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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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