In the Ratzinger-Kasper debate on centralism and collegiality, universal church and local church, a chief argument of the supporters of centralism was that if moral decision-making was left to the local church it would spell the end of an objective and universal moral teaching and a sell-out to relativism. If, however, there is a disconnect between the principles enunciated by the Vatican and the practical morality of Catholics at local level, this can undermine these principles even more radically. Millions may cheer the Pope at great fiestas while completely ignoring his teachings in their daily lives. The effective incarnation of Catholic moral teaching is possible only in a two-way debate at every level.
Morality has always had to be interpreted and inflected in function of the concrete situations in which it is enacted. That is the task of the noble science of casuistry, which Catholics of an absolutist cast of mind hastily reject as laxism. Pascal’s onslaught on the moral theology of the Jesuits in his Provincial Letters is a monument of this impatience with casuistry, which could be seen as an impatience with reality itself. The casuistic tradition was born in the confessional, the place where moral principle came into contact with the reality of people’s lives. The decline of the Sacrament of Penance today may also spell a decline in this tradition of thoroughly reflected moral wisdom.
Kathy Rudy, in ‘Thinking Through the Ethics of Abortion,’ Theology Today 51 (1994), pp. 235-48 (available online), argues that casuistry need not merely reflect a ‘justice perspective’ that tries to reconcile conflicting values and duties but can also be adapted to a more feminine ‘care perspective’ that pursues moral reflection in constant reference to the situation and prospects of the particular individual concerned. A penitent should not be made to feel that a machinery of great principles has gone into motion about her head, to descend authoritatively in the judgment of the confessor. Rather the judgment should emerge from within a caring reflection on her situation, in which the principles realize their life-giving function. Many priests wince as they recall encounters with women who confessed to having terminated a pregnancy; primed to judge what church law presents as a crime incurring excommunication, they missed the human identity and human dignity of the person before them. Rudy quotes Ann Perkins: ‘I didn’t talk to one person who felt supported by her church when it came to dealing with unwanted pregnancy.’
The bridge between Gospel and lived experience cannot be confined to the priest. In such cases, the moral counsel should flow through other channels; the individual should have a circle of fellow-Christians to turn to, with whom she can pray and reflect. Here is one of the many ways in which the miracle of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘Christ existing as community’ can come about. The most heart-breaking thing about the Roman Catholic Church today is that such an experience, which should be the daily bread of Christian living, is so very rare. Instead of a community that helps its members become mature in the art of moral reflection, the Church often succeeds in confusing and infantilizing consciences.
People tend to give reflection short shrift and to make much of moral absolutes on the one hand and of decisive action on the other. We deplore the condition of Hamlet, for whom ‘the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.’ Yet a combination of moral absolutes and prompt action has caused many of the tragedies of our history. A more reflective, integral ethical outlook should guide our actions, and they should proceed less in obedience to sacrosanct principle than in perceptive concern for our neighbor’s welfare. The rediscovery of Aristotelian ethics in the thinking of such philosophers as Martha Nussbaum and Alistair McIntyre has done much to temper the destructive power of abstract principle by focusing on how virtues, characters and ethical communities are built. If an anxious Christian morality has been regulated by the awareness that each human dies alone, Aristotle’s serene vision is shaped by the conviction that all humans live together. Some sentences taken at random show this: ‘In the interchange of services justice in the form of reciprocity is the bond that maintains the association… That is why we set up a shrine of the Graces in a public place, to remind men to return a kindness; for that is the special characteristic of grace, since it is a duty not only to repay a service done one, but at another time to take the initiative in doing a service oneself (Nicomachean Ethic V 5). Plato thinks of justice as ‘the other chap’s good’ (allotrion agathon; Rep. 343c). To scrutinize one’s own righteousness in oblivion of the neighbor’s welfare is already to commit an injustice.
The present fraught relationship between local churches and the universal church represented by Rome has a history going back to the summer of 1968. Vatican II had exalted the local churches, and national Episcopal Conferences became more conscious of their own teaching authority. In response to Paul VI’s Encyclical declaring the use of artificial contraceptives to be inherently wrong, several Episcopal Conferences issued documents that ‘interpreted’ the controversial encyclical for their faithful. If one reads, for example, what the Canadian bishops said, it comes quite close to claiming that the Encyclical merely offered some recommendations to be followed by those who found them convincing. The message was put across that conscience was the supreme arbiter and that papal teachings were merely guidelines informing conscience. These helpful ‘interpretations’ were apparently not well received in the Vatican, though Paul VI did go further than subsequent pontiffs in stressing the rights of conscience, pastoral moderation, and the idea that objectively immoral actions could be diminished in guilt, inculpable or subjectively defensible (notably in an official letter to Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington).
It is hard to imagine any Episcopal Conference today penning such a liberal document as that of the Canadian bishops in 1968. This is because a condition for becoming a bishop ever since then has been that one have no problems with Humanae Vitae. In addition, Cardinal Ratzinger in his book, Theologische Prinzipienlehre, 1982, undercut the theological standing of Episcopal Conferences, saying that only individual bishops in their dioceses represented the Church. Today, statements of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops are carefully vetted in Rome prior to publication, and a new rule has decreed that statements of Episcopal Conferences must be unanimous (so that a single conservative can veto them). In the case of moral issues arising at local level, for instance in the German disputes about counseling pregnant women who might then use it to have an abortion or about granting communion to the divorced, the Vatican has adopted an interventionist approach, setting tight limits to anything that could look like a compromise of principle.
The ethics of homosexuality has now replaced contraception as the fulcrum of acrimonious controversy in the Roman Catholic, as in the Anglican, world. Roman documents on this subject strike a judgmental note very different from the pastoral eloquence of Humanae Vitae. Had John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger addressed gays as understandingly as Paul VI and the Episcopal Conferences addressed married couples in 1968, there would be less bitterness and alienation. Meanwhile, in theological and pastoral reflection, and among the faithful generally, the liberal principles that percolated through the Church as a result of the reception of Humanae Vitae have been applied across the board in regard to sexual ethics and even to abortion and euthanasia. While liberal Catholics talk of freedom of conscience, adjustment to real life situations that may make necessary the lesser of two evils, etc., their opponents fulminate against relativism and libertinism. It is unclear what actually goes on in the pastoral practice of the Church, which can often turn out to be far more liberal than one would have expected, even in conservative circles. The situation is one that cries out for dialogue, and for a restoration of the subtle science of moral theology to its due place in Catholic life as the mediator between absolute principle and relative circumstances.
Buddhist logicians point out when emotion is associated with an argument it tends to distort one’s reasoning – with particular reference to the emotions of anger and desire. These emotions have come very much into play in discussion of sexual ethics. The situation could be defused by careful distinction between the level of doctrine and the level of pastoral application. Catholic doctrine changes or develops at a snail’s pace, and should not be subject to pressure from angry people. But that anger could be rechanneled into a demand for a richer pastoral culture and for more humane methods of communication. People are rightly angry when they find that in the name of doctrine they are being treated without respect, in a crass and cruel way.
It is very desirable that the Church have a clear and firm doctrine on issues of sexuality and of life, a doctrine derived not from biblical revelation (though illumined by it) but from reasoning on natural law. Such a doctrine is a service to the world at large. It may of course develop and alter as a result of ongoing theological discussion, as has often happened in the past. (See the studies of John T. Noonan on such topics as usury, slavery, abortion, and contraception.) But in addition to questions of doctrine and its possible development there is a wide field of discussion on the topic of how doctrine is applied at the pastoral level. Here many other principles come into play, beyond those formulated in the doctrine itself.
These pastoral principles of tact, charity, moderation and accommodation (epieikeia), requiring that the circumstances of the individual and the local culture be taken sensitively into account, are just as essential to Christianity as the principles of moral doctrine. Indeed, they reflect the heart of the Gospel more intimately than the moral principles do. Sometimes it is pastorally appropriate to challenge an individual to fulfill the letter of the law to the last jot and tittle. Sometimes it is more appropriate to temper the wind to the shorn lamb and to recognize that complete observance of the law is in his or her present circumstances impracticable. This is more than a matter of being nice. For a law to be administered fairly, one’s primary concern must be justice, which all laws serve and which itself transcends all laws. Pastoral epieikeia stems from a concern not only with mercy but with justice. To think that one has done justice when one has acclaimed objective laws is to miss the point not only of Christianity but of law itself. Identifying objective right and wrong is only the beginning of the task of doing justice in practice. The phrase ‘speaking the truth in love’ (Eph. 4.15) does not guarantee that to speak the truth is already in and of itself an act of love. Rather, love will discover many new aspects and angles to a truth that without this color and shading might have a destructive impact.