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Moral theology should make saints—not excuses

Moral theologians should pursue research and reflection in order 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.


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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About Nicholas Senz 30 Articles
Nicholas Senz is Pastoral Associate at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fishers, IN. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children.


  1. It is breathtaking that Cathleen Kaveny is a professor and is capable of such a display of theological sophistry.

    She is not the first in such an interpretation of Amoris Laetitia as the winds of situational ethics are gathering.

    We’re waiting, Pope Francis…

  2. She has written in the past about a marriage possibly reaching a dead state. She can be found at the Jesuit online journal, Theological Studies. The non love of micro administration by the last three Popes is why such writers exist throughout the Catholic system. A handful were disciplined. Christ told the woman at the well that she had been with five husbands and the one she was with was not her real husband….compare Christ with today’s voices.

  3. Boston College, like I suppose ALL Jesuit colleges, and NDU, and all the rest, are post-Catholic.

    Kaveny and her co-traveler “Cardinal” Cupich are utterly counterfeit. They know that they are counterfeit – and are peddling a non-culture built on infantalizing all of the members in its herd.

    Because they realize they are peddling infantalization – they desperately try to inoculate their “herd” by arguing that teaching the truth to young adults (i.e. the real Catholic faith taught for 2000 years – which they disbelieve) is treating people like infants.

    They are blind to the Way and the Truth and the Life.

  4. Prof Claudio Pierantoni noted for his theological expertise and opposition to Amoris Laetitia makes the salient point that the Pontiff and his supporting cast rather than posit Christ’s prohibition of Adultery as a negative refer to Adultery in a positive context as does Boston College Prof Cathleen Kaveny, which open to issue to exceptions one of which is the spiritual disposition of the D&R [perhaps the longest sentence I ever wrote]. It’s what Pierantoni calls the Pontiff’s “tact” of negating the negative dimension of certain commandments. And unfortunately many who seek to defend Apostolic Tradition fall into the Pontiff’s trap. A final sad note on Boston College a dear young relative successful Boston College grad has virtually zero knowledge of the faith and holds the pantheistic belief “Well God is everywhere” therefore why identify with Catholicism?

  5. The recent coinciding of 3 interventions by Pope Francis pose some trouble for me: a) the synodal Germans are behaving elitist, however b) Fr. James Martin’s queries are dealt with as innocence and c) absolution must never be withheld.

    Michael Warsaw considers that Pope Francis’ conditioning of the Germans, amounts to a strong response. Presumably the idea is that it is timely and proportionate will come to some effect.

    Fr. Raymond J. de Souza did an in-depth look at the mix-ups with Fr. Martin. I thought this was very well composed guide to what to expect and guard against -great home-work.

    I am not trained in the area of authority to absolve so I am praying on it; meanwhile I discovered Senz’s article here and I found it to be helpful and worthy of note.

    One thread that runs through all 3 items is that of publicity. What is Pope Francis trying to achieve and is it always something to be carried out in public, all at once?

    Another thread is the over-philosophizing of the faith, namely, that there might be an assumption held somewhere that everything is meant to be universalized where nothing personal is left; prompting the natural query, is that, after all, really going to be faith?

    If one had to “begin again”, with all that going on, where would he turn?

    If there is indeed an effort to universalize everything how does one deal with all the competition to be first?

    ‘ 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. ‘

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