The recent conference at Boston College on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia revealed some trends and habits within contemporary moral theology. For example, addressing the question of whether the divorced and remarried could be admitted to Holy Communion under some circumstances, Boston College professor Cathleen Kaveny approached the argument by questioning its assumptions: are divorced and remarried persons necessarily adulterers?
In her argument, Kaveny doesn’t rely on the potential invalidity of the first marriage (in which case no adultery has occurred); in fact, she assumes the first marriage’s validity. Rather, she makes a surprising argument against the commonly held definition of adultery.
“Jesus clearly disfavored adultery,” Kaveny concluded. “It’s clear that he rejects divorce and remarriage as contrary to the original will of God. But nothing in Jesus’ words or conduct demand that the sin involved in divorce and remarriage must be conceptualized as a sin that continues indefinitely, without the possibility of effective repentance.”
Essentially, Kaveny argues that at a certain point, an adulterous union can cease to be adulterous, or at least sinfully so. (Just what moral category “sinless adultery” would fall under would provide much material for future dissertations, if nothing else.)
One wonders under what understanding of moral action this could be so. Imagine applying this mindset to other sinful acts. Kidnapping is wrong, but if you hold your captive long enough it ceases to be kidnapping. Torture is evil, but after a certain point it becomes legitimate. Or at the very least, one could reach “effective repentance” while still holding one’s captive with no plans to let him go, or fully intending to return to torturing one’s victim after absolution.
Would we accept such reasoning as sound?
Such reasoning seems spurious on its face. But my concern is less with the musings shared in academic conferences than it is with the effect of such speculations as they trickle down into the life of the Church. The health of the moral life of the Church down to the parish level is reliant in many ways on the health of academic moral theology, for the formation of the laity by their pastors and catechists will have the flavor of the formation and education those pastors and catechists receive in their studies.
And what they are studying all too often, it seems, is a conception of morality as a set of rules from which a myriad of exceptions, exemptions, and loopholes may be found. The moral theologians of today look down their noses at the casuists of previous centuries, who analyzed moral acts on the level of individual cases to see whether the moral law had been violated. This legalistic mindset is decried; yet, in their own search for exemptions and exceptions and loopholes, modern moral theologians are caught up in the very legalism they condemn. To say that each person’s individual circumstances and lived experience is determinative of their moral status—what else is this but casuistry re-branded?
To break free of legalism requires the realization that casuistry is the outlier in the Church’s moral tradition, and a return to the concept of virtue as the guiding principle in the moral life.
When the moral life is conceived as the pursuit of beatitude through virtuous living, on acts that perfect our God-given natures and reflect the divine love in which we are made, it changes the whole perspective. Rather than asking what we can get away with, we begin to ask what we can do to live in the love of God as—in the words of St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor—each Christian pursues the “dignity and vocation which have been bestowed on him by grace” (VS, 73).
What is a more salutary, more beneficial approach for the pastor when celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation with his parishioners? Is it to present the Church’s teaching as an obstacle needing to be circumvented, a law in search of a loophole, so that people can continue in their habits and practices without the pang of conscience? Or is it to remind the faithful that they are called to be perfected by their cooperation with God’s grace, to show in their actions the love of God and neighbor to which they are called as the fulfillment of their God-given natures, to reflect the image of God in which they are made?
One of these leads to bourgeois complacency and a minimalist definition of discipleship. One of these leads to reflection, repentance, and renewal. Which should we encourage?
Pope Francis has reminded priests that the confessional should not be a torture chamber. But nor should it be a therapy session or exercise in self-affirmation. Rather, the confessional should be the tomb in which we die to our sins and our re-born in Christ. The work of our moral theologians should be to do the research and reflection to bring forth and multiply the Church’s rich tradition on spiritual growth and holiness. They should avoid rationalizations and sophistic excuses, lest they be caught in their own craftiness.
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