The problem with doctrinal obscurity

The problem with doctrinal obscurity

[More “putting lipstick on the pig” of Amoris Laetitia?]

By Dr. Jeff Mirus | Jun 28, 2017

The most important thing I read while on vacation this month was Phil Lawler’s June 23rd commentary [see comment below for complete text], “A papal commission reconsidering Humanae Vitae? No, but…”. This is not because Phil proved anything, but because he raised exactly the right question: What is going on, under Pope Francis, with the Pontifical Academy for Life and the John Paul II Institute in Rome?

Earlier this year, before the changes in leadership of these two organizations, three professors at the JPII Institute, including the Vice President, wrote a book entitled Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating: A Handbook for the Pastoral Care of the Family according to Amoris Laetitia. Published this year by Emmaus Road, the book sits on my desk. I have not had time to do it justice, but the intent of these authors is very clear: To situate the reading of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation within the Tradition of the Church, and in accordance with the Church’s perennial moral logic.

In the Introduction, the authors ask as their very first question, “What are the criteria that allow a coherent reading of Amoris Laetitia?” They answer: First, the context of what was approved by the two Synods on the Family which prompted the document; second, the context provided within the document itself, rather than the introduction of a contemporary individualism foreign to the Church; and third, the context provided by the Tradition of the Church.

The last section of the chapter on “Accompanying” is entitled “A Path of Conversion in the Perspective of the Possible Reception of the Sacraments” (emphasis added). The last section of the chapter on “Integrating” is entitled “Integration: Building One’s House upon the Rock”. And the last section of the chapter on “Discerning”, which is entitled “Conclusion” and consists of the very last paragraph of the entire book, includes these words:

Discernment, therefore, does not consist in making exceptions to some general rules, but in finding ways to guide and accompany people along a path. Now, a path is a path only if there is a destination. Without an endpoint, people will not be travelling on a path; rather they will merely be wandering around. The object of discernment is therefore not the destination in itself, but the way by which to arrive at it” (p. 121).
There is no question about what these three authors are trying to do. They wish to express the truth of Christ, certainly. But in the contemporary context, they are trying to set the standard for a Catholic interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, much as Xavier Rynne (Francis Murphy, C.SS.R) and a great many other secularized Catholic theologians and journalists attempted to set the standard for an uncatholic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

The pastoral consequences of doctrinal obscurity

It is by now obvious where Pope Francis fits into all of this, especially in light of his refusal even to grant an audience to those cardinals who have grave misgivings about certain aspects of the text of Amoris Laetitia (and doubtless other grave misgivings about the changes in focus and leadership the Pope has introduced into the JPII Institute and the Pontifical Academy for Life). No responsible critic will baldly assert that the Pope himself rejects any past Magisterial teaching, but in describing the Pope’s special focus, as he has expressed it repeatedly from the beginning, fewer still would object to the following summary: I am a son of the Church, but we do not need to emphasize moral issues. We must invite others to experience the love of Christ. Those who insist on doctrinal and moral clarity are at best sadly misguided in their rigidity. They reject or undermine the love of Christ by adhering to their own human systems of thought.

In this context, Phil Lawler is right to wonder—and wonder very seriously indeed—about the direction that is now being taken in Rome as a whole, and in the JPII Institute and the Pontifical Academy of Life in particular. The JPII Institute was created as a continuation of the legacy of Pope St. John Paul II, who was so capable of formulating authentic and complete expressions of Catholic truth which even those malformed by our contemporary culture can grasp, most notably his emphasis on the human person as a moral actor and his theology of the body. These two institutions together were designed, in effect, to creatively expose and address the lies about reality which dominate the secular West.

But, overall at least, Pope Francis has chosen a substantially different pastoral approach. Sadly, it is an approach which presents two enormous problems. The first is that it devalues one of the most important aspects of the Gospel, as reiterated again and again not only by Christ but by all the inspired authors of the New Testament. I mean the message that acceptance of Jesus Christ entails a heartfelt change in perspective, from the worldly to the Divine, which in turn demands a fundamental effort to dramatically alter our way of life, as befits those who wish to be Our Lord’s friends:

You are my friends if you do what I command you…. If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me…. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. [Jn 15:18-24]
These words presuppose tremendous preaching, tremendous service, tremendous love. But they allow no room at all for downplaying the manner of life which Our Lord so clearly requires us to live, nor for hiding the fact that we can be set free only through our acceptance of Him who is not only the Life but also the Truth and the Way. If we doubt this, it is time to reread the epistles, especially the most practical sections of St. Paul, St. Peter and St. James.

What happens with those Catholics who, in the misguided name of pastoral care, prefer to downplay or even conceal hard truths is that they attract to the Church only those who are convinced that Christ accepts their moral outlook. Accordingly, they are also convinced that negative attitudes come only from those who control particular parts of the Church politically or who are fixated on past historically-conditioned teachings. This myth enables them to mistakenly value their own rectitude in their certainty that both time and eternity are on their side. They insist that the official teachings of the Church must eventually change—proving that all those who reject these teaching in our time are actually far ahead of the moral curve.

The perils of crying “Lord, Lord”

The result is not that the Church’s teachings ever do change, but that too many even in authority pretend that they will or that these teachings should not be permitted to make anyone uncomfortable or alter their own superior grasp of moral reality. This entire “pastoral” approach is, in fact, the primary cause of the crisis of Faith since the mid-1960s—the conviction that the Church’s teaching authority is an anachronism and that everyone can choose to believe whatever the dominant culture mistakenly suggests is true. Morality is reduced to whatever honors the prevailing social consciousness. It is expressed not by the Holy Spirit but by the Spirit of the Age.

This enormous error, so often thoroughly rooted in pride and sensuality, is the primary cause of the rapid decline of the Church over the past sixty years and more. It is most dramatically revealed in the immense priest shortages in dioceses which have not stood against the secular tide; in the collapse of so much of Catholic religious life; and in the endemic intellectual infidelity which passes for Catholic higher education in most academic institutions today. Too many in positions of Catholic trust have salved the consciences of those who, deep down, reject Christ as their Lord and Savior. At the same time, they have marginalized, discouraged, and even driven away those who accept Him—those who are eager, despite their lapses into sin, to embrace His authority over how they are to live.

Such an approach may certainly at times be inspired by a misguided charity, as I assume it is in the case of Pope Francis. But much of Pope St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate were written precisely to prevent such a mistake. Unfortunately, we have seen this same “pastoral” approach used again and again as a cover for the moral refusals of theology professors, bishops, clergy and religious (and so many lay persons). What may begin sincerely ends in a kind of doublespeak which conceals moral corruption beneath a cloak of assumed righteousness. Whether done sincerely out of a misguided love or not, this is still the method used by those who refuse to recognize their own sins when they minister to those who share in them, even as they single out the virtues they lack for categorical condemnation.

Under such circumstances, the faithful have no choice but to expend a huge part of their time and energy in parsing very carefully what Churchmen say so as to distinguish it correctly from what Christ and the Church actually teach. This is always necessary to some extent for a mature Catholic spirituality, of course, but in our day it has hardened into a tragic way of life. I grant that it may serve as the perfect goad to holiness for some of us. But to many more it can only be a sentence of death.

Those who are sincerely confused may well be saved by their own ignorance in the end, an ignorance which stunts yet does not utterly destroy their life in Christ. But for those who know better, for those who actually have the care of souls and are not invincibly ignorant, the one truth that inspires my whole argument still applies: “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45).

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’,” asks Jesus Christ, “and not do what I tell you?”

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4 comments on “The problem with doctrinal obscurity

  1. A papal commission reconsidering Humanae Vitae? No, but…

    By Phil Lawler | Jun 23, 2017

    The good news is that, contrary to a widespread rumor, Pope Francis has not ordered a commission to reconsider the teaching of Humanae Vitae in the light of Amoris Laetitia.

    The bad news is that the commission exists. Call it a “study group” if you prefer, but there is a scholarly panel, working under the auspices of a pontifical institute, preparing a reappraisal of Humanae Vitae.

    Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, who chairs the group, told the Catholic News Agency that “the issue of a conciliation between Amoris Laetitia and Humanae Vitae is not on the agenda.” Less reassuringly, he said that he was not interested in finding “answers to useless questions,” and he favored “decentralization of doctrinal issues.”

    Msgr. Marengo’s commission is sponsored by the Pontifical Institute John Paul II for Studies on Studies on Marriage and Family, which—as its name suggests—was established as a bulwark of support for the great Polish Pontiff’s groundbreaking work on human sexuality and the “theology of the body.” But the John Paul Institute has been gutted and remodeled under Pope Francis, as has its parent institution, the Pontifical Academy for Life.

    Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told Andrea Gagliarducci that “we should look positively on all those initiatives, such as that of Professor Marengo of the John Paul II Institute, which aim at studying and deepening [Humanae Vitae] in view of the 50th anniversary of its publication.” But we could have relied on the “old” John Paul II Institute to produce a solid defense of the central argument of Humanae Vitae. We can’t expect the same today.

    Archbishop Paglia assured Gagliarducci that “there is no pontifical commission called to re-read or to re-interpret Humanae Vitae.” OK, Pope Francis didn’t appoint the commission. He didn’t need to. By appointing Archbishop Paglia, and appointing the new members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, he ensured that these institutions would take a new direction.

    Or put it this way: Pope Francis didn’t appoint the commission that is now studying Humanae Vitae. But that commission wouldn’t exist within the Vatican if it didn’t have the Pope’s implicit approval.

  2. Jeff: “Those who are sincerely confused may well be saved by their own ignorance in the end, an ignorance which stunts yet does not utterly destroy their life in Christ. But for those who know better, for those who actually have the care of souls and are not invincibly ignorant…”

    Francis is saving souls by causing sincere ignorance? Oremus!

    Collect for the feast of the “Wholly Ignorant”

    O almighty and omniscient God, Who has bestowed Thine exculpatory ignorance on the greater number of men, grant, we beseech Thee, unto thy humble servants a share in that ignorance, that we may not fear our deviations from the narrow way. Per Dominum nostrum …

  3. Jeff: “The JPII Institute was created as a continuation of the legacy of Pope St. John Paul II, who was so capable of formulating authentic and complete expressions of Catholic truth which even those malformed by our contemporary culture can grasp, most notably his emphasis on the human person as a moral actor and his theology of the body.”

    Phil: “[The JPII Institute] was established as a bulwark of support for the great Polish Pontiff’s groundbreaking work on human sexuality and the `theology of the body.’”

    To borrow from Jeff, above: Phil and Jeff “are sincerely confused may well be saved by their own ignorance in the end, an ignorance which stunts yet does not utterly destroy their life in Christ.”

  4. Reading Mirus just annoys me intensely. It’s just one square-circlization after another.
    Grow a pair, Jeff, and start learning some intellectual honesty. You are pitifully effeminate.

    BTW, Jeff, as any Catholic claiming to be a “doctor” should know, ignorance is the *lack* of something (in this case, knowledge). It is a nonentity. Moreover, since the knowledge you are talking about is the Faith, and the Faith is a thing which every person ought to have, lack of that knowledge is the particular kind of nonentity that we call evil . Needless to say, no one can be saved by either a nonentity or an evil.
    True invincible ignorance is a rare thing, and if anyone is saved *in* it, they are not saved by it, but rather by God’s mercy.

    And was “St.” JP II ” so capable of formulating authentic and complete expressions of Catholic truth which even those malformed by our contemporary culture can grasp”?
    Seriously? Just try reading any one of this man’s excessively prolix encyclicals, packed with obscurantist intellectualese. I dare you to try to stay awake through the whole thing.
    As to theology of the body…please.
    Jeff, have you ever read any of the encyclicals of popes Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Pius XI or Pius Xii, or even earlier popes?
    If so, ever notice how massively superior they are in clarity and straightforwardness? Ever notice how totally different in spirit? I mean, the pre-Vat II popes talk as if they actually want to communicate something. It’s amazing.

    The saddest thing about Mirus is that you can see the potential he has, which is all going to waste because of his stupid hyperinfallibilism. This, for example, (although not very clearly expressed) is a very good insight into the psychology of sin:
    “What may begin sincerely ends in a kind of doublespeak which conceals moral corruption beneath a cloak of assumed righteousness. Whether done sincerely out of a misguided love or not, this is still the method used by those who refuse to recognize their own sins when they minister to those who share in them, even as they single out the virtues they lack for categorical condemnation.”

    All that kind of thing is wasted until you get educated, Jeff. Start reading some of the pre-Vat II popes.

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