Games theologians play with truth and morality

Cardinal McElroy recently trotted out dogmatic football in his attempt to put Catholic sexual morality on the sidelines. But why doesn’t he want to discard the received moral tradition elsewhere?

(Image: Thomas Park thomascpark/Unsplash.com)

Not too long ago, Randall Smith accused Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of playing Jenga with Catholic theology. Jenga is a game in which players take turns removing crisscrossed wooden blocks that make up a tower, progressively rendering the edifice more unstable. The goal is to avoid being the player whose pulling out a block brings down the whole structure.

Smith’s analogy is apt: today, a handful of churchmen is doing what revisionist theologians attempted in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The difference, perhaps, was that the Currans, Farleys, and Fuchses affected slightly less feigning about their deconstruction of Catholic sexual ethics, whereas the current prelates pretend their deconstruction is mostly “pastoral application” of theological principles redefined as (nominally) aspirational ideals.

But Jenga isn’t the only game some theologians are playing. They are also playing dogmatic football.

A favorite tactic of revisionist theologians forty years ago was to invoke the “hierarchy of truths” to sideline Catholic sexual morality. According to this idea as (mis)represented by revisionists, some dogmatic statements—the Trinity, the divinity and humanity of Christ—were so “central” to Christianity they were on the kickoff line. Others, like the centrality of Baptism or the Eucharist, were closely enough allied to those central doctrines to be, say, on the 10-yard line. Others, more precisely articulated over time and sticking points in ecumenical craws, like the Immaculate Conception or Assumption, might sometimes be on the 30-yard line. Stuff like the Church’s teaching on contraception—well, that is probably out there on the sidelines. It’ll likely be played to minimize, then bypass, the formality of John Paul II’s declaration on the inadmissibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.

This caricature of theology had its uses. For one, it enabled the Currans of the world to feign surprise when called to account for their “loyal dissent.” They would insist they were not rejecting “essential” Catholic teaching. It also let the faithful believe that what they were doing in bad conscience was really in good conscience, because “reliable theologians” considered the matter less important.

The “hierarchy of truths” and doctrinal development do appear in contemporary documents of the Church (like Vatican II’s Unitatis redintegratio, #11, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Mysterium ecclesiae). But recognizing that “hierarchy” does not mean that proximity to or distance from “centrality” renders that teaching more dubious or disposable, even though they were treated that way by revisionists.

Joseph Ratzinger’s reiteration of a “hermeneutic of continuity” sheds light on this problem. For Ratzinger, the elements of the faith are not Jenga blocks that can be plucked provided you didn’t (deliberately) pull out the support beams. No, the elements of the faith are—as Hans Urs von Balthasar put it—like a symphony. Every instrument and every note contributes a non-substitutable part to the concert. It is part of the unity of the whole, whose extraction detracts from the whole’s integrity. Arguably, it’s like pulling a thread in a tapestry, the consequences of which affect the whole kilim—or like grabbing a Jenga block. It might not be the one that immediately collapses the tower or unravels the tapestry, but it weakens it. Those threads and blocks are mutually supportive and reinforcing.

We can learn a lesson from Ratzinger’s comments on how to read the Bible. In The Divine Project, Ratzinger insists that simply reading the Bible as we would a modern book—from beginning to end, in successive fashion—can be distortive, for several reasons. The Bible is not one but many books. Even pieces of individual books were written at different, and not necessarily chronological successive times. And Western logic is not Semitic logic. The former is relentlessly linear; the latter is circular. Stanisław Grygiel compared it to the flight of an eagle or hawk, ever circling, ever approaching, ever seeing its target from different angles.

And, of course, the normative perspective that integrates all those angles for us is Christ, in whose light all of Scripture is read. But that Christ is the Christ we find in that text and in the living faith of the Church, whose life that text illumines, and which text’s meanings that Church determines. It is not some ethereal “Christ” of our private inspirations.

There are no small number of thinkers who—while they probably wouldn’t say it aloud—hope that Ratzinger’s “hermeneutic of continuity” is buried with him. The truth, however, is that the hermeneutic is not merely the Bavarian’s theological fantasy: it is how the Church always tested and interpreted doctrinal development in relation to what preceded it. Ratzinger and John Henry Newman were not contemporaries, but they had the same idea and belief.

This is far removed from dogmatic football—and even real football, where the game occurs across the entire field.

Cardinal McElroy trotted out dogmatic football in his attempt to put Catholic sexual morality on the sidelines. Rejecting the received state of teaching in that area—including the gravity of sexual activity outside of marriage and foreclosed to life—McElroy tries to reduce the essence of Church teaching on sex to “the central assertion … is that sexual activity is something profound rather than something casual.”

However, that could be said about any of the other Commandments, but I don’t see the Bishop of San Diego wanting to discard the received moral tradition elsewhere.

Such a banal observation rips apart the logical connections between the conclusions of Catholic sexual ethics (which are unpalatable to the Zeitgeist) and their theological foundations. The more intellectually shallow pretend the logic of non-contradiction can be ignored; the more arrogant insist that even more foundational principles of theological anthropology (sexual differentiation as the divine plan, procreation as blessing and vocation, etc.), and even received understandings of the Bible, should then be readjusted.

“Profound rather than casual sex” lets us run anywhere one likes on the dogmatic football field. The problem is that yesterday’s theologians and today’s churchmen pretend they can pull theological threads but keep the “central truths” of the faith from unravelling.

That’s another game some theologians play.

• Related at CWR: “A Cardinal Misunderstanding of the Hierarchy of Truths” (Feb 8, 2023) by T. Alex Giltner, Ph.D.


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About John M. Grondelski, Ph.D. 37 Articles
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He publishes regularly in the National Catholic Register and in theological journals. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

14 Comments

  1. Moreover, the sexual sins do not stay in a single cerebral silo. St. Augustine anticipates Cardinal McElroy’s myopia and worse:

    “But, to return to the word ‘lust.’ As lust for revenge is called anger, so lust for money is avarice, lust to win at any price is obstinacy, lust for bragging is vanity. And there are still many other kinds of lust, some with names and some without. For example, it would be difficult to find a specific name for that lust for domination which plays such havoc with the souls of ambitious soldiers and comes to light in every civil war” (The City of God, Book XIV, ch. 16).

    Trivialized sexual sins of lust are the open door to lusts of all colors and stripes. And, not the least of which are the intellectual and managerial sins. May we suppose that if the “lust for domination” renders—for years—the Successor of the Apostles “primarily as facilitators,” the “specific name” is synodality?

    Let us pray that the better angels might still prevail—that God now “writes with crooked lines.”

  2. Diversion is the game that is being played by the Liberals. To obey God is love for God. To sin against God’s Commandments is to hate God. Our Judge Jesus tells us many times that He will burn sinners in hell, lest they repent and receive His gift of Divine Mercy in His Sacrament of Reconciliation. The only thing in the universe worth God allowing human free-will, through which all hatred, sin, death and damnation flows, is the free-willed gift to God of obedience to God which is love for God. When Liberals replace obedience to God as love for God, and then Liberals make accepting sin, ‘out of love for sinners’, as ‘love for god’, now we are worshiping the false god of Liberal Catholic leaders’ evil fleshly desires.

    John 14:15
    If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

    Catechism 2055 When someone asks him, “Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” Jesus replies: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.” The Decalogue must be interpreted in light of this twofold yet single commandment of love, the fullness of the Law: The commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

    John 15:22
    If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin; but as it is they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me also hates my Father. If I had not come to them and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; now, however, their sin cannot be excused. To hate me is to hate my Father. If I had not works among them that no one else ever did, they would not have sin; but as it is, they have seen and hated both me and my Father.

    Catechism 2052 “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” To the young man who asked this question, Jesus answers first by invoking the necessity to recognize God as the “One there is who is good,” as the supreme Good and the source of all good. Then Jesus tells him: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” And he cites for his questioner the precepts that concern love of neighbor: “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.” Finally Jesus sums up these commandments positively: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

    John 15:9
    As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Live on in my love. You will live in my love if you keep my commandments, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and live in his love.

    Catechism 2068 The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; The Second Vatican Council confirms: “The bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord . . . the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments.”

    John 5:27
    “The Father has given over to him power to pass judgment because he is Son of Man; no need for you to be surprised at this, for an hour is coming in which all those in their tombs shall hear his voice and come forth. Those who have done right shall rise to live; the evildoers shall rise to be damned.”

    Catechism 2083 Jesus summed up man’s duties toward God in this saying: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This immediately echoes the solemn call: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD.” God has loved us first. the love of the One God is recalled in the first of the “ten words.” the commandments then make explicit the response of love that man is called to give to his God.

    1 John 5:3
    For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome

    Catechism of the Catholic Church; The Ten Commandments
    https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P78.HTM?

  3. Morality is understood as personal conviction, ethics external usually social communal rules for an ordered society. Understandably personal moral convictions, those of the Judaeo Christian tradition are adopted for conventional social order since what is good extends to both the personal and the external.
    Grondelski says a hierarchy of moral principles cannot be perceived as a rationale to reinterpret the lower bracket principles [contraception, modes of sexual behavior] with the presumption that they are subject to revision. Pastoral concerns that relate to the lower bracket, contraception, reception of communion, we recall Francis’ chiding of Cordileone over the Pelosi sanction – are what he calls the deconstruction of morality.
    Grondelski’s football analogy yardlines, sidelines that represent the higher lower moral principles may be understood as bracketing the perceived lesser moral tenet as ethics, social conventions that are changeable. It seems to this writer this is where Cardinals Hollerich, McElroy classify the so called lesser moral principles as behaviors that are compatible to revision and diverse patterns of human nature – compatible to societal ethics.
    “The more arrogant insist that even more foundational principles of theological anthropology, [for example] sexual differentiation as the divine plan” are subject to readjustment (Grondelski). Certainly, contraception and sexual mores are also at the center of acceptable Christian behavior.
    It’s what I as well as others have pointed out as an attempt to claim adherence to dogmatic theology and moral dogma while allowing a more welcoming, realistic pastoral Church. In reality it’s the neutralization of dogmatic theology and moral dogma, the death of Christ’s Way to eternal life.

  4. “If we pass from the moral to the intellectual causes of Modernism, the first which presents itself, and the chief one, is ignorance. Yes, these very Modernists who pose as Doctors of the Church, who puff out their cheeks when they speak of modern philosophy, and show such contempt for scholasticism, have embraced the one with all its false glamour because their ignorance of the other has left them without the means of being able to recognise confusion of thought, and to refute sophistry. Their whole system, with all its errors, has been born of the alliance between faith and false philosophy.” – Pius X, Pascendi, Paragraph 41.

    • Absolutely. Pius pointed pride as the basis of Modernism: “…pride sits in Modernism as in its own house, finding sustenance everywhere in its doctrines and an occasion to flaunt itself in all its aspects….pride…fills Modernists with that confidence in themselves and leads them to hold themselves up as the rule for all, pride which puffs them up with that vainglory which allows them to regard themselves as the sole possessors of knowledge, and makes them say, inflated with presumption, We are not as the rest of men, and which, to make them really not as other men, leads them to embrace all kinds of the most absurd novelties; it is pride which rouses in them the spirit of disobedience and causes them to demand a compromise between authority and liberty;…pride… makes of them the reformers of others, while they forget to reform themselves, and which begets their absolute want of respect for authority, not excepting the supreme authority. No, truly, there is no road which leads so directly and so quickly to Modernism as pride.” (Pascendi, article/paragraph 40).

    • Joseph Fuchs was a Jesuit priest theologian, and Margaret Farley was a religious sister. Both practiced, taught, and wrote dissent from traditional Catholic moral teaching. They both helped lead the ‘spirit’s’ ascent and insinuation into the Church immediately following VCII.

      As a member of a theological commission studying contraception at the request of Paul VI, Fuchs ‘theologically’ argued the morality of the use of artificial contraception. When Paul issued Humanae Vitae, against artificial contraception, Fuchs’ hell broke loose like a woman scorned.

    • Josef Fuchs was a major revisionist moral theologian in Rome in the 1960s-80s. Margaret Farley is a retired RSM sister from Yale Divinity whose book, “Just Love,” also was an attack on orthodox Catholic sexual ethics.

      • Given that the sole objective of junk theology is pride of innovation combined with exoneration from God’s gift of corrective guilt, theologians are capable of any idiocy. When my former pro-life atheist self finally converted to pro-life Catholicism decades ago, the very first course I took in the faith was in moral theology taught by a priest, who is now a bishop. One of the books on his required reading list was by Charles Curran, which I read in one horrified sitting. Every paragraph of every page of every chapter contained errors of logic, primarily the fallacy of the undistributed middle where one can make favorable comparisons of an evil one wants to present as a good by comparing it to a known good while ignoring the differences.
        My future wife, at the time, who inspired my conversion, had as her favorite movie, The Nun’s Story, which we watched together. I marveled at the discipline of how attuned the novices were in trying to rid their lives of even the smallest incidences of personal pride in their everyday life. For decades since I’ve been marveling how liberals in the Church, right on up to highest of prelates, can manage to go through their lives without having what used to be a self-evident daily practice of self-examination for all Catholics never even occur to them.
        As far as the hierarchy of truths are concerned, how implicitly atheistic does a mind have to be to believe that the mind of God, from Whom all truth is the source, not some, not a lot, not most, but all truth, is incoherent, of separated substance, and divisible importance.

  5. Theologians: the intellectually conceited seeking to be ‘relevant’ by innovation.
    Apparently the Beloved One is not good enough for them.
    A simple person with a heart of flesh can read the gospels and epistles and have no need of ‘theologians’.
    “It is all straw” said St Thomas Aquinas.

  6. A pomposity of verbosity
    Calls to mind a peafowl
    With tail feathers aloft
    And head turned askance
    To witness the beauty of his own display

  7. 1. This article writes: “The ‘hierarchy of truths’ and doctrinal development do appear in contemporary documents of the Church (like Vatican II’s Unitatis redintegratio, #11….”
    2. If you read the whole Vatican II Council document on the unprecedented new doctrine and new practice of Ecumenism in connection with heretical and schismatic “Christian” groups, which is where the “hierarchy of truths” phrase comes from, I think it is very clear that that document is saying that meaningful and grace-filled and ever-greater degrees of communion can be achieved between the One True Church and the many False Churches by means of focusing in the more important doctrines that we and they have in commmon, and by ignoring or downplaying less important doctrines.
    3. I think it is obvious that this new teaching of this document has destroyed the faith of many Catholics.
    4. That’s why this new teaching of this document of Vatican II was specifically condemned by the pope in an encyclical in 1928. (Don’t believe me–read it yourself. It’s easy to find on the Internet.)
    5. This is why calls to practice the “hermeneutic of continuity” don’t solve anything, since there is no way to reconcile the pre-Vatican II teaching on ecumenical communion with heretics and schismatics with the Vatican II teaching on ecumenical communion with heretics and schismatics.
    6. And there are a number of other irreconcilable discontinuities between pre- and post-Vatican II teaching.
    7. For people who refuse to play games with theology, and who will not abandon their integrity, a “hermeneutic” (interpretive rule) imposed or demanded from above will not suffice or satisfy.
    8. Don’t you think that we need more fearless theologians and bishops to begin stating the truth, without fear or favor, and without concern for the reputations of high clerics past or present? Isn’t that when the healing and rebuilding can begin, for the Glory of God and the Salvation of Souls?

  8. Thanks, Meiron.
    I could look them up, of course, but one tidbit I remember from my teachers’ training is that the fastest way to learn a word is to ask someone who knows it.

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