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Doctrine, civil unions, and moral legalism

Why it is wrong to assume that Church doctrine on homosexuality can be changed by papal fiat.

A screenshot from the documentary "Francesco".

If you were wondering what became of moral legalism, wonder no more—legalistic thinking has found its home in the media. Coverage and commentary regarding Pope Francis’s recent remarks about civil unions for homosexuals abounded in it, making it sound as if Catholic moral doctrine were a product of papal decree.

Legalism is the erroneous view that moral norms are rules—a legal code of do’s and don’ts forever subject to change by a ruler-maker. This makes it a handy device for dismissing norms one doesn’t like—the “rule” against contraception, for instance, or the “law” forbidding remarriage after divorce. Authentic norms like these are not rules, however, but statements of moral truth.

Which brings us to the hubbub that greeted the Pope’s remark.

For anyone who may have missed it, a new documentary film about Francis quotes him as favoring legally recognized civil unions as a way to give legal shelter to same-sex couples. The Pope said this: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

Leave aside whether civil unions for homosexuals are or aren’t a good idea. A strong case can be made on both sides of that argument. In the United States, however, the question itself is beside the point, since the Supreme Court, in a moralistic exercise of judicial legislating five years ago, went beyond civil unions and imposed same-sex marriage—something the pope has repeatedly opposed—on the entire country.

But that’s history. My subject now is the way the Pope’s off-the-cuff endorsement of civil unions was taken by some as heralding a change in doctrine—the assumption being that Church doctrine on homosexuality can be changed by papal fiat, very much as the Supreme Court in its 5-4 decision made same-sex marriage the law of the land.

A few examples will serve to illustrate this misunderstanding.

In her initial report from Rome, National Public Radio’s correspondent skipped the what-ifs and jumped with both feet into the assertion that what Francis had said was “a break from Church doctrine.” New York magazine, noting the not uncommon view of civil unions as a “way station” to same-sex marriage, said “time will tell” whether the Pope was in fact “in the process of changing Catholic doctrine.” And a Washington Post editorial, indulging in an odd verbal straddle, speculated on whether the Pope’s latest remarks would “lead to a change in the church’s doctrinal policy.”

Note that word “policy.” To equate the Church’s doctrine with policy is classic legalism. After all, policies are set, amended, and sometimes abolished by decision-makers acting according to their best lights. Whereas the Church holds that in authoritatively teaching moral doctrine—whether on homosexuality or anything else—it isn’t merely setting policy but stating moral truth.

The bottom line is that moral norms aren’t established by decree, much less—as in this case—by edited papal remarks in a movie. Norms are products of theological reflection carried on in the light of Revelation. The process, as St. John Henry Newman famously said, is “development,” not change.

So what does the Church teach about homosexuality? For the answer, turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. While saying homosexuals should be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” the catechism declares that homosexual acts are gravely wrong and “under no circumstances can they be approved” (CCC 2357). And civil unions? About them, the catechism is silent, leaving this as a policy question on which people who accept the doctrine can disagree.


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About Russell Shaw 215 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.

8 Comments

  1. “Homosexual acts are gravely wrong and under no circumstances can they be approved.”

    Not a whole lot of wiggle room there.

  2. Pope Francis has said that capital punishment is “inadmissible.” He has had this inserted in the Catechism. Inadmissible is a legal term, not a moral term. So, who then is responsible for causing confusion over moral norms vs. rules?
    I read that over 90% of adult Catholics get their only continuing adult religious education from the Sunday homily – they read no religious books or magazines, watch no religious TV and read no online religious material. I can only say that my personal experience bears this out. And, given that my experience is that the typical homily is what I call, “God loves you, have a nice week,” we should not be at all surprised at the confusion of the laity over rules vs. moral norms. I would not put the blame for this confusion on the media.

  3. This is unintentionally disingenuous: “And civil unions? About them, the catechism is silent, leaving this as a policy question on which people who accept the doctrine can disagree”.

    First, it is a straw and false argument: The Holy Spirit’s Teaching is not limited or confined to the CCC. Setting aside if even the CCC has made changes, not development, in the Teaching, id est, morality of Capital Punishment, the Divine Revelation of God the Holy Spirit who ‘leads the Church into all Truth”, clearly Teaches in the 2003 CDF document that civil union is not morally lawful nor can it be advanced. It does so from 4 or 5 categorical aspects/dimensions. But this is not the only time the Holy Spirit has Taught this, He has always this ‘Truth which is the same today, yesterday and forever’.

    Secondly, the term may not be particularly or directly specified, but it is universally and directly specified in the CCC, by the universal moral principles of the Lord God – the Word Purgatory in not in the Bible; Trinity is not in the Bible; the word abortion or artificial insemination is not in the Bible; this does not make them policy matters and NOT not moral or doctrine or dogma Teaching.

    Blessings of Jesus and Mary with the Poor Holy Souls in this First Friday and Saturday of the Alliance of the Two Hearts and Their Victory, Padre

  4. There was a time the Immaculate Conception was not in the Catechism – was it then as it was being theologically bantered about, a policy matter? Can a policy matter become a Dogma or Doctrine – can something become that which it is not – say a clump of cells a human being? Or is it that we come to know and to assent to it as it really is??

  5. I take the providential opportunity here to encourage those who find it difficult to lead a chaste life, both married and unmarried, both priests and laypeople, both young and old, both men and women, to resort to the perfect love of God. It is possible. Love God with all your life: heart, soul, mind and strength..

    Loving God is marvelous. I can’t express the continuous eternal and heavenly joy we experience when we love God with perfect love. It is possible. Ask God to give you this grace and you will see how possible it is to win all temptations immediately, always and easily. You will win all temptations for mortal and venial sins because you will love God continuously, not today yes, tomorrow no, not during a retreat yes, during summer no.

    Blessed are those who have their hearts burning continuously with the perfect love of God! God wants to give this grace to everyone but Jesus complains that many reject his graces. When we love God with perfect love, not only do we win all temptations but also we become the terror of hell. The whole of hell cannot do anything against us, or rather against God’s loving grace in us.

    Take courage! Life is short but God’s love is eternal. Decide to love God with perfect love!

  6. The High Priest is responsible for meeting with God, and with bringing God’s revelation regarding the truth when two sides are in opposition. This involves signs, miracles, and wonders — as reported in Acts 2.22, 43. Joe Zammit has a good point (see above), except that the Catholics that I know cannot answer the question, “What is the Greatest Commandment?” Actually, Christians of other denominations suffer from the exact same shallow practice of real Gospel instruction. Crusader’s description (see above) of “the kind of God you wind-up on Sunday,” is spot-on. The institution of the Church (most denominations) is the dominant interest of too many clergy, rather than a zeal for the teaching of the blessings and curses of the covenant. (See Mt. 5.17-20 for a glimpse of the meaning of Purgatory. By degrees, then, we are there.) Padre Pietro, doesn’t this planet resemble Purgatory? If you want to know if the Fall of Adam and Eve has any basis in historical truth, simply type this into your search engine, click on the link, and read the article: “The Antediluvians, by Dr. William H. Shea. (Geo Science link.) It is too obvious that modern Christians are far removed from an understanding of sanctification and salvation.

  7. Pope Francis has argued that when in a family some members have homosexual tendencies they should be loved because they are also children of God, etc. First of all homosexuality is not the only abnormality we are born with. We must take this condition as our cross we have to carry and not to nurse it because God is not going to excuse us because we were born homosexual. By giving them a civil law to protect them means we recognize both the sin and the sinner. While hating the sin, we must love and help the sinner to get out of it not to create civil laws to protect the sin.

    In Africa, many Europeans have brought this habit in our society, in schools and young children are initiated into it in school dormitories and given money. This is now acquired habit brought in by foreigners. Shall we leave this to continue and support it by creating civil law to protect both the sin and the sinner? I therefore do not agree with Pope Francis on civil law to protect crimes. Why don’t we make civil law to protect thieves, rapist, violent people etc. they are all sins punishable by God. Instead we make laws to criminalize them and they change habits by God’s grace and becaome good Christians – Catholics.

  8. “If you were wondering what became of moral legalism, wonder no more—legalistic thinking has found its home in the media. Coverage and commentary regarding Pope Francis’s recent remarks about civil unions for homosexuals abounded in it, making it sound as if Catholic moral doctrine were a product of papal decree.”

    The important point is that morality PRECEDES law and NOT the reverse. Things are made illegal by positive law because they are first immoral by the natural law itself or because the coordinating authority of the state has seen a legitimate need to establish a standard way of acting in a certain manner (e.g. speed limits).

    It is REASON that makes homosexual acts wrong. It is a perversion of a human being’s sexual powers. Holy Scripture informs us what God did to the city of Sodom because of this execrable vice. Even a pope couldn’t overturn the moral law by saying so. As for civil unions, they are unnecessary and probably scandalous. The rules of the tax code are good enough. So long as people live in the same household along with their affects then they are somehow “tied” together legally and morally. If one person pays the rent or the mortgage (or more than half of it), then he is the authority.

    “Legalism is the erroneous view that moral norms are rules—a legal code of do’s and don’ts forever subject to change by a ruler-maker. This makes it a handy device for dismissing norms one doesn’t like—the “rule” against contraception, for instance, or the “law” forbidding remarriage after divorce. Authentic norms like these are not rules, however, but statements of moral truth.”

    Moral legalism is the erroneous idea that something isn’t wrong provided that it hasn’t been declared so by some lawful authority. Under this false understanding – for example – lying is okay as long as it isn’t in a court of law and is somehow relevant to the judgment. This is not true. One must NEVER lie (or even pretend – except if you are an actor in a production).

    It was St. Thomas in his Summa Theologica who wrote that human law shouldn’t seek to suppress all vices (I-II Q.96 A.2). A question of legal philosophy AND moral theology is which vices MUST be made illegal.

    Part of the problem is that people take what is legal as a guide to what is moral, when in reality it is the reverse. It is only because something is immoral that permits the state to seek to repress it. Some of what passes as “law” can be criticized on the ground that it doesn’t directly address the morality aspect of an act. It permits punishment without the commission of a sin, which is WRONG.

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