicals work from the post-conciliar Communio school of theology and inherit its sense of distinction from pre-conciliar Thomism.  Reminiscent of what I have said about the Orthosphere, Sanchez observes that integralists identify themselves with 19th-century counter-revolutionaries, rather than (as is the case for most conservative movements today) defining themselves in distinction to them.  Integralists are also distinguished by the central place they give to the social kingship of Christ.  They have their own group blog.

Needless to say, I’m happy to see integralism self-consciously resurrecting itself and look forward to learning from it for years to come.

Man’s end according to Protestants and Mormons

Pater Edmund points his readers to an essay from The Calvinist International on the difference between Catholicism and Calvinism.  I take this to be the key paragraph:

The evangelical position is that man has only one end, but that this end is not supernature, but rather, restored nature: original integrity renovated and confirmed in what Van Ruler called a “fireproof” or æveternal state. Further, the gate of this destination is justification by faith alone; since evangelicals deny that nature is being “perfected” by a different nature, and deny that God’s favor is any way earned by works, in temporal politics we do not accept the subordination of the “secular” to the “religious.” The universal priesthood exists in and as all the worldly callings, and the gift of provisional restoration destined for eschatological completion comes at the cost of no ascetic amputations. Proleptically full participation in the final state is the spiritual kingdom, and provisional and progressive participation of it is the worldly kingdom, in the classical two-kingdoms doctrine of the Reformers. This is, of course, a far cry from the papalist two-ends theory.

Most intriguing.  Several thoughts come to mind.

  1. As the good father points out, most Catholics (including me) have been completely misunderstanding Calvinism.  I suspect I still don’t understand it very well, since the concept of “nature” must mean something different without the contrast of an order of grace.
  2. I expect this connects to the Calvinists’ relative devaluation of the sacraments, as there would be no need for the distinct power of symbols to transcend our nature powers of signification.
  3. The New Theologians, in attacking the two-ends theory, are basically Calvinists.  I look forward to telling them this.  (Then I hope Catholics can stop with the silly habit of using “Calvinist” as a general purpose insult.)
  4. Can we perhaps now understand Mormon doctrine (in so far as I understand it from a few of their blogs) as an outgrowth of Protestantism, in particular its seemingly blasphemous claims that man and God share a single nature?  Mormonism is what Protestantism must become if it is to take the promise of theosis seriously while maintaining that God only restores our own human nature, that there is nothing properly speaking supernatural about our beatitude.

More on the authority of religious coercion

Opus Publicum links to an essay by Dr. John Lamont critiquing the Pink thesis and laying out his own understanding of Dignitatis Humanae and its compatibility with Tradition.  According to Lamont, traditional Catholic teaching holds that the state did have its own authority of religious coercion (plus attendant duty to recognize the true faith and accept the Church’s rulings on matters of orthodoxy), rather than only having such when delegated by the Church.  His arguments don’t seem to me to be decisive (e.g. the fact that the temporal but not spiritual power could execute heretics; it seems possible that the Church might have an authority that it would be unfitting to exercise directly).  He shows that the futility of attempting to coerce an interior act of faith is part of the Tradition.  He also amasses evidence that Christian rulers were held to have a duty to defend the Faith precisely as rulers rather than as private believers.  I think the case for this is conclusive, but I hadn’t realized Pink was arguing the opposite.  Nor does he agree that Dignitatis Humanae revoked the state’s religious duties, as seen in its exceptions to religious freedom in the name of public order, which in the canon law of the time included the spiritual common good.

What, then, did Dignitatis Humanae actually do?  According to Lamont, it drew a new limit to the state’s legitimate rationale in regulating religion.  Whereas the Church may employ at least mild coercion on the faithful for the good of their own souls, the state’s coercion may only be employed to defend the spiritual common good.

Continue reading

Nature, grace, and the coercive authority of the Church

Pater Edmund has an excellent four-part series on the reconcilability of Dignitatis Humanæ with the Catholic Church’s traditional condemnation of religious liberty and the duty of states to protect the true faith.  On the face, Vatican II’s endorsement of religious liberty contradicts solemnly defined prior teaching, which would call the Church’s reliability in general into question.  In Part I, he reviews attempts by Catholics to prove compatibility which he regards as unsuccessful.  In Part II, he defends the interpretation put forward by English philosopher Thomas Pink.  Pink puts the Church’s teachings in the context of early-modern arguments about whether the state holds a monopoly on coercion or if the Church has her own coercive authority.  Dignitatis Humanæ states that the state has no authority of coercion in matters of religion, which is traditional doctrine, and it doesn’t condemn the other traditional doctrine that the Church does have such authority and can delegate it to the state.  The only new thing in Dignitatis Humanæ on this reading is that the Church revokes this authority from the state, a matter of policy rather than doctrine.  Part III is a historical overview of Church-state relations in Western Christendom focusing on issues of religious coercive authority and its source.  Part IV concerns the disagreements of mid-twentieth century theologians on the relationship between Church and state.  It was the attempt to avoid pronouncing on unsettled questions that led the Council Fathers to adopt such a confusing (and if Pink is right, even deceptive) document.

Continue reading

Faith in the Church

In his essay Faith and Doubt, Cardinal Newman argues that it is perfectly right for the Catholic Church to forbid her children to doubt her.  Not only must we accept what we currently understand to be Catholic doctrine, we must put faith in the Church herself as the “oracle of God”, and we “…must come, I say, to the Church to learn; you must come, not to bring your own notions to her, but with the intention of ever being a learner”.

Continue reading

The Catholic Perspective VI: Last things

And now, the conclusion.

Being towards judgement

We have seen that the mind is less the ultimate bestower of meaning than the ultimate locus of ambiguity.  Everyone is a mix of good and evil; even my good deeds are vitiated by resentment or expectation of reward.  My very freedom traps me in ambiguity by making it impossible for me to make an irrevocable choice for obedience to God.  To the extent that I control myself enough to choose good today, to that same extent it will be in my power to repudiate good tomorrow.

Once again, the rescue must be to appropriate meaning from without.  God it was Who, through the sacrament of marriage, allowed my life to have  an overall plot. God it will be Who will give my life an overall resolution.  At the end of life, or so Catholics believe, each soul will be judged, and at that moment that life’s definitive truth–as a story of transformation in Christ or rebellion to the end–will be established.  Death and judgement are the inescapable horizon, marking, as death does for atheists, each life as finite, contingent, and individual.  Each of us must suffer his own death and have rendered his own personal judgment.  However, we are assured that Jesus has gone before us and by his great sacrifice offered salvation to all.

This is not to say that all will ultimately be saved.  For most of the Church’s history, the assumption has been that the judgment of most is one of damnation.  The Catholic attitude thus tends to be different from the Protestant “assurance of salvation”.  A Catholic, knowing his own inner indeterminacy and freedom to reject God, expects no such assurance.  After all, even if I am in a state of grace now, what’s to stop me from choosing mortal sin tomorrow?  I can be sure of God’s continued assistance, but not that I won’t thwart it.  True, from God’s atemporal perspective, each man is either predestined or reprobate.  However, this is not a perspective we can share until death.  Human life is, by its nature, the realm of time, uncertainty (“fear and trembling”), and freedom.

The ascent of Mount Purgatory

Yet life’s resolution is more than an external judgment. Jesus Christ said that even the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11).  To really vanquish sin and erase its hold, the soul must be internally purged and cleansed; the seed of charity in it must permeate and reorder the whole.  The saints and martyrs show us what souls ordered by charity can do.  Many willingly endured ostracism, poverty, torture, mutilation, and death out of loyalty to God.  Reading their stories, I wonder whether I too would have chosen to endure such things if put in their situations.  It would be nice to think so, but I don’t sense any great reserves of courage in me.  I can hope (and am commanded to pray) that God will deliver me while on Earth from intolerable temptations.  However, I cannot hope (and nor should I really want to) that this will mean getting into heaven “on the cheap” with my weak character and petty sinfulness intact.  Only souls that would endure unimaginable tortures rather than turn away from God are capable of beatitude.  And yet we know that such virtue does not come cheaply.

Dante presents a gripping image of Purgatory as a vast mountain whose ascent represents the rectification of the soul, culminating in the recovery of original innocence.  The souls in Purgatory undergo penances as extreme as the punishments in hell, but with the crucial difference that they are undertaken willingly and in a spirit of hope.  In Dante’s telling, the souls of the Church Suffering display an almost superhuman single-mindedness toward their penances; so perhaps shall it someday be with us.  Today I know myself to be very weak, barely on God’s side at all. How many eons in Purgatory might it take to forge in me the soul of a saint?  Yet every Catholic knows that God has the power to make a saint out of anyone, and that He will settle for nothing less.

The Catholic Perspective V: Moral rules

Five hundred years ago, when somebody said that Catholic beliefs don’t make sense, he was probably talking about something like Transubstantiation; today, when somebody says that, he’s almost certainly talking about sex.  While moral rules are not the focal point of Catholicism, they are closely connected to it.  However, to one who holds the Catholic perspective as I have described it–an alertness to the symbolic depth of the public world–the Church’s rules on sex, killing, usury, submission to authority, and the like are no scandal to the intellect.  They are rather such natural conclusions that the Church’s commitment to them is evidence for her reliability.

Continue reading

The body’s promise, the mind’s amen

This is the fourth and final part of my series on natural law.  Parts 1, 2, and 3, whose purpose was to build up to what I say below, can be found here, here, and here.


Is there then no way around rationalism and the dualist’s alienation from the body? In fact, there is another possibility, one that doesn’t cut the person off from the suprarational capacities of his body to express meaning. Rather than saying, “This act means X, Y, and Z; therefore I affirm X, Y, and Z”, he can say “I affirm the totality of what this act means.” If he knows that the act naturally means X, Y, and Z, then he must indeed accept those propositions, but he doesn’t truncate the act’s meaning to his partial understanding of it, nor to his intellectual, linguistic mode of signification.  He accepts that his actions have dimensions of meaning that he may not entirely understand, and yet he commits himself to the whole meaning.  He may not realize all that he has promised his wife, but even what he doesn’t yet understand he acknowledges as already promised.

It is this third way that natural law proposes as man’s proper way of being in the world. One can see why, despite being the true and only way to overcome alienation from one’s body, natural law has been embraced more readily by the less intelligent sectors of society. Those with high IQ are more confident in their ability to give meaning to their lives through shear intellectual exertion. They think it fitting that a smarter man can think up a more comprehensive statement of love than a duller man, and they are less eager to imagine that God Himself has given to every man, regardless of intellect, a way of “speaking” his love for his wife with a profundity that no human intellect can match. Those of us who lack the elite’s mental gifts also lack some of their hubris. We would not wish for the depth of meaning in our lives to be limited to what our own imaginations could provide.

We Christians believe that God Himself uses natural significations, the “language of the body”, to make Himself present to us in the sacraments.  God doesn’t overwrite the natural meaning, but uses it to express His relationship to us. It is precisely the natural meaning of marriage as total self-donation between husband and wife that lets it serve as the living image of Christ and His Church. And it is fitting that a suprarational mode of signification should serve as the channel for the superhuman gift of grace.  When I receive the Blessed Sacrament, the priest holds the host before me saying “the body of Christ”, and I say “Amen”.  What does the “amen” mean?  Not that I can really fathom what it means that the thing before me is the body of the Incarnate God, or that I could fully say what it means–what I’m “getting myself into”–for me to consume it.  I have some idea, based on the natural symbolism of consumption, but my “amen” means “I mean what this act means”.  Because I can say this, I can say more than it is possible for a human mind to say; I can perform a supernatural act.

Even more important is the mode of expression natural meanings provide.  Natural meanings are given, rather than being products of one’s private intellect.  They allow us to step outside the limits of our imaginations, of our personal fixations and eccentricities, of the personality and style that we craft for ourselves.  What I say about marriage, fatherhood, and filiation is always colored by my self-image, my idea of what “a person like me” would say.  Natural meanings, by their impersonal–let us instead say “suprapersonal”–nature, allow me to step outside myself and make a completely authentic response to the thing itself.  Being a husband and father means taking on a universal role, a role not of my making but one that lets me participate in the mystery of creation.  The ephemera of my personality fall away, and I engage this mystery, not as “bonald” (35 year old, assistant professor, Star Trek fan, etc) but simply as Man.  By my imagination, I have my own private world, but by natural meanings, I am one with every human being who ever lived.  Fatherhood means the same thing for every father; it’s bigger than any one of us, and yet it is at the core of each of us.  Reflecting on these matters helps us see the real unity of the human race, the unity alluded to in the expression “Man” (“Adam” in Hebrew).  Man is the whole race considered together as one, but Man is also the essence of each individual, what we find when we look deeply into ourselves.  This escape from oneself and into Man is so important that cultures create formalized rituals–at weddings, funerals, etc–to provide more of it.  Here again, part of the act’s meaning is its universality, that I speak the same wedding vows my father said and my son will say.

In this matter the Christian has an advantage.  What is abstract for natural reason becomes concrete and vivid in the light of the Faith.  God’s substance and essence are one, so He alone can bridge complete universality and concreteness.  We believe that Man was made in His image, and at the appointed time, God Himself became Man, a new Adam, making Himself the core of humanity.  So when he acts “as Man”, the Christian realizes a sense in which he is acting “as Christ”.  When the body makes a promise (through sex, childbirth, etc), it is ultimately God Himself making the promise.  If we would not be so mean as to break our own word, how much more should we take care not to break His!

So we find our corporeal existence charged with meaning; God Himself has lent it His own voice.  Will you protest against this aspect of human nature because you didn’t choose it?  But this is what you are!  This is your inmost nature.  Surely the proper response to so great and holy a thing is reverence.  Reverence and gratitude.  Let us embrace our place in the order of nature, the place chosen for us by the Creator.  Let us respect the language of the body, with its suprarational, suprapersonal mode of signification.  Let us follow its calling to grow out of ourselves by putting on Man.