Ideals and Norms

You can affirm the truth of a moral doctrine while at the same time undercutting it in practice—by treating the doctrine as an ideal rather than a norm.

Lately the idea has been gaining currency among some responsible conservative Catholics that unless the synod of bishops or the Pope specifically repudiates a settled Church doctrine—which is highly unlikely—there’s no immediate cause for alarm. I wish it were that simple, but it isn’t.

Philip Lawler, paraphrasing Ross Douthat, gives this summary account of the viewpoint in question: “The tensions between the Pope and doctrinal conservatives could become enormously important if the Pope makes an effort to change established Church teaching. Unless and until that happens…it’s a gross exaggeration to say that the conflict is tearing up the Church.”

And, one might add, since that effort to change Church teaching almost certainly isn’t in the cards, what’s to worry?

Alas, this way of thinking could be an unintended invitation to complacency. For it’s possible sincerely to affirm the truth of a moral doctrine while at the same time undercutting it in practice. The way to do that is to treat the doctrine as an ideal rather than a norm.

Right here it is important to say that I don’t know exactly what Pope Francis thinks about all this. What I do know is that he has said repeatedly that, as a loyal son of the Church, he has absolutely no intention of overturning any Catholic doctrine. In saying this, he obviously means it, and I applaud him for that.

At the same time, Francis also has provided two synods as forums in which people who wish to divorce pastoral practice from doctrine and treat the doctrine as an ideal rather than a norm have been given the opportunity to publicize and press their view.

Now Vaticanologist Sandro Magister reports from Rome that the Pope has shown signs of transferring his favor from Cardinal Walter Kasper, the best-known champion of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled, to Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, a moral theologian who strongly opposes this idea on the grounds that it would undercut the doctrine that marriage is indissoluble. But if that’s so, what does it mean? Tune in again…

The Pope aside, there is plenty of evidence that the problem I speak of exists in other highly-placed quarters.

Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila recently expressed the opinion that the Church cannot limit itself to just “one formula” when deciding whether to offer communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. Since each situation is “quite unique,” said Cardinal Tagle, who is sometimes mentioned as a possible pope of the future, the Church should look for ways of “addressing each case individually.”

Note that this doesn’t directly cast doubt on the truth that a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble. What it does is emphasize the obvious fact that every case has its own special features. The implication is that this somehow dilutes the force of the moral norm embodied in the doctrine of indissolubility. But it doesn’t. The Cardinal is correct that every case is different, but this conclusion doesn’t follow.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich-Freising carried this kind of thinking into the sphere of ecclesiology with a declaration in which he embraced a Germanic brand of Gallicanism as his default position in the communion-for-the-divorced-and-remarried debate.

Saying “the German Church has to teach the gospel in her own way,” Cardinal Marx, chairman of the German episcopal conference and an outspoken member of the group of nine cardinals who serve as hand-picked advisors to the Pope, asserted that Germany cannot “wait for a synod in Rome to tell us how we deal with matters of marriage and family.”

Happily, not everyone thinks this way. For example, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and an elected U.S. delegate to next fall’s synod on the family (he attended last October’s synod, too), evidently gets the point that pastoral practice and doctrine cannot—or anyway should not—be separated.

Asked by the National Catholic Register’s Joan Frawley Desmond what message he would take to the synod later this year, he replied: “The dimension that I would bring is the unity and integrity of how we worship, how we believe and how we provide pastoral care. It will be very important that there is not a gap…”

Such as, one hopes, a gap between the normative implications of indissolubility and relaxed pastoral practice in the matter of communion for validly married Catholics who’ve entered into new unions.

But what exactly is wrong with the idea that the indissolubility of marriage is an ideal rather than a norm? To answer that, I turn to the eminent American ethicist and moral theologian Germain Grisez. In Christian Moral Principles, the first volume of his magisterial three-volume The Way of the Lord Jesus, he argues along the following lines.

To begin with, he writes, there is no objection to applying the term “ideals” to admittedly difficult norms “insofar as they are principles of faithful and determined effort.” An example: the consistent practice of the norm of chastity is an ideal that many people realize “only gradually” and by way of considerable effort.

Even so, Grisez continues, the elements of Christian morality are not to be reduced to mere ideals. On the contrary, as Scripture, tradition, and the magisterial teaching of the Church all make clear, “they are to govern our lives as binding norms, not counsels.” Every Christian has a real obligation to live a life “in accord with the love of God and in union with Jesus’ redemptive act.” And the outline of such a life is found in the moral teaching of Jesus as it is communicated by the authoritative teaching of the Church.

Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been declared null is an extremely clear instance of what is involved. Giving or withholding communion in such cases is not simply a pastoral practice, to be evaluated in its own right, without reference to doctrine. Rather, what one says about this question unavoidably bears upon indissolubility and the question of its character: norm or ideal?

In saying this, I don’t suggest that anyone who considers indissolubility an ideal—admirable but in many cases unattainable—is consciously involved in a scheme to undermine Catholic moral teaching. But regardless of intentions, to act on this belief in the name of pastoral sensitivity is to engage in a kind of hollowing-out of moral doctrine—the creation of a Potemkin façade of moral formulae that conceals the absence of a normative core.

Pope Francis has announced that December 8, the 50th anniversary of the close of Vatican Council II, will be the start of a year-long “Jubilee of Mercy” intended to promote the practice of mercy as part of the Church’s program and mission. This is a laudable goal. What makes some responsible conservatives nervous is the fact that it comes in the context of serious confusion—about moral norms and moral ideals, doctrine and pastoral practice. Perhaps some of the Jubilee observance should focus on getting our thinking straight.


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About Russell Shaw 211 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, and, most recently, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.